Monday, 1 December 2014

A Very Humbling Pilgrimage

When Max and I married, nearly ten years ago now, we never imagined that the boy from Bournemouth and the girl from Leicester could have such a shared family history.  Both of our families originate from Somerset where bizarrely our Great-grandmothers, worked together at the same shoe factory.  But the co-incidence didn’t end there.   Max would often mention his great-uncle Willie, who served with the Somerset Light Infantry and who died in Battle for Arras in 1918, one of the many whose body was never found and who is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing in Arras. 

I knew that I had a great uncle that died in the Great War.  His photo and the “missing in action” letter are safe in the family bible but much more than that I didn’t know.   Well thank you Internet.   A bit of Googling and time spent on and I found that my Uncle Edwin also died in 1918 and also served with the Somerset Light Infantry.   Unlike, Uncle Willie, he does have a grave, or a least a headstone in a tiny CWWG Cemetery in a little town called Ayette about 10km from Arras.

Since then we have been back to the area several times to "visit" but we always promised ourselves that we would go back on 11 November 2014.  So at a time in the morning I haven't seen in a long while, we made the three hours trip over to The Somme.  As they are in different places we decided that we would do the 11am service at Theipval and move north from there.

I don’t think anything can prepare you for that drive north from Albert. It certainly doesn't get any easier.  Starting with the sign marking the place of The Front on 1st July 1916 to the to the sign, just seven miles further up the road, marking the place of The Front in November 1916, it is cemetery, after cemetery, after cemetery.  

All are easily recognisable with the pristine white Portland stone tombstones and the immaculate lawns.   Just when you think there cannot possibly be any more, there is another, and another and then another; by the side of the road, in the mid-distance, on the horizon. 

Then dominating that horizon is the magnificent Memorial to the Missing at Theipval.  The early morning mist was very fitting for such a day.  It soon burnt off and gave us a crisp sunny November morning, with the beautiful autumn colours of the leaves.

 Standing there looking out across the tranquil landscape, it is impossible to imagine the carnage that had taken place there.  Impossible to equate the green fields, the tractors and the hum of traffic, to the black and white photographs, of trenches and mud and desolation.  Impossible to believe that the 72,000 men listed there, fell, just in those fields and have no known grave; even harder to imagine that this is just one such memorial.  

Just one of the wreaths laid

We found the commemoration to  G.H.J Bramble of the Hampshire Regiment.  He and his brother were Sopley boys both killed on that first day of the Battle of the Somme.  Their names are listed on the memorial stone in Sopely Church.  One has a grave, the other does not.  The family line died out with them, as it probably did for so many others named there.  A sad feeling of what might have been....

The memorial service was carried out in English, but the programme was in both English and French and there were a significant number of French in attendance as will.

The band playing were the Hampshire Constabulary Band and they were BRILLIANT.  A complete masterclass in how to play brass quietly and in tune!

It was a very very moving service AND we managed to have a good sing!
From there we went up to Ayette to pay our respects to Great-Uncle Edwin. Or what is left of him.  The cemetary was shelled about a week after he was buried, so although they know he is there, not of him might be in this plot!  It's a lovely little cemetary of about 50 graves and 3 "special plots" (of with GUE is one) and as part of the on going work that the CWWG carry out, the surrounding wall is                                                       being replaced.

A lone piper plays the Last Post
On to Arras and the Faubourg Memorial to the missing.  Here Great Uncle Willie has his commemoration.

We finished the day by visiting the French Cemetery just outside Albert.

It was and always will be A Very Humbling Pilgramage.

And The Walls Came Tumbling Down....

Not literally, but we seem to have packed a lot in over November, and then sometimes we seem not to have achieved much at all.

The end of October saw our first family visitors.  Marten and Sally came over for a few days and we had what really was the last couple of good days of the Indian Summer.  As we don't yet have a garden table, we got my George III tea table out of felt quite decedent...pity the chairs didn't make the grade!
First Family Lunch

Conkers Dorset Gin - Yum
 They came bearing gifts...malt vinegar..funny what you miss when it isn't available..and Conkers Dorset Gin made by Sally's nephew Rupert in his exciting new adventure. (#thatsthespirit) The botanicals include gorse collected in the New Forest and it really is the smoothest Gin I have ever tasted.  Who needs tonic, just pour over ice!

Our horrible porch wall
It was lovely for Max to spend some time with his brother, and
they did some brotherly bonding...knocking a wall down as you do.

 The wall just inside the front door was always destined to go. It makes the room small and dark and whilst I don't really want a front door opening on to the living space, it is a compromise worth making.  We have some ideas for expanding our Normandy porch.

Half way there....
...and gone!!!

Made a difference already for the main wall

 We did make some time for some R&R and had a lovely time out at La Petite Chappelle and Hill 314.

Having started on the inside, it was a shame to lose the momentum, when Marten and Sally left, so down came the dividing wall.  We knew it wasn't supporting, but JUST to be on the safe side, Max took the first layer of blocks under the beam out first.  I was wheelbarrow monitor, well for some of the time!
Nearly there....

....I Want to Break Free... all Max needs
the fish nets!!

Getting there...........

Unfortunately, whoever put the wall up originally really hacked a the beam. so instead of revealing it, we are going to have to re-plaster it instead. 

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A Grand Afternoon Out

Well today we were going to have an assault on the final patch of brambles but the horrible mizzle has put paid to that.  I think we are having the tail end of the hurricane from Bermuda.

The weekend was a lovely sunny one, and we finally managed to get a trip in to some of the local sites with our neighbours Nelly and Rollande, who split their time between here and Paris. Their house is Rollande's family home, and they spent four years renovating it after he inherited it from his parents.    They don't speak English, so a pair of Brit neighbours with dodgy French can't be the easiest to be friends with but they seem to have taken us completely under their wing.   Rollande and his family lived in our house during the war, when the Germans took over his and it became a hospital for German soldiers, so I think that they are just pleased that someone has taken the house on, to love it and restore it.

Here at Le Meslier we are about 800 feet above sea level, so we are privileged with some stunning views and Nelly and Rollande have been trying to take us to some of the local beauty spots for a couple of weeks, but really needed a clear day.  Sunday was that day.  It started dull and there were some spots of rain in the morning but Rollande was convinced that it would clear up and he was right.

We started at La Grande Cascade, in the neighbouring town of Mortain and walked down the valley to La Petite Cascade at the bottom.  You cannot see any of this from the road, and if it wasn't for the brown tourist signs we wouldn't have know they were there.

The start of  La Grande Cascade

There are no barriers here....Health and Safety
would have a field day!

This is the Laundry where the local women
used to wash the clothes
Bottom of La Grande Cascade, a short walk
on the flat now before the next decent.
The start of La Petite Cascade

Just to the right, this chap wants the quick way
down.  Rather him than me!

Pretty blurred but this tower of granite
stands independently and once had granite
steps going around.

It is all very tranquil at the moment, but I can imagine that in the summer it is heaving with tourists.

The next stop was La Petite Chapelle.  Again, about 800 feet or so above sea level, this was a very strategic point during the war.  The Battle of Normandy, took place here between 6-13 August 1944. The Germans defended this position but helped by the Resistance, it was liberated by the Americans but with massive losses.

La Petite Chappelle.
These are young trees as during the war the
area the woodland was cleared to aid the Germans

Hill 314.
Very important, whoever controlled this hill,
controlled the valley.

This tell the story better than I ever could.

"In hommage to the soldiers of the 35th Infantry Division
'Santa Fe', which from the 10th to 13th August 1944
 managed to free the survivors of the 'lost batallion'
at the cost of heavy losses.
Memorial to the American Fallen

The viewing point here has amazing panoramic views, and on a clear day it is possible to see Mont St Michel, about 40km, in the distance.

Max with Nelly and Rollande at the viewing point.

Trust me, that very tiny smudgy triangle in the distance...
is Mont St Michel!

Hill 314 from the other side

A glorious afternoon was finished off in typical French style with a glass of chilled pear cider.