This, extracted from my Diary during my journey through France last year.
We came to the flat lands of the Somme, bleak and featureless. As time went by, we began to see cemeteries here and there. There were so many, larger and smaller one, French, British and Commonwealth, American, German. All well kept and manicured, many standing in the middle of wide open farmland. Crowds of the dead, gathered neatly together. In silent places, in orderly rows like a counterpoint to the chaos of their deaths.
At Peronne we went to the Historial de la Grande Guerre – the large World War I museum. We saw uniforms, sketches, maps, newspaper clippings, film footage. A diary note of a woman who had just sent her husband off to war made Jackie shed a tear reading, and we held each other a moment in a sea of sadness. Reading the facts about the beginnings of this war, it seemed so pointless. There didn’t seem to be a real reason for it. A web of protracted treaties and politics, yes – but no grand design, nothing on which really to base the carnage which was to come. Except one death. The death of one man, that would be echoed a million times and more over.
Later, we were headed towards La Grande Mine, a huge crater 100m wide and 30m dep, left on 1st July 1916 by the largest charge along the front that morning: 60,000 lbs of explosives. I thought of the French war memorials we had seen everywhere throughout the beautiful country as we had travelled in our carefree way. Sometimes, in small places, those memorials had only had three or four names on them, sometimes many more.
I thought of the memorials to assassinations of villagers in WWII. I thought of free people now, raising their glasses to drink Burgundy, the Loire and of Savoie, and of cattle gently chewing the cud in the Jura, where people had died helping Jews and allied soldiers to escape to Switzerland. I remember that we had passed a museum to the Resistance in Grenoble, and in the Morvan had seen a WWII exhibition in a church in Chaudes-Aigues, where now busloads of tourists come to bathe in the volcanic spring waters.
In the midst of life we are in death.
Everywhere, the wars of Europe had left their mark – and here at La Boiselle, the Great War had pressed its giant thumbprint into the soft clay for all to see. And for all to remember.