Thursday, March 13, 2014

Part Six - La Targette and Notre Dame

The other things I wanted to mention were the two other cemeteries we visited while in the north. In visiting the area, our goal was to pay our respects to New Zealand memorials, monuments, and cemeteries - to visit places that have special significance to the New Zealand war effort. I guess I had not previously devoted much time to thinking about France during the First World War, but when travelling across northern France we could not help but be touched by the impact of the war on the French countryside and its towns and villages. As I mentioned in my post on the Somme, there are cemeteries and memorials in nearly every settlement, no matter how small. The real scale of the Great War begins to sink in, but also you realise just how little you can truly comprehend about its far-reaching impacts.

The first time we properly came face-to-face with French war graves was at La Targette, a hamlet near the town of Neuville-Saint-Vaast. The Necropole Military, or French National Cemetery, at La Targette was created in 1919. It covers 44,000 square metres and contains the graves of 11,400 known and 3,800 unknown French soldiers.
La Targette cemetery from the air, Google Satellite image

The British cemetery at La Targette
The wider region saw heavy action in 1915, 1916 and 1917, and as a result there is a Canadian memorial in Vimy, which commemorates over 11,000 unknown soldiers; a British cemetery at La Targette, with over 630 burials; the largest German war memorial in France at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, containing over 44,800 graves; and the French National Cemetery at La Targette, which has over 15,000 burials. Nearby is the vast French National Cemetery at Ablain-Saint-Nazaire - the Notre Dame de Lorette which has over 44,000 burials. In an area with a radius of around 10 kilometres, there are over 115,000 soldiers buried. Some estimate the number to be closer to 200,000. Either way, that gives you an idea of the barely comprehensible scale of loss during the First World War. Everywhere you walk, you have the feeling that blood was spilled beneath your feet, and you realise that the towns you visit were shelled to bits and have had to rebuild. Spend five minutes googling images of Arras or Artois during WWI and you will see the scale of devastation these areas faced.

When we were at the Arras tunnels, Adam saw a postcard featuring a beautiful white church. We tracked down the church, finding it high on a hill near the town of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. It is the Notre Dame de Lorette, the French National Cemetery where over 40,000 soldiers are buried. The site stretches as far as the eye can see in each direction, covering the entire hilltop. It was the most shocking cemetery we saw while in Europe - just rows and rows of beautiful white crosses. So poignant.
The basilica, Notre Dame de Lorette
Also on the site is the Lantern Tower, which stands 52 metres tall and has 200 steps. At night, it shines a Beacon of Light that is visible over 70 kilometres of the surrounding countryside.
The stunning Lantern Tower.
Mass grave in which the bodies of over 5,000 unknown soldiers are buried

The cemetery from the air. Note how large it is compared to the nearby town of Ablain-Saint-Nazaire.
(Unfortunately we couldn't see inside the basilica or the tower as it was lunch time. Yes, the precious French lunchtime! It caught us out many a time during our holiday.)

I love how beautiful the memorials and cemeteries are in these places that saw such destruction. Oases of calm and peace that are a contrast to the noise and chaos experienced by the men when they fought here. Not happy places to visit, but beautiful, haunting places. Memories of them will stick with us forever.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Part Five - Saint Saens and the North

You may be getting the impression that our holiday was somewhat muddled - it was! We jumped from World War Two to World War One and back to World War Two; from France to Belgium then back to France and back to Belgium; from sun to rain to sun to rain and more rain, then finally back to sun. In seventeen days we covered over 5500 kilometres and visited seven countries! I am trying to simplify things and make them a bit more cohesive, even if it means changing around the order in which we visited a place. On that note, let me tell you about a couple of adventures we had in the north of France - some time in between all the other places we visited up there.
Me tucking in to some good French mille-feuille,
like custard square but with more pastry
Our camping-car negotiates some narrow French country roads.
Yes, our van is nearly as wide as the entire road. Oncoming traffic be damned!
The first place I want to tell you about is the little town of Saint-Saëns. Saint-Saëns is now a farming town, though it has previously been known for its monastery, convent, castle, tannery, and glass-making industry. Nowadays, about 2500 people live in the picturesque town. We called there one morning when it was time for croissants and baguette. It was also time to stop and phone our motorhome rental agency and ask about a fault with our camping-car. Their solution was to pull on the handbrake, while driving, and keep it on for about 50 metres. We then had to do this about once every ten minutes for the remaining fifteen days of our holiday, and wasted half a day in Amiens trying to get Peugeot mechanics to look at the van. We had no luck with this, and it was our first experience of how frustrating it can be to get help in a foreign country. Even when you're doing your best to speak French to the staff at the garages, or when you've hired a motorhome from an English-speaking company. Needless to say, we won't be recommending that company - or having to deal with French mechanics - in the future!

On a brighter note, the town of Saint-Saëns was gorgeous! The first house we came across was this one:

And got in trouble with the half-naked (or fully, we didn't look too hard) owner, who shouted from the top window to us - demanding I tell him why we were taking photographs of his house. Perhaps he thought we were taking pictures of him as he opened his shutters, nude?!

The walk into the town was so pretty, and the pastries were just what we needed. 

The former railway station
Me being very French - baguette, pastries, and a Rue 11 November 1918
 - there is one of these in every town!
 Here are a couple of other photos from our time in northern France. The other two places I wanted to talk about I shall leave until the next blog post as they need to be treated with a bit more gravitas. 
Before the cold front arrived....
Somme mud on the floor of the van
Cooking, camping-car style
I want this courtyard.
A typical French lunch, overlooking the Pas-de-Calais countryside.
The first time we were able to use our outdoor lunch set
(Five minutes later it started hosing down)
Mmm... now I feel like mille feuille and baguette... and a holiday in France!

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Part Four - Le Quesnoy

Le Quesnoy.
Falls to New Zealanders. Surrender of Garrison.
Malcolm Ross, Correspondent with the NZ Forces.
November 5th, 10 a.m. [1918]
When tales of fiercer fights have almost been forgotten, the storming and capture of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade will be remembered as one of the most picturesque and romantic incidents of the war. The old fortress, which has stood many sieges, is still wonderfully strong, with precipitous ramparts of well-preserved brick bastions crowned with tall trees and a dry moat fronting the inner rampart. Many besiegers have had a tilt at it in olden times. In 1793 the Austrians stormed it after ten days' bombardment that laid the town in ruins. In 1918 troops from the farthest British Dominion have captured it from what was the world's greatest military power in as many hours.
Then a memorable scene occurred. The inhabitants, realising that at last deliverance had come, rushed from cellars and houses, and soon from every building the tricolour was flying in the breeze. Along a street lined with an excited, cheering throng, the "diggers" marched, embraced and kissed and showered with autumn flowers. ... The Battalion Commander marched with revolver in one hand and garlands in the other. 

From The Press, volume LIV, Issue 16377, 23 November 1918, Page 7.
Courtesy of the National Library's Papers Past.

In late 1918, with victory in their sights, the Allies continued their advance, pushing the Germans back behind the Hindenburg Line. (You will learn more about this in the next two posts.) In November, the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade was ordered to neutralise German forces in the small town of Le Quesnoy, located in forest near the Belgian border. The town was fortified in Medieval times, and featured thick brick inner and outer walls each of around 12 metres in height, separated by a moat and occasional bastions. The New Zealanders decided to launch an assault on the town but chose not to annihilate it, even if this would have been the easiest way to flush the German soldiers out. At 5:30am on November 4th, an artillery bombardment began. Next, two battalions from the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade marched towards the town in order to encircle it. The 4th Battalion reached the ramparts first, and scaled these with a narrow, thirty-foot ladder, while aeroplanes dropped propaganda messages to the Germans inside the town, urging them to give up. Still the Germans did not surrender. Soon, the Battalion decided to climb the inner walls and go in to catch their men. In single file, they forged a path across the (dry) moat and came to the base of the inner wall. They placed the thin ladder on a narrow ledge at the top of the wall and sent a couple of men up. It was a success, and the entire battalion followed, streaming up the ladder, over the wall, and taking the Germans by surprise. Some ran away, some stayed on to fight, and others were captured as prisoners of war. Late in the afternoon, the remaining German soldiers finally surrendered. After four long years of occupation, the remaining townspeople came out to celebrate. They offered kisses, flowers, food, and beds to the Kiwis, and the following day soldiers and civilians paraded down the main street, accompanied by a band playing the national anthems.
Memorial on the town cenotaph
The Kiwi liberation had, understandably, a huge impact on the town's inhabitants. A memorial plaque was unveiled in July 1923, featuring an image of the Kiwis ascending the wall; the town has many streets with special New Zealand names; and there is a Giant Maori.

When we arrived in Le Quesnoy, we went straight to the wall to see the spot from which the 4th Battalion had climbed. It was amazing to think we were standing in (almost) the very location the men had been in 1918. Today, there is a walkway through the moat, so we were not right at its base, but the walls remain in pretty good condition and they still looked a challenge for men on a narrow ladder!

This memorial plaque is in the exact place the wall was scaled

NZ Garden of Remembrance
That night, we stayed in the nearby campsite, just ten minutes walk outside the town walls. In the morning we walked along the walls until we came to an entry port, and went to look around the cute township. We loved seeing the great names!!

We also loved seeing the Giant Maori! In the Nord département of France there is a tradition of holding annual parades in which effigies are carried by locals. In Le Quesnoy, one of the two giants is a Maori, showing the town's strong links to NZ. (Men from the Pioneer Battalion had an important role in the story of Le Quesnoy - helping to clear rubble and bomb damage from around the town. Also, a member of the Battalion is said to have been among the first men up the ladder and over the inner wall on November 4th.)

I'll leave you with some final pictures of this beautiful town, and some notes.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Part Three - Amiens and Arras

Our camping halt (or aire) in Bapaume, near Arras
In late 1916, French and British Army heads decided on their plans for the new year. The war had reached a stalemate, with developments in armaments and defensive techniques (such as guns that could fire longer distances, and the heavy use of trenches) favouring the sort of war where heavy losses and hard fighting brought only small territorial gains. In essence, it had become a war of attrition. Something needed to be done to move things forward. The French General Nivelle came up with a plan for an attack in the Artois Region. After much discussion, the plan was adopted and D-day was set for April 9, 1917. A key part of this plan would be to use the quarries beneath Arras as a troop holding-point, from which the men could advance close to German front lines and spring out, taking the enemy with the element of surprise. It was a gamble, but the risk proved to be one worth taking. At least, in the short-term.

The town of Arras is built on chalk. Chalk that was heavily mined between the 16th -19th centuries to provide a material from which to construct the town buildings. As a result of the mining, huge caverns were left in the sub-stratum beneath the town. It was these caverns that would be used in the Spring Offensive to take the Germans by surprise, and who would extend them? The New Zealand Tunnelling Company, of course.

The men from the Tunnelling Company were rough, tough, and very hard workers. Some were recruited from the gold mines in places like Waihi, occasionally from the coal mines (though these workers were generally encouraged to stay in New Zealand as their work was valuable), and the majority were labourers from the railways and Public Works departments.  The tunnellers were hard men, used to rough lifestyles, and were known for having strong political opinions, often members of labour unions. It was said that they were hard to lead, that the men struggled with drill and regulations of soldiering. In March 1916, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company arrived in France.

At first, the men were involved in counter-mining, which involved digging close to German lines and trying to destroy German tunnels and trenches. In late 1916, they were sent a few miles south-west, to the town of Arras. There, the men undertook reconnaissance missions, which soon revealed that tunnels could be dug to link up the huge caverns. Over the next five months, they linked the existing systems and also created new tunnels. The new tunnels extended under no man’s land, close to German front lines, and the plan was to pack them full of men, who would race up to the surface, spill out through exits and take the Germans by surprise.

The Kiwis worked around the clock in long shifts, using mainly pickaxes as it was thought the noise of using explosives to break through the chalk would alert the Germans to the heavy activity. The strong New Zealand men tunnelled up to 100m per day, and in less than six months they had created two large tunnel networks.

They excavated galleries, foot subways, tramways for pulling trolleys (that usually carried ammunition or casualties), light railways, kitchens, hospitals, and even an operating theatre. The caves were given electricity within six weeks, and over time gas doors, an electrical ventilating plant, and running water were added. The eventual network was 20 kilometres long and was capable of housing 20,000 men.
The tunnel network was so extensive that one was able to become lost in it, and the tunnel systems were given place names so that the men could find their way around. One of the systems was given New Zealand names, from Russell at one end to Bluff at the other. To this day, Kiwi graffiti remains on the walls of the network, including a sign pointing to a small cave, ironically named Waitomo, sketches of women, and a ‘kia ora’ surrounded by ferns.

It was to the Wellington cavern (La carrière Wellingon) that we descended in September. We spent nearly half an hour walking a route through the quarry, looking at the very stone the Kiwi tunnellers had spent months living in. 

Archaeologists have recovered some of the equipment, clothing, and supplies that the men had down in the quarries. We could also see where the men had slept, and where they had performed their ablutions. It was an amazing experience to be able to walk through the very tunnels excavated by the Kiwis (with help from the British), and that had played such a key role in the Spring Offensive, otherwise known as The Battle of Arras. But, I hear you ask, how did it all end?

Early in April, the preliminary bombardment began. 24,000 men were packed into the caverns, and could hear the roar of artillery overhead. For eight days they waited. The night before D-Day was Easter Sunday. Deep in Wellington quarry, an altar was created, candles lit, and a chaplain led an Easter service. 

The next morning, at 5:30am, dynamite at the far ends of the tunnels was detonated. Thousands of men rushed down the tunnels, up the stairs, and through the newly created exits to the German front lines.

The first three days of the battle were an overwhelming success. The German frontline was pushed back 11km, and the Canadians seized the key point of Vimy Ridge. As usual, casualties were high and the initial gains turned to stalemate, so the operation was called off in May. Even though the operation did not achieve the desired breakthrough, new equipment was used and valuable techniques discovered that would come in handy for later battles.

The New Zealand Tunnelling Company moved on to general engineering tasks around the Arras region, including erecting the longest self-supporting bridge of the First World War. The Kiwi company was the first to arrive on the Western Front, and the last to leave, departing Arras in July 1918, and arriving in NZ in April 1919. Of the 446-strong company, 41 lost their lives. A remembrance plaque dedicated to the NZ tunnellers is erected at the Carrière Wellington (the museum above the tunnels), and a monument to the Kiwis was erected in 2007, on the site of the passive defence in Arras.

If you want to know more about the efforts of the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, this website is lovely. It also has some great pictures.

(The title promises Amiens - we planned to visit this city, as it was the site of a battle in 1918 that helped bring an end to the war, but alas our camping-car was too big to fit down the city's historic streets. Also, we were very behind schedule, so we had to press on towards our next destination. Next time we're in France we promise to visit you, Amiens!)