Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Part Two - The Somme

Dulce et Decorum est
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas!  GAS!  Quick, boys! --  An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime. --
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

-Wilfred Owen

Dulce et Decorum est was written in 1917 after heavy fighting in the Somme region. The shock of this was too great for Owen and he was soon sent back to the UK for medical and psychiatric treatment. He was killed in the Somme in November 1918, two months after returning to the Western Front. It was Wilfred Owen's poetry, the juxtaposition of beautiful lyrics with the ugliness of their content, that first sparked my interest in World War One. The horrors and futility of war; the hardship of life in the trenches; the fresh faces of the young men who went to their deaths or returned, maimed for life. The Great War tugged at my emotions, fostering a passion for history, a fanaticism that has stayed with me and shaped almost every holiday we took over the last two years. Our trip through Europe was, essentially, a war tour. Our photos consist mainly of white sandstone memorials, of marble headstones, of sombre and sacred ground. It was not so much a holiday as a pilgrimage. And the second step of that journey led us to the ground of the Somme.

The phrase 'The Somme' is usually used in reference to the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July to November 1916, and saw the heaviest casualties of the war up to that point. Four in ten New Zealand soldiers were injured, and one in seven killed during the Battle of the Somme. Over half of the New Zealanders who died at the Somme have no known grave. These men are commemorated at the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing, at Caterpillar Valley near Longueval. We visited the memorial in heavy rain, on a cold September morning, the second morning of our trip.

The New Zealand Memorial is on the wall to the left of the picture

Looking out of the memorial, over the fields of Caterpillar Valley
There are many cemeteries and memorials dotted around this part of the French paysage (countryside), and we needed only to drive ten minutes to reach another New Zealand memorial, this time to the north of Longueval. This memorial commemorates the taking of this point, from where the New Zealanders launched their successful attack on Flers. 

This high-ground enabled us to look over the landscape of the Somme, full of cornfields and rolling hills. And yes, that mud. My shoe can verify that it is, indeed, very sticky and very red. It must have been hell to live in. 

The Somme region (and surrounding départments Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, and Nord) continued to see heavy action from late 1916 to 1918. The area was right at the heart of the Western Front, especially so when the Germans created the Hindenburg Line, which was a series of heavily-fortified defences running from Arras to Reims. The ground around which it was located was the site of crucial battles in 1917 and 1918, and saw the deaths of tens of thousands of both Allied and German soldiers. For four years, the fields of Northern France were subjected to heavy fighting, and the number of memorials is staggering. For this day, we limited ourselves to three. Our next stop was just outside the town of Bapaume.

Here, we visited the town of Grévillers. In March 1917, the town was occupied by Allied troops, who created a cemetery for their casualties. A year later, the town was briefly lost to the Germans, but the New Zealand Division recaptured it in August 1918. At the end of the war, graves from around the region were brought to the cemetery, and there are over 2000 Commonwealth soldiers buried there.

There is also a memorial dedicated to those men of the New Zealand Division who died in defensive fighting from March - August 1918, and those who died in the Advance to Victory, from August - November 1918.

This landscape is shaped by memorials, there are cemeteries in nearly every town. You soon come to realise just how much of an impact the Great War had not only on those who fought, but on France. The Somme, Nord, Pas-de-Calais, Aisne, and Oisne areas were decimated by four years of fighting; the French people scarred by the experience of living through a war; and over 1.3 million men had been killed, another 4.2 million wounded. It is hard to comprehend the ways in which this must have affected the nation, and it felt very bittersweet to travel around the north of France, exploring this beautiful country but dwelling on its tragic past. The landscape is rich with history, its fields still bearing the weight of those who lost their lives there.

French First Aid Station, Somme, 1916.
Photo property of the National Army Museum, UK

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Part One - Normandy

And so, in September, we began our Grand (War) Tour. We hired un camping-car (motorhome) from an English-speaking company based two hours south of Paris, and set out on our seventeen-day holiday around Europe. Our first destinations were Normandy and the D-Day beaches. 

Our camping-car was a European van (i.e. left-hand drive) that had been converted to fit in a double bed, kitchenette, and minuscule shower/toilet cubicle. After a few hours of driving on narrow country roads in the dim evening light, we were exhausted and so we pulled into the town of Chandai, and found the town aire. Aire is the French word for a motorhome stop (or rest area), and many municipal authorities provide these for free, hoping that tourists will stop the night and support the local businesses by buying meals, petrol, etc, during their stay. The best sites are flat, have facilities for emptying grey water and porta-potty, and have a tap for topping up the drinking water tank in your camping-car. As I said, frequently these great sites are FREE, or if there is a cost it is €1 for water. Vive la France! Thank you, French Authorities for providing these facilities!

The site at Chandai was good, and we slept well. A few hours later, our alarm chimed loudly (as did the village clock tower just metres away) and we eagerly leapt out of bed and got on the road. Before long, the need arose (as, we all know, it often does) for French pastries. So we stopped at the next town, the picturesque Gacé. Our croissant, pain au chocolat, and baguette were the best we tasted in our entire 17 day holiday!! Almost a shame that we had to start on such a high note!

Municipal buildings in Gacé 
Adam with the pain au chocolat and (demi-)baguette
The town's pretty lake. A signboard beside it advised that in the surrounding woods you could see red squirrels and foxes! I tried to convince Adam to abandon our holiday and spend the rest of the time here...
Soon we stopped to eat our treasures and to make a coffee in our aeropress (a contraption that expresses coffee using air pressure). The sun was beating down and we were in another picturesque village - it was bliss, and felt like such a fortuitous start to the holiday.

Our camping-car and a jolie (pretty) French village
The obligatory église (church) and cenotaph

We then stumbled upon the stunning village of Vieux-Port - a whole town of pretty, historic houses, many built in the traditional Normandy style (similar to an English thatched cottage). One of the houses was even called 'La Renardière' - the fox lair! Aah, France!

La Renardière
After driving another couple of hours, we arrived at Omaha Beach, in Normandy, on the north coast of France. As we pulled into the parking lot, it began to rain. It then continued raining every day for the next week... Perhaps somewhat appropriate seeing as our next stop was the Somme? For now, we were here to see the site of World War II's D-Day landings.

On the evening of June 4, 1944, it was time. Time to embark on arguably the greatest Allied moment of World War Two (other than the end of the war, of course). This was a plan that had been conceived over a year before; a plan to launch a surprise attack on the coast of France and regain a valuable foothold in Europe. Months of planning had seen the development of specially designed amphibious craft that would sail close to shore, open a door in the bow and put down a long ramp over which tanks or other military vehicles could disembark and roll down onto the beach. There were also versions that had an opening bow door through which troops could exit and wade to shore. These were a breakthrough development that greatly assisted wartime amphibious assaults. See the exciting pictures, below:

Troops disembarking at Omaha Beach
Photo from the Naval History and Heritage website (
Landing Craft, Tank, 1942
From the Wikipedia article by the same name
The plan was for an airborne assault, followed by a naval bombardment of German coastal fortifications, and finally the landing of over 132,000 troops. In conjunction with this, members of the French resistance would carry out campaigns to sabotage rail, electric and telephone systems, as well as attempts to delay German reinforcements from reaching the Normandy region. Late that evening, thousands of troops set off in their boats, heading for the shores of Normandy in northern France. Unfortunately, strong winds and high seas meant that the operation was postponed and troops were sent back to shelter in bays around the coast of Britain.

The next evening, the window of opportunity again opened. The weather was still less-than-perfect, but it was now or never. Just after midnight on June 6, 1944, Operation Neptune, or 'D-Day', was launched. Under a full moon, over 23,000 Allied troops launched an airborne assault on Normandy, the Royal Navy began a bombardment of German defences around the Normandy coastline, and at dawn that morning 132,000 troops followed in an amphibious assault. The Germans were somewhat taken by surprise and the Allies managed to gain a foothold on French shores, something they had not possessed in over four years. The battle was hard-fought and casualties were high. Two difficult months later, Normandy was won, Paris liberated, and the Germans had been pushed back across the Seine river. It was a resounding success for the Allies. And we were here to see the ground on which the landings had taken place.

Omaha Beach is an 8km long stretch of coastline on the northern coast of France. It was one of five beaches landed on by Allied forces on D-Day, the others being Utah, Juno, Sword, and Gold. Predominantly American, British, and Canadian troops took part in the assaults, and today the American landing beaches, Omaha and Utah, are a site of pilgrimage for American war tourists.

Map of the Normandy Landings and Battles, June 1944.
The Memorial at Bayeux
Looking across the sculpture (which represents chaos) towards Britain
Because of the rain and our tight schedule, we did not stop long. Our next stop was the Bayeux War Museum, which has a fantastic reputation. Unfortunately, we were already behind by half a day and so we paid our respects at the war cemetery then headed for the département de Seine-Maritime.

In front of the Bayeux Museum

Our final stop was the village of Saint-Maclou-la-Brière. It was here, on August 19, 1944, that New Zealand pilot, James Stellin was killed in action. Stellin was part of RAF squadron 609, flying over Normandy and supporting the D-Day action by targeting German tanks, radar stations, and means of transport. On August 18, Stellin's squadron destroyed a number of German tanks and vehicles, and on the morning of the 19th they did the same. While returning to base, Stellin asked for permission to attack a vehicle, but later radioed to ask for directions and report that he was short of fuel. At 10am, a teacher in the small village of Saint-Maclou-la-Brière saw Stellin's plane in difficulty, rapidly falling towards the village. According to the report, Stellin fought to direct his plane away from the village and it crash-landed in a nearby field. Sadly, the 22 year old pilot was unable to open his parachute and was killed. The villagers held a funeral for Stellin, and more than 1200 people are said to have attended. Stellin's name is now inscribed on the town cenotaph, alongside the village war-dead; his CWGC grave lies within the local cemetery; the square has been re-named 'Place Stellin'; and a marble memorial has been erected in the square. Pilot Officer James Stellin was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his bravery. It is an heroic story, and we felt privileged to visit the grave of this brave Kiwi man. 

Me in Place Stellin, beside the memorial. Just over my shoulder is James Stellin's grave. 
The town of Saint-Maclou-la-Briere, looking towards the Place and church
Stellin's Commonwealth War Graves Commission grave

We wanted to stay the night in Saint-Maclou, but alas there was not a site for camping-car, so we travelled to a nearby town, found a parking lot ('free camping' is legal in France if you are self-contained) and ravished some dinner. Then we went to sleep in France, beneath a viaduct. Bliss for the francophile, and for the engineer!!

Monday, September 30, 2013

Changing the Guard

Sorry for the lack of blog entries lately! We have been busy clearing out our house in Kent, packing our things to be shipped back to NZ, travelling around Europe for three weeks, and now we're en route to NZ. 

We had a fabulous time in Europe, but before we tell you about that, here is a post on our final adventure on London. Last week we finally got to Changing the Guard, at Buckingham Palace. 

Changing the Guard is a British ceremony in which guards at royal residences in London are relieved by a new batch of guards. The old guard, troops from St James' Palace, and the new guard, those from the Wellington Barracks, march to the grounds of Buckingham Palace accompanied by their bands. The old guard hands over the relevant keys to the new guard, the bands play music to accompany this ritual, and then the new guard marches to St James' Palace. The old marches to the Wellington Barracks, where they will have a rest from sentry duties.

The ceremony is attended by many tourists each day it is held (usually odd or even days of the month, depending on the schedule), and in front of Buckingham Palace the crowd was 5-6 people deep! We managed to get a spot at the front of the footpath, so had a good view for the troops marching to the Palace, though we couldn't see any of the ceremony that took place inside the grounds. 

So very British! We shall miss wonderful British rituals (such as this and the Queen's jubilee) and their atmosphere. Goodbye, London!

Friday, August 30, 2013

A Squirrelific Birthday Present

The Northumberland Sunday dawned crisp and clear. Our alarm went off at 6.30am and we left our B&B at 8am. It was time for my birthday surprise.

Adam had booked us into a session with a local wildlife photographer, Will Nicholls, who loves to photograph red squirrels! Woo hoo!! Adam was hoping that we could take some photos that would be good enough to stick up on the wall when we get back home to New Zealand, thus being able to gaze at those squirrelly visages FOREVER. 

We had a whole three hours with Will, out in his camouflaged hide in woods on the edge of the Northumberland National Park. Only one squirrel came to visit, but got some great shots of her, and there were also plenty of birds to see. 

We had a great morning and were thrilled with the performance of our camera (bought before our Gallipoli trip) and new 70-300mm lens. We got some great pictures and I can't wait to display them on the walls of my house, one day! Thanks Adam (and Will)!! What an awesome birthday present!!! 

It feels so good to know that we have taken these pictures, not just bought some lovely pictures that someone else has taken. Such a feeling of satisfaction and pride in our work! I love photography!

And squirrels. Bring on the squirrels:

Not a squirrel. Possibly a chaffinch.
Also not a squirrel. A cute, fluffy young robin.
A warbler or tit? Either way, still not a squirrel. 
Click to enlarge. You know you want to.

*sigh* Aren't red squirrels just perfect?!?! My husband shall be in the good books for a very long time yet! Happy Birthday, Me!