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!