Wednesday December 3: Amiens
As our service yesterday went for over an hour and half we missed the chance to visit the VB school as the only time to do this is between 10.15 and 10.30 in their recess break. So we reorganised our schedule to accommodate this on Friday – today wasn’t possible as school does not run in France on Wednesdays. In place Rod suggested we visit the newly opened tunnels in Arras that were originally built by the New Zealanders. Leaving Amiens at 8.15 a.m. it was still dark and miserable. The weather on this trip has been the worst I have encountered in the years of coming over here. As we left for Arras it was very obvious that today would be a bit of a struggle. Tiredness, battlefields fatigue and being ten days on the go without a break was taking its toll on all of us myself included. I had hit the wall and struggled to stay awake. The new centre at Arras however was unique. These tunnels had their origins back many centuries as the chalk was mined during the middle ages and many underground quarries had been established in that era. During WW1 the quarries were connected by tunnels creating a huge network for military use. The battles in the Arras area in 1917 were planned and executed from this network. As you moved through the complex we had audio accounts coming through our headsets adding to the images both moving and still of the war and the men living in this underground city. While waiting for the launch of the April 1917 battles over 24,000 men lived in these tunnels waiting for the time they would be ordered to attack. To kill the boredom they often scratched pictures onto the walls and played cards. There was even a small chapel carved into an alcove complete with cross and a Madonna. An electric light system was established in the tunnels during the war and many of the original lights were still in operation. Amazing! Despite the fatigue the group really enjoyed this as I did. A must see if you are in this area. While in Arras we also visited the memorial to over 200 Resistance fighters who were tortured and then shot by the Germans during World War 2. This was quite confronting for a number of the group. The bus driver, Richard, has been there before and doesn't like going back.
Exiting Arras was yet another Kodak moment as the bus was navigating its way around a corner and onto a tiny back street. Now this coach is a huge 48 seater and very long. As we inched around the first corner a red car was illegally parked and blocked the turning circle. However just to make it really interesting, a number of poles were on the other side of the road preventing the driver from making the turn easily. Eddie was a relief driver for today as Richard was having his two compulsory days off. However he decided to spend the day with the group anyway. Tragic! Richard is an excellent driver and loves his bus like a member of the family. We tease him about the way he looks after his precious vehicle as over here the drivers keep the same bus with the registration plates connected to the name of the driver. So when the cool and unflappable Eddie was attempting to do a 26 point turn in this tiny back street and there were literally only centimetres between the naughty red car and Richard’s beloved bus, all of a sudden our loveable driver awoke from his slumbers. Out he popped and dancing around like a manic Morris dancer, he gesticulated the life saving moves to the laid back Eddie. Kids snapped their cameras but trying not to add to the stress, I watched in amused quietness. How they got the vehicle out of that squeeze is something only Houdini would comprehend. Congratulations Eddie and thanks Richard for the entertainment! Poor fellow…he hates being a passenger in HIS bus. Lunch today was not a picnic out of the bus as in the previous two days but at a ‘Flunch’, a chain store of mass food options for large numbers of people. The meal deal was the way to go with a choice of beef, chicken or fish with unlimited servings of vegies plus a drink, all for 6 Euros per person. Excellent value! It was wonderful to finally get green vegetables as the dinners we have had thus far, though delicious are devoid of vegetables. Having rich meat dishes all the time gets a bit much so the spinach, green beans, and carrots were a godsend. Yum! Lunch perked most of the group up and the afternoon saw visits to a range of memorials. Just out of Arras we stopped at the German cemetery at Neville St Vaast and with 44,833 graves and names on memorials it is bigger that Tyne Cot. Mass graves here and even more sorrow and loss on a grand scale but for a different uniform. Same story though just different names. Following this was the French cemetery at Notre Dame de Lorette and here again the numbers kept on piling up. Another 40,000 plus men…..this is an endurance test of trying to grasp the tragedy of the Western Front. It becomes too much to take in and I was ready for the day to be over. However a few more stops and a couple of commemorations and we had to keep plugging along. Head south back toward the Somme battlefields. First stop, Serre Rd Cemetery #2 to commemorate a Meningie soldier, then to Beaumont-Hamel the site of the Newfoundland memorial and its many trenches till in place.This is dominated by a memorial to soldiers from Newfoundland, many of whom were killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It features a baying caribou. There are six of these statues, 5 on the Western Front all facing the enemy, while the other is in Newfoundland facing France. It is said to represent the mother calling for its lost young.
From here we crossed the Ancre River to the massive memorial at Thiepval that commemorates over 70,000 British dead, from the Somme region alone, who have no known grave. Our visit here to commemorate Marjorie Jackson Nelson’s husband’s uncle, also included two other aspects. As in previous trips I selected a passage from Sebastian Faulks’ book “Birdsong”. The section I read covered the time Elizabeth ventured into the area by mistake and came across Thiepval. Knowing nothing about the Great War she was shocked by the gross enormity of this rather ugly monolith. As I sat the group down under the same part described by the book, we became immersed in this powerful narrative. As in the novel the character was there on a winter’s day and the sunlight was soft and gentle in the cold air……it was the very same for us at that moment. Sun has been missing every day yet here it came out for us…..as Yves would say: “They are here…the diggers are here.” To complete this visit Flo sang another of her songs this one about the various faces of war and the people who cope with grief and loss: the wife, the sergeant trying to lead and protect his men, and the nurses who faced each day with loss, pain, gore and tiredness. This song has a very different feel to it and like the beautiful delivery at VB yesterday, she did it again here at Thiepval. More tears as she sang; more raw emotion. The acoustics of the memorial were impressive and she belted out the words with volume, passion and belief in a way she had not done previously. As Flo sang she owned her words totally with a confidence and maturity she is gaining as she grows into her music. She is telling stories and we are her beneficiaries. Thanks Flo. Despite the cold and total exhaustion she held us again. Perfect.
Back across the Ancre to Warloy-Baillon for the last commemoration of the day before returning to Amiens.
Back to the hotel and out for our last group meal as tomorrow is a free day. THANK GOD! We sorted out the plans for the free day with every kid in a group of their choosing. Things in place it was time to return to the hotel and claim the night for sleep.