June 13-15, Mont-Saint-Michel -- Equihen-Plage -- Vimy

It was a long drive to Equihen-Plage, mostly on divided highways through lovely, if unspectacular, bucolic, forested, and village landscapes, crossing the Seine River at its mouth on one of the most graceful and elegant suspension bridges I have seen. We normally enjoy exploring tertiary roads but at the end of a long day, being forced by road closures to find our way to camp through a series of single lane, unsurfaced, pot-holed lanes, confronting on coming heavy trucks also trying to find their way, was more than a little frustrating. It took a couple of glasses of wine in camp to relax before walking to the bluffs overlooking the channel to enjoy the sunset. We thought we could see the coast of England. It seemed a world away, just as France had seemed a world away from the cliffs of Dover. We left Equihen-Plage, avoiding the road closures, and drove north-east mostly along the divided highway to Longuenesse and the cemetery where Sheila's great uncle was buried during the first war. There are cemeteries all over this area, some small, some large, some military, some, like this one, civilian with dedicated Remembrance areas. Nearby in Saint- Omer was a main British hospital during the war and many who died there are interred here, including Sheila's great uncle. There were small areas of German, Belgian, French headstones, but mostly Commonwealth soldiers. There were 3096 WWI and 446 WWII military plots. The cemetery was immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, flowers planted along each rank of headstones, grass mown, and flower beds weed free. Sheila was able to find her great Henry Hoy Giauque's headstone and lay a small bouquet of wheat and native grasses. As I walked past rank upon rank of closely spaced headstones, my mind’s eye saw rank upon rank of fresh young men, standing proudly to attention in their new uniforms, shoulder to shoulder, and eager for adventure, unaware of the mud and filth and horror that awaited them.  I could not help but think that these 3542 headstones represented less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died and I did not know how many French, German, Belgian, and American soldiers died in that insane conflict. We drove through an idyllic, pastoral landscape of rolling wheat fields, pastures, and forests to the Canadian Vimy Memorial, the peaceful, manicured countryside so at odds with the devastation and horror of 100 years earlier. Our final approach to the memorial was through dense, crater pocked forest, the craters, some 20 meters across and as deep, softened by the under-story of herbs and grasses and only hinting at the devastation wrought by the bombardments. It would have been a sea of mud, shattered trees, shell craters, and trenches 100 years ago. Walking towards the memorial, its two tall, honey-white marble columns warm against the gray and silver of the clouded sky, the foreground a sea of tall grass gone to seed it seemed smaller than I expected, but the simplicity of its clean, strong lines silhouetted against the sky was impressive. The area around the monument was closed-off with electric fencing, inside the fence sheep grazed, unaware that unexploded ordinance made their job of keeping the grass down too dangerous for humans. As we got closer to the monument its presence grew, the larger than life figures no longer making it seem smaller and people around the monument providing scale. I was taken by the simplicity of  the design, classical in concept and execution, but eschewing the pomp of ornamentation and massing of figures. Instead a few small groupings or individuals, widely spaced, each with its own symbolism but creating a strong reproof of war. Moving closer, the textured marble around the base resolved itself into the simple engraving of 11,285 names, names of dead whose remains were never identified. The realization of what I was seeing and the mass of names engraved was powerful and moving. I did not realize until I had moved around the monument that from the parking area that you approach the back of the monument and that as you move to the front, from where it was meant to be seen as you approached the ridge, its presence and impact grew. At the base, a marble sarcophagus, on which visitors placed wreaths, poppies, flowers, pins, and flags. There were post-cards from school children thanking the dead for their sacrifice. Perhaps the symbolism of Mother Canada, the breaking of the sword, the passing of the torch, the near perfect bodies of the male and female figures was a bit sentimental and dated, but here, amid the remains of the filthy trenches, carnage, and shell craters the clean white marble and the sentiment of peace and succour to the needy was poignant. The visitor's centre was small and presented an understandably Canadian centric view of the battle, but it was well balanced. It did not glorify the war or Canada's contribution, it did not gloss over the schism between French and English Canada caused by conscription, but it did convey the importance of the battle to building a sense of Canadian identity. The sanitized trenches and tunnels retained around the visitor centre, with its concrete pads and duck- boards gave a sense of the geometry of the battlefield but could not even hint at the deplorable conditions of trench life.  The next morning we visited the Newfoundland Memorial at Monchy-le-Preux and then three of the Commonwealth grave sites scattered through the countryside. Most are relatively small, perhaps 100 headstones, immaculately tended, and surrounded by fields, in one case in an adjacent pasture, milk cows lay contentedly chewing their cud as we walked past. Canadians were considered members of the British Army and so were buried in British cemeteries, at two of the cemeteries we came upon Canadian headstones. Again I was struck by the incongruity of the peaceful countryside of today and the carnage of 100 years ago. At Monchy, the last cemetery we visited, a group of six Brits were visiting the scene of a battle where a relative had fought and died, overhead a lark sang. One woman said "Oh isn't that lovely, the lark is singing for us. John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Fields” immediately came to mind and I surprised myself by reciting it, more surprised at the difficulty I had controlling my voice, and even more surprised by the tears it brought to their eyes.
A Sense of Place:  Travel, Photography, and Photo-art
by David E. Moon
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
Slideshow Slideshow Route Map Route Map
View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp.

June 13-15, Mont-Saint-Michel --

Equihen-Plage -- Vimy

It was a long drive to Equihen-Plage, mostly on divided highways through lovely, if unspec- tacular, bucolic, forested, and village land- scapes, crossing the Seine River at its mouth on one of the most graceful and elegant sus- pension bridges I have seen. We normally enjoy exploring tertiary roads but at the end of a long day, being forced by road closures to find our way to camp through a series of single lane, unsurfaced, pot-holed lanes, confronting on coming heavy trucks also trying to find their way, was more than a little frustrating. It took a couple of glasses of wine in camp to relax before walking to the bluffs overlooking the channel to enjoy the sunset. We thought we could see the coast of England. It seemed a world away, just as France had seemed a world away from the cliffs of Dover. We left Equihen-Plage, avoiding the road clos- ures, and drove north-east mostly along the divided highway to Longuenesse and the cemetery where Sheila's great uncle was bur- ied during the first war. There are cemeteries all over this area, some small, some large, some military, some, like this one, civilian with dedicated Remembrance areas. Nearby in Saint-Omer was a main British hos- pital during the war and many who died there are interred here, including Sheila's great uncle. There were small areas of German, Belgian, French headstones, but mostly Commonwealth sol- diers. There were 3096 WWI and 446 WWII military plots. The cemetery was immaculately maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, flowers planted along each rank of headstones, grass mown, and flower beds weed free. Sheila was able to find her great Henry Hoy Giauque's headstone and lay a small bouquet of wheat and native grasses. As I walked past rank upon rank of closely spaced headstones, my mind’s eye saw rank upon rank of fresh young men, standing proudly to attention in their new uniforms, shoulder to shoulder, and eager for adventure, unaware of the mud and filth and horror that awaited them.  I could not help but think that these 3542 headstones rep- resented less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died and I did not know how many French, German, Belgian, and American soldiers died in that insane conflict. We drove through an idyllic, pastoral land- scape of rolling wheat fields, pastures, and forests to the Canadian Vimy Memorial, the peaceful, manicured countryside so at odds with the devastation and horror of 100 years earlier. Our final approach to the memorial was through dense, crater pocked forest, the craters, some 20 meters across and as deep, softened by the under-story of herbs and grasses and only hinting at the devastation wrought by the bombardments. It would have been a sea of mud, shattered trees, shell craters, and trenches 100 years ago. Walking towards the memorial, its two tall, honey-white marble columns warm against the gray and silver of the clouded sky, the fore- ground a sea of tall grass gone to seed it seemed smaller than I expected, but the simplicity of its clean, strong lines sil- houetted against the sky was impressive. The area around the monument was closed-off with electric fencing, inside the fence sheep grazed, unaware that unexploded ordinance made their job of keep- ing the grass down too dangerous for humans. As we got closer to the monument its presence grew, the larger than life figures no longer making it seem smaller and people around the monument providing scale. I was taken by the simplicity of  the design, classical in concept and execution, but eschewing the pomp of ornamentation and massing of figures. Instead a few small groupings or individuals, widely spaced, each with its own symbolism but creat- ing a strong reproof of war. Moving closer, the textured marble around the base resolved itself into the simple engraving of 11,285 names, names of dead whose remains were never iden- tified. The realization of what I was seeing and the mass of names engraved was powerful and moving. I did not realize until I had moved around the monument that from the parking area that you approach the back of the monument and that as you move to the front, from where it was meant to be seen as you approached the ridge, its presence and impact grew. At the base, a marble sarcophagus, on which visitors placed wreaths, pop- pies, flowers, pins, and flags. There were post-cards from school children thanking the dead for their sacrifice. Perhaps the symbolism of Mother Canada, the breaking of the sword, the passing of the torch, the near perfect bodies of the male and female figures was a bit sentimental and dated, but here, amid the remains of the filthy trenches, carnage, and shell craters the clean white marble and the sentiment of peace and succour to the needy was poignant. The visitor's centre was small and presented an understandably Canadian centric view of the battle, but it was well balanced. It did not glorify the war or Canada's contribution, it did not gloss over the schism between French and English Canada caused by conscription, but it did convey the importance of the battle to building a sense of Canadian identity. The san- itized trenches and tunnels retained around the visitor centre, with its concrete pads and duck- boards gave a sense of the geometry of the battlefield but could not even hint at the deplorable conditions of trench life.  The next morning we visited the Newfound- land Memorial at Monchy-le-Preux and then three of the Common- wealth grave sites scattered through the countryside. Most are relat- ively small, perhaps 100 headstones, immaculately tended, and surrounded by fields, in one case in an adjacent pasture, milk cows lay contentedly chewing their cud as we walked past. Cana- dians were considered members of the British Army and so were buried in British cemeteries, at two of the cemeteries we came upon Cana- dian headstones. Again I was struck by the incongruity of the peaceful countryside of today and the carnage of 100 years ago. At Monchy, the last cemetery we visited, a group of six Brits were visiting the scene of a battle where a relative had fought and died, overhead a lark sang. One woman said "Oh isn't that lovely, the lark is singing for us. John McCrae’s “In Flander’s Fields” immedi- ately came to mind and I surprised myself by reciting it, more surprised at the difficulty I had controlling my voice, and even more sur- prised by the tears it brought to their eyes.
A Sense of Place:  Travel, Photography, and Photo-art
© David E. Moon, 2014  All rights reserved
Route Map Route Map Slideshow Slideshow
View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp. View across the Tarn from camp.