Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Fabrice led us north from Toul, through the picturesque Lorraine Regional Natural Park to Verdun. As we rode, he would point at things in the villages we rode through. It wasn't until the 3rd or 4th time he did this that I realised he was trying to draw our attention to the bullet holes that still peppered some of the buildings, the churches in particular, it seemed. Suddenly, our little "tour of the memorial cemeteries" took on a more somber tone for me.
We passed a couple of small cemeteries as the morning progressed, stopping at one that Fabrice said was for British soldiers, but turned out to be for the French. I hadn't realised that each of the major nations had buried their dead - or at least set up memorial cemeteries - in their own areas for their own troops. Therefore, we saw signs for US, French, British, and Canadian cemeteries, and probably would have found even more had we explored further.
To begin with, the cemeteries were quite small. All were immaculately kept: neatly mown grass, clean edges to the flower beds, poppy wreaths here and there. Many of the graves had fresh flowers. It was only a week or so since Armistice Day, so maybe these trappings were left over from then. I thought that probably they weren't. I got the feeling these places never became untidy or looked neglected.
In Verdun town, we stopped for coffee and a short wander. More statues, memorials, bullet holes. The ladies in the Tourist Information Office told us that the main memorial museum with all the reconstructed trenches was closed for the winter, so Fabrice took us instead to the Verdun Memorial Ossuary.
The road in was through a lovely, peaceful looking wood, full of autumn colours. The kind of woods in which you'd take the kids to play hide-and-seek, walk the dog, admire the bluebells in the spring. Here, though, it was forbidden to walk due to the uncountable number of unexploded ordnance lost among the now over-grown craters. Mother Nature had worked her magic and returned the ruined no-man's land to something peaceful, with a sinister shadow. I didn't learn this fact until after we'd passed through them, and on the ride back through, they looked somehow different.
The Ossuary itself was impressive, made of marble, a tower flanked by long, low halls. Inside, a chapel was permanently set up as a place for people (often relatives of the deceased) to visit and contemplate those who died. In the low halls either side, an incredibly moving exhibition of photographs. Each one, a life-sized, black and white photo showing an old man or woman holding a large black and white photo of themselves during the war. Some of the photos were composed as reconstructions of the originals.

It was unexpectedly moving. After all, these elderly veterans were the lucky ones - the survivors. They escaped with their lives, lived to ripe old ages. Probably had families. Lost countless friends. Saw unimaginable horrors. Experienced things people today, even those in the modern military, can never truly comprehend. The lucky ones? Perhaps.
Outside, things were equally thought provoking. The previous cemeteries we had seen had contained hundreds of markers. Here, there were thousands. Approximately 6000, in fact, and still growing as remains were still being discovered even nearly a century later. And Fabrice told us this was one of the smaller locations. Apparently there was with several times more markers about 40km away.
The majority of soldiers were represented by plain white crosses, but the soldiers who had been Muslim had markers that were rectangular and had a more domed top. They faced towards Mecca. It had never occurred to me that some of the allied troops might have been Muslim.   I wonder if anyone else had overlooked this possibility, particularly given the often negative press Muslims get today on account of the extremist minority. This was the second time this year I'd had my media driven ideas of Muslims challenged (the first was in Tanzania in January, if you read my earlier blogs). Many of the markers bore names, ranks and regiments. Many of them bore merely "Soldat Inconnu" - Unknown Soldier. The geometry of the markers was precise and this added to the overall impact of the memorial. Ed and I moved about independently here, each of us wrapped
up in our own thoughts. Its hard to put in writing what was going through my head without the risk of it sounding cliched, trite or simply insufficient. Even more than before, I wanted to visit more of these sites, learn more about the battles and the people who laid down their lives so long ago. It wouldn't be fun, would certainly be emotionally traumatic, but surely I owed these people that much at least?  It made me happy to know they were remembered, that people still visited the memorials, tended the graves, traveled from far flung places to pay their respects. It seems so important not to let time simply diminish the attention paid to these fallen. It seems unlikely wars will ever be fought in this way again, in such dreadful conditions, with such vast numbers of needless casualties, so many men sent to their deaths at the whim of a misinformed general or a badly thought out plan. Not by European or "first world" countries anyway. It brought home to me the senseless waste of human life in all wars, past and present. I hoped I was not wasting my life, that I was not squandering the opportunities I had thanks to the sacrifices made by people far younger than I am now. Snippets of Blackadder Goes Forth kept popping into my head, and didn't seem at all inappropriate or out of place.
We parted company with Fabrice not long after leaving the Ossuary, a new friend made. About an hour later, still an hour or two short of Arras it began to rain - the first rain since I left the UK - and would continue to do so for the remainder of the trip. We had one more stop to make the next morning, before leaving Arras.
Dad had told us about a family member who had died in WW1. Captain Douglas Stanley Higgins, our great-great uncle, fought for the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, and died for them on 9th April, 1917, aged 37. He was buried in a small, British cemetery in Tilloy, near Arras. We detoured to pay our respects, the misty, drizzly morning very possibly quite similar to the weather on the day he lost his life, and strangely apt. Again, what should one be thinking? He was three years younger than I am now when he was killed. And he was one of the oldest in the cemetery. I learned later that the markers were all made from British stone. Each had been hand carved with the appropriate regiment insignia of the person whose grave it marked. Lots of work, no doubt, and almost certainly not begrudged by the stone masons. So many grave markers, so much lost potential. What might these people have achieved or discovered during their lives had they lived? Ed was particularly pensive. It was, after all, the last day of his mammoth ride. I had been overwhelmed and emotional on the day, nearly three and a half years before, that I flew out of Peru at the end of my own epic bike ride. Ed had ridden so much further and been on the road for twice the time as me. I could only imagine the maelstrom of thoughts in his head. I gave him space and left him to set the program for the rest of the day.
We arrived at the tunnel to find our casual "roll up, roll on" strategy was only partially successful. It was possible to do this, but resulted in having to pay triple the cost for tickets. Oops. School boy error there. An hour later and we were rolling off in Folkestone. Ed had decided he wanted to ride the last 20 miles or so on his own, taking an indirect route back to Mum and Dad's, and who was I to say otherwise. It had been a fantastic, thought-provoking few days, and being even a small part of such a monumental adventure as the one Ed was just completing had been a privilege. Congratulations, Ed. I'm proud of you. The bar is somewhat higher than before. It may take a few attempts before I can push it higher ;-).

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