Published: May 28th 2012May 18th 2012
This is the second ‘episode’ in another of 'our' travel experiences.
The collective ‘episodes’ describe our journey from our arrival in Paris, France (from the 2nd week of May) and our journey to Floriade (Holland), then the remainder journey through northern and western France. In this part (week #2), we briefly describe our journey from Paris northwards through France and Belgium to Monchengladbach (Germany) and Venlo (Holland) for the Floriade expo, and our return back to France to comprehend the Australian experiences in (what we refer to as) the killing fields of the Great War (WW1). As always, if you want to 'see' more detail in an accompanying picture, click it to enlarge.
We've attached a few pics that give you a flavour of our journey, and some 'flow over' past the dialogue.
Friday 18th May - departing Paris.
As indicated in the first blog, we'd wanted to depart Paris byearly to mid AM but were delayed by the car rental company. With our 'upgraded' car, and good instructions as to how to negotiate the Parisian freeway system, we were at the periphery in no time.
The only plans we'd made
before departing Oz was for a week in Paris, the hire a car, and attend the Floriade expo in Venlo, Holland staying at nearby Monchengladbach (in Germany, near Dusseldorf). But, as we didn't want to visit Floriade on a weekend, we'd left the Friday and Saturday nights open for travel. Monchengladbach is some 500km from Paris, so using freeways is about 4 hours away.
About 150km from Paris we incurred a tollbooth. We knew the freeways were tolled in France, but we weren't prepared for the 9 Euro price tag (about A$12). We immediately decided to take to the back roads - which is our preferance unless we need to make up time.
The direction we were travelling was east-north-east - through the Champagne district. By mid afternoon we found ourselves in Charleville-Mezieres, a most beautiful town (rural city). Being about 4pm, we decided to look for the information bureau to secure a B+B. Despite signposts with an 'I' pointing to the location, we failed to find it. We figured we may have more luck at nearby Sedan as having been there before, we knew where the info bureau is located. We got there just after 5 and
the street we needed to take had been made into a one-way against our flow. Having an eye on time, and not knowing where the entry point to that street was located, and with no traffic apparent coming towards us we gingerly made our way toward the info office. Wrong move! Just as we got to the info office, a car headed our way that just happened to be the Gendarmerie. We quickly parked and headed to the info office door, only to find it was closed. The cops had parked in front of our car and Bruce went and spoke 'at' them - they didn't speak Anglaise. Fortunately, they focussed on trying to help us get accommodation rather than our driving the wrong way. Their advice was unhelpful, but at least by complying we avoided a fine. We headed to a B+B at nearby Floing where we'd stayed a few years ago. Fortunately, they had one room left. Phew!!!
Saturday 19th May - on the road north
After a great night's sleep, we headed from Floing to Illy then to Olly, and onto Belgium. Just over the border into Belgium, we stumbled across
the village of Bouillon, an exquisitely beautiful town set on a river in a steep valley and overlooked by a centuries old castle. This set the 'scene' for our wanderings for the day. The countryside in this region is spectacularly forested. For those that know, the Belgian province is Luxembourg. One day, we'll come back as the villages are quaint, the countryside beautiful, and the forests just heavenly. We eventually found a B+B at Stavelot. Stavelot has much going for it, but for us it exposed us to the artisan Belgian beers made by / for Abbeys. WOW!!! These beers tend to range between 7 - 12% alcohol!!! And, are amazingly flavourful. After a couple of these pleasant (but alcoholically powerful) ales Judy piped up with "if these are made by Monks, I reckon they are the modern version holy water". For those interested in the subject, apparently there are over 700 different ales brewed in Belgium and the Abbey versions are much appreciated - go look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beer_in_Belgium.
At around 6:15pm the local church bells vigorously tolled in an inviting manner such that Judy felt obliged to go look at the church. Once inside, Judy decided that despite
the influnce of 'holy water' (or inspite of it) she wanted to stay for the mass. While not a large gathering, we were amazed when the priest commenced the mass in song. What was special is not only that the whole service was sung, but that the priest had the most amazingly beautiful song tone. Once again, the mass brought Judy to tears.
Sunday 20th May - to Monchengladbach
Awakening to a lovely sunny morning, it was not hard to take coffee and croissant in the town centre - warmed by the sun and exhilerated by the fresh air.
Stavelot is one of many towns catering to those seeking an escape from the not too distant larger cities of Liege, Maastricht, Brusseles and Aachen. Taking our leave, we headed for Trois Pont, Spa, Theux and other 'holiday' centres. The beautiful forested terrain is certainly a drawcard. At about 2pm, we decided to hightail it to Monchengladbach - about 2 hours away. Fortunately, the Belgian and German freeways are without tolls - and often speed limits.
Monchengladbach was a centre of textile production. It is also 70km from the more industrialised Dusseldorf and in
recent decades has fallen onto hard times. Even so, it's current claim to fame is that it is a quiet (and beautiful) dormitory city for affluent Dusseldorf executives. Even so, there were few options for dinner on a unday night.
Monday 21st + Tuesday 22nd May - Floriade
The weather forecast was for 26C! After a great brekky (the German hotels really know how to put on a brekky spread), we headed for Venlo in Holland. Venlo is just over the border and about 30km from Monchengladbach. As we've enjoyed the Floriade in Canberra, and as the Dutch version is undertaken once per decadem we'd made the decision months ago to visit this show.
After a short freeway jaunt - including a huge clover-leaf interchange along the way - we arrived in Venlo and were directed to a huge car park in the middle of nowhere, where a continual stream of shuttle buses took us to the event site.
The parksite covers many hectares, and the event is quite different to what we'd envisaged. Where the Canberra event is a 2 week spectacular, this is like a huge overgrown trade show. At first,
we felt rather disappointed. In hindsight, we'd imagined it would be a landscapers' show. Somewhat like the Chelsea flower Show - where landscapers seek to outdo each other with the WOW factor. And, as in Canberra, broad sweeps of mass-planted, single coloured bulb blooms. It finally dawned on us that this event is being staged over 6 months. To undertake a 2 week Chelsea type show over 6 months would take an immense amount of revision - ie. 16 event changes! As we focussed on the themes and displays, we realised that the event organisers were attempting several themes; to show low-key type garden settings (one's that home owners would actually like installed), to educate landscapers and gardeners on energy efficiency methods in gardening, and to highlight new plant innovations (ie colours, breeds, etc). And, these three themes were interwoven with displays from various foreign nations (showing different climatic plants) and broad sweep gardens. Far from being dismayed, we really enjoyed ourselves and only saw about half of what was on show.
We were sufficiently impressed with the Floriade expo to return for a 2nd day. That said, we did leave a little early and headed for Dusseldorf. What
an impressive city, and the town centre on the Rhine river is enticing. We stayed for a few beers in a little back street 'square' and had no longer sat down when a couple of buskers set up under trees in the centre. One was a violinist from the US, the other a saxophonist from Bulgaria. Apprently they'd met only hours earlier, but what a performance of magical blues. We were transfixed. Only later did we depart and seek a meal before returning to Monchengladbach.
Wednesday 23rd May - back south
We were loving both Belgium and Germany, and had a desire to return to France via a wander through Holland and Belgium. However, made the decision to return to France and stay focussed on having a French adventure (as we'd originally intended). Using the German and Belgian freeways, we positioned ourselves to enter France near the coast and the town of Lille. That way we weren't facing toll charges. Lille is an industrial town, so we by-passed it and focussed on trying to get a B+B at Arras. We got ourselves to the Info office OK, arranged a B+B, but had an immense struggle
getting from the info office to the B+B. Most streets were one way, and there was no logic as to which routes would get us to the destination. Looking at the map, and seeing a long straight road (rare in Arras), what seemed like it would be a one way from point A to B, in fact wasn't! Grrrrr!!!
We learnt that after the end of WW1, most towns/cities were devastated. Apparently, many of the buildings in Arras were deemed sufficiently repairable and the decision was made to rebuild the city as before. Like all old cities, it had developed in a topsy turvy way: streets turn into narrow lanes and back into streets, and most streets/lanes twist and turn all over the place. But, somehow the current Gallic rationale has deemed streets be made one way without logic. Driving a car in such conditions is, well, bloody frustrating! After locating the B+B, it was shanks pony. The B+B was great, as was the meal and wine.
Thursday 24th, Friday 25th + Saturday 26th May - the killing fields
The main river through the north-west region of France is La Somme, giving rise
to the name applied to the region. The Somme was also the site of several major battles of the Western Front in WW1 - aka the Great War. Other battles involving Australians at the Western Front occurred further north-west at Flanders. Bruce's maternal grandfather Bert Forsaith was involved in the Flanders conflict. For that, and our personal interest, we decided to visit the various sites now commemorated by the Commonwealth.
From Arras we'd prebooked 2 nights a B+B at Courcelles-au-Bois half way between Arras and Amiens. It had cooking facilites so we had the luxury of looking after ourselves (once again). After the Somme, we headed north-west to Flanders staying overnight at a Chateau near St Omer. We've put the three days as one 'entry' as the subject material is singularly common.
To understand our interest in the Great War (above mere history), some background is knowledge is warranted.
- - - - There is currently a perception portrayed in Australia that Australians became a nation as a result of the Great War. In recent years, there has been an emerging alternate view that the military disasters that were the battles at Anzac Cove, and the
Western Front (Flanders and the Somme) have been wrongly fashioned to assert otherwise. In recent years also, the media have focussed on Anzac Cove as the tangible expression of the Australian sacrifice of the Great War. This 'slant' is both wrong and misleads the meaning of Anzac Day (it is a remembrance of all veterans from all campaigns ever fought). In the Great War, some 60,000 Australians (out of a population of 4.5 million) were killed and over 100,000 others were wounded. About 15,000 died at Anzac Cove, while the remaining 45,000 were killed at the Western Front. The Western Front was the line of the (then) German expansion into Luxembourg, Belgium and France. It extended from (now) southern Belgium at about Ostend on the coast, south-eastwards into (now) northern France and southwards nearly to Paris before meandering eastwards to Switzerland (refer http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/3e/Stabilization_of_Western_Front_WWI.PNG ). The major Allied offensives were largely undertaken at the western end - from Ypres (in Belgium) to Verdun in Northern France. To understand the relevance of the Great War to the Australian psyche, one ought acknowledge the prevailing view held by Australians towards Britain. Only 15 years since nationhood was given, the dominant sentiment was that Australians were British subjects charting their own course. Many believed that by default, Britain's declaration of war on Germany also involved Australia. The call for volunteers to sail to Europe was well met. However, PM (Billy) Hughes' call to expand the forces by Conscription was resisted. After 3 referendums, he finally won. When Australia shipped young men towards Britain, they were to be supplied arms by Britain and while kept in 'Australian' units, were at the disposal of British commanders. An essential fact needed to be understood as to how Australia 'emerged' as a nation is the then manner of military conflict. Then, the British viewed a battle in 'Cavelier terms'; a full frontal exchange of military strength. The 'tactics' were merely the selection of site, and how the various units world charge: full frontal, pincer, wedge, etc. Essentially, it was a charge to determine the victor, with battle casualties being merely 'collateral damage' (to adopt the current term). Sadly, this approach was made obsolete due to the fact of modern industrialised weaponry.
Somme - an aerial view pinched from the newspaper
Note the road follows the stream, and anyone on one side has a clear view of those on the other.
The battle of Anzac Cove ought not to have occurred. The British assumed the landing would be free of resistance. The ground
intelligence was clearly wrong: the large Turkish unit was not supposed to be there!!! While the Turkish were far less in numbers, they had the high ground - and upper hand. The losses suffered by the Australians reflects the then military view that by standing ground, and charging the battle front to break through the defence, success could be achieved. Clearly it didn't. After withdrawal, the Australians regrouped in Africa, and aided by conscriptees, some 320,000 were sent in 1916 to the Western Front. Again the Australian forces were at the disposal of the British command. By 1916, the Germans had installed a major barrier at the front. To be successful at piercing into German territory, allied soldiers had to break through these well fortified defences. The first battle involving Australians was at Fromelles in Flanders. The landscape here is flat and wide. The Germans had invested heavily in barbed wire barriers and concrete 'blockhouses' to protect their machine gun emplacements. In July 1916, the Australians were ordered to attack the Germans. Of the 7500 strong Australian contingent, over 5,500 were either killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Australians were also sent to the Somme. The first Somme
Fromelles pic (of pic)
Enlarge the pic to note the various detail.
battle - in July 1916 at Pozieres - was in a largely wide open plain with some gently sloping drainage ground. The Germans chose their defence sites well: the fortifications were in the shallow valleys. Any attacking force would be extremely exposed going down the slope towards the stream. The Australians suffered some 23,000 casualties. The ridge on which they fought claimed more lives than any other battle site of the Great War. A few months later, Australians were sent into battle at Bullycourt; from trenches on the high ground, the Australians followed British orders to attempt to break the defence. The first battle was a disaster, the second attempt a few weeks later followed the same pattern. Here, some 10,000 Australian lives were lost. And, as historians have since noted, there was never going to be any tactical advantage for the allies even if the battle had succeeded. The negative attitude in Australia towards the war was by now palpable. Reflecting the growing sentiments of Australians, PM Hughes negotiated with the British that Australian units would be led by Australians. General Monash, a veteran of Anzac Cove and the western front had excelled in April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux in an audacious night attack, and was the logical choice as the Australian Chief Commander. The first battle led by Monash - Le Hamel, in July 1918 - was not only a major victory, it changed the course of the war. An engineer with a successful business before enlistment, Monash was not indoctrinated with traditional 'battle' knowledge. Now given full responsibility for the course of a battle, Monash trained the troops to operate like a machine. Monash used the analogy of an orchestra, where every move is predetermined and every player knows his part. Under the cover of darkness on a foggy night, with guns, tanks and airplanes pounding the German lines, Monash directed some of the guns to provide a wall of smoke and bombardment cover ahead of the soldiers - moving forward at the same rate as the soldiers moved. The smoke and blasts 'covered the troops from German view, enabling them to over-run the German defence. What ordinarily may have taken the best part of a day to complete using 'traditional' methods took just 93 minutes to break the defence with relatively small losses. The remainder of the day was spent advancing some 20 km's. A month later at Mont St Quentin, Monash not only repeated his skills but also forced the Germans to undertake a major withdrawal. In somewhat similar terrain as Pozieres and Bullycourt, Monash had not only succeeded at Le Hamel and Mont St Quentin but also enthused both his nation and the rest of the world that Australians were the equal of all. In the tragedy of the killing fields, this was a defining moment not only for the course of the Great War but also for Australia and it's history. Australia had emerged as a competant player on the world stage. And, this also marked the beginning of the end of the perceived dependancy on 'Mother' England.
Le Hamel battlefield
The battle lines here were 5km wide
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For us, standing at the memorial sites at Bullecourt and Pozieres, and Fromelles, it was chokingly painful to look out over the landscape and realise that so many Australians were sent to a certain death merely to adhere to the wishes of some commanders in tents far away from the front. hile the memorials at Le Hamel and Mont St Quentin gave us a feeling of regret for all that
had occured, they also gave us a pride of the Australian achievements under Monash.
Perhaps the most poignant aspect for us is that the various sites we visited are now both idyllic and scenically beautiful. From the current landscape, unless one knew of the history, it is just so hard to imagine the devastation that the military imposed.
Of the rural cities we visited, only Arras - with it's preserved battle scars - reminds of the pain. Aside from old photographs and statues to the war, the beautiful cities of Peronne, Amiens, Bethune and St Omer haved moved on.
Since leaving a very cold Paris, the summer heat has set in. With this intense warmth, the red Flanders poppies have begun to bloom. Perhaps the blood red poppy in the now peaceful green landscape will ever be the reminder.
There is a certain irony that the landscape has been returned to a peacefulness; the tragedy that was the Great War was caused by the ego driven aspirations of politicians claiming to better their citizens by denying others their peace.
Rudyard Kipling's only son died in Flanders. He wrote, in 'Epitaphs of the War'... "If any question why we died, tell them, because our fathers lied!"
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ps. The third (next segment) of this FRANCE journey can be found here.
There are more photos below