Remembering the ANZACS in Nord- Pas de Calais

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August 25th 2013
Published: August 31st 2013
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The weather has improved from yesterday but we will still be in long trousers and jerseys as the temperature is not projected to rise above 20C and if there is any wind it will feel cooler.The rain however has gone although we will still be prepared just in case.

We have two cats who visit us although not both at the same time as they are clearly rivals to each other.The black and white one doesn't belong to the household but appears from over the fence while the tabby is the owners cat.Its hard when you are cat lovers not to feed a cat that befriends you tid bids although as Gretchen said we could be creating problems for future guests who are not cat lovers.

All that aside they have both been wonderful to have visiting us and we will miss them when it id time to move on.

We started out on the road heading for Arras around 80 kilometres away with the idea of going to the Carriere Wellington,a museum commemorating the New Zealand soldiers, who were tunnellers back home,who built tunnels for the Allied soldiers to hide in for days before the 1917 Battle of Arras.We had planned a time to get there before they closed for lunch for an hour.

However,while we made good time on the road initially,we came upon a major cycle race that resulted in us having to pull off for about 20 minutes while groups of cyclists and their support vehicles had right of way over a lengthy piece of the road we were taking towards Arras.

Once we were back on the road again we decided to just see what we came across by way of memorials and battlefields and then see whether we made it to Arras before or after their lunch closing period.

It actually worked out quite well because we started to come across a number of memorials for different countries involved in the battles in this part of France including those of India and Portugal both who fought on the Allied side of course.The Indian memorial was just that with the names of those killed engraved on the inner side of the walls,We assume the Indians killed would have been cremated in accordance with Indian culture so therefore graves or crosses found at other country's memorials were not a part of what was required.

The Portugese cemetery and memorial surprised us a bit as we had thought that they were neutral but had in fact fought the Germans in various African colonies in the early years of WW1 and then in France from 1917.Whilst the cemetery and memorial were laid out like others we went on to see during the day,it did not have the look that it was being cared for all that well by either Portugal or France.

As we got closer to Arras we noticed a large white coloured memorial poking up out of the forest on a ridge and we diverted to see what it actually was.We found ourselves on the most important ridge line of WW1 to the Canadians who fought in France against the Germans,Vimy Ridge.

The young nation of Canada suffered huge losses in the battle for the ridge line which had a commanding view over the flat plain for many kilometres with 10,600 casualities of which nearly 3600 men died.The Canadians were victorious and the battle is an important part of the country's history and nationhood being the first time that Canadians had fought as one.

There were a number of cemeteries dotted around the area of the ridge with the main memorial,the one we had seen from several kilometres away,being in the centre.Interestingly, the whole area has been left as it was after the war and there were large areas effectively roped off with serious warning signs not to enter due to unexploded ordances.Sheep however were allowed to graze in and around the bomb craters which you could clearly make out amongst the forest of pine trees!

By the time we made it to Arras the museum had reopened from its lunch break.However,it had been a long morning for us and we hadn't had anything to eat.Being a Sunday there were no supermarkets open and we were unable to find a boulangerie either.Then we spotted a McD's sign!Any port in a storm and a round of fries would go down well anyway.However,locating the store on the outskirts of town was a bit more tricky and took us away from the museum.

Our appetite fulfilled we returned to the museum and when the cashier asked where we were from when we purchased our tickets,we proudly said together,Wellington.New Zealand!Well Ok we don't live there now but we were both born there and we do still call Wellington home,earthquakes and all.She smiled and said 'Welcome home'in very good English.Nice touch!

The museum opened in 2008 is located amongst houses and businesses that had built upover the years since WW1 around the quarry that the tunnels were part of which in a way gives it all such an authentic feel.The museum has an area given over to artefacts found in the tunnels and immediate area and also history of the Battle of Arras in 1917.

To enter the tunnels themselves you need to go on the guided tour with audio guides and a WW1 helmet to protect your head when you are underground!.A large lift takes you 22 metres down a mine shaft and then around a series of exhibitions.All the while, lighting comes on to guide the way along a boardwalk between each exhibition and then goes off leaving the tunnels in darkness as you move on making it all so realistic.Our chest boasted with pride as the tour guide mentioned about the tunnellers from New Zealand and their role in preparing the tunnels to hide the 25,000 Allied soldiers as they prepared for the battle which was to spring a surprise on the Germans.

It is generally agreed that the battle was an Allied success but at a huge cost of 158,000 dead while on the German side the dead numbered upwards of 130,000.

The visit to the museum had been a great experience for us and like we felt after our time in and around Verdun,our future ANZAC Day dawn parades back home will have just that much more meaning to us.

Although the day was moving on we had one more battleground and memorial to visit while we were in the area and that was the small village of Longueval where the NZ memorial is sited and also the nearby cemetery of Caterpillar Valley where over 1200 NZ soldiers without a grave are remembered on one of the walls of the cemetery.It was also from here that in 2004,New Zealand's unknown soldier was exhumed and returned to NZ to be laid in the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at the National War Memorial in Wellington.

The memorial sits in the middle of farmland at the end of road about 500 metres from the village of Longueval which suffered significant damage during WW1.Compared to the memorials of the French and Americans around Verdun and that of Canada at Vimy Ridge,the NZ memorial is quite plain but the words engraved say it all 'From the uttermost ends of the earth'.

It had been another big day out sightseeing and taking in WW1 battlegrounds and memorials and the journey home was a long one giving us plenty of time to reflect on and discuss what we had seen to make us feel very proud as New Zealanders.Tomorrow we head for Dunkirk and the miracle of the WW2 evacuation and also to Yrpes in Belgium to the largest WW1 cemetery in Europe.

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