The Somme - Normandie, Northern France


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Europe » France » Upper Normandy
May 6th 2018
Published: May 6th 2018
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Normandie


Wednesday, 25 April – ANZAC Day Centenary Dawn Service, Villers-Brettoneaux

1am is a horrible time to get up, but it was a necessary evil to make the dawn service. It was the big Centenary celebration – the 2nd biggest Aussie pilgrimage behind Gallipoli – and we’d been told that security would be tight and that if we aren’t in and seated by 4.45am, we would miss out. By 1.20am we were hooting along tiny French lanes to our parking area, followed by a pleasant 1.7km walk to the memorial site. All you could see on the road was silent pilgrims making their way to the hill. The fields surrounding the monument lay cold and silent in darkness, hoarding their secrets and bodies from the past.

Security was tight but we were seated by 2.45am. Thankfully, the temperature was about 9C and not freezing like we were fearing. Although the wind was vicious at times and we were thankful for our thermals, it wasn’t raining. The walk from the entry tent to the memorial was lit with blue strip lights, with the sentinel tower illuminated a bright blue. The graves on either side of the walkway, reminding us why we were there as was Chris Reason from Channel 7.

The pre-program begins at midnight so we arrived to special items being sung by choirs and a video about the history of the Somme ANZAC battlefields being shown intermittently. There was free coffee and croissants, as well as a welcome pack that included a commemorative book, poncho and beanie. I sat with my yellow roses contemplating how different the scene was when my Great-Great Uncle Harold Foster marched across this land. It’s impossible to reconcile the pretty canola fields and green grasses with mud, barbed wire, shell holes and bodies as far as the eye can see.

The service began and before we knew it, the Last Post was being played and the sky was lighting up with the approaching day. At this point, a big rain shower swept across the fields and we had to don our ponchos for the deluge. Fortunately, it only lasted 5 minutes. At the end of the service we were invited down to lay our flowers, and they read out our names in honour of Uncle Harry. We even walked past Malcolm & Lucy Turnbull and Prince Charles but decided not to say hello.

We walked back to the car, went home to bed for a couple of hours and then ventured out again in the afternoon. First stop was Beaumont-Hamel, a Canadian memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment. This was a most impressive memorial, and my favourite of all the ones we saw, because a large chunk of the landscape and battlefield has been preserved. There are trench lines and shell holes still littering the fields that you can walk in and around. An extensive trench system was built by the Germans and you can still see the zig-zag patterns of trench lines and communication trenches running between the lines. The Allies detonated a huge 14,000kg underground bomb on Redoubt Hill, with the blast being felt as far as London, and that 100m wide x 11m deep crater is still there today. This area became the scene of horrendous loss of life, wiping out 75% of the Newfie soldiers in the first hour of 1 July 1916. That was day 1 of the Battle of the Somme. Eventually the Allies won the battle and pushed on to Poziers. The whole site is very moving.

Next stop was Poziers. Technically listed as a success, it still cost Australia 6800 men in 3 weeks. That’s our national road toll every single day, for 21 days. After Poziers we went to see the NZ Memorial. You don’t realise how many cemeteries and memorials there are until you are driving through the fields and you can see crosses, memorials and cemeteries dotted from horizon to horizon, in the middle of nowhere.

Thursday, 26 April – The Somme

On 4 July 1918, Uncle Harold was guarding a bomb dump (ammunition depot) when he was killed by a bombing raid from overhead planes. The telegram said he died at the Querrieau HQ so that’s where we first stopped. A lady greeted us at the ex-British HQ and after explaining who Uncle Harold was and that we were trying to find the area where he died, she kindly invited us in to her chateau and showed us some photos of Sir John Monash. She was so lovely to let a bunch of strangers into her home and she told us that the bomb dump was actually at the Australian HQ, not the British one. It turns out that she was also hosting Chris Latham so we met him too. We didn’t know who he was but he’s a famous Aussie in the Orchestra world and was involved in one of the programs that was part of the series of centenary commemorations. A very down-to-earth guy.

We drove 2km to Chateau Saint Gratien, which was the Aussie HQ but they didn’t have any information on where the bomb dump used to be, so that was the end of our treasure hunt. We made our way to Crucifix Corner to see Uncle Harold’s grave, which we found easily. After 100 years of laying there without any visitors, 5 figures finally stood in front of the headstone that sparked our holiday plans 3 years ago. We took a moment, took photos, paid our respects and said a prayer. We never knew him nor he us, but we are now connected in time and place until the Son rises.

After lunch, we stopped at the Australian Army Corps Memorial, which was the first Aussie memorial to exist prior to the National one being built to honour all disciplines (not just the Army). They had a great display of information along the walkway and a fitting place to collectively end our family time in the Somme.

Friday, 27 April – Lille

We said our goodbyes to Mum, Dad and Dale as they headed south for Mont St Michel and the Loire Valley, and we made one last trip to VB to see the newly opened Sir John Monash Centre at the Australian War Memorial. It was quite a full-on experience as far as details go, but it was very comprehensive if you like that sort of deep dive information (and we do). They say to allow 1.5-2hrs but it took us 3hrs.

After that, we had a quick lunch at a random picnic spot and drove north to Flanders country.

Sabbath, 28 April – Lille

There is an SDA Church in the very centre of Lille so we went there to soak up the worship vibe, even though they would be speaking French. I figured that if God wanted us to understand the service, He’d either provide an interpreter or create a miracle of tongues by letting us hear it in our own language. When we arrived for Church, we were warmly greeted and sat up the back. There were lots of songs, which made me happy, and I even knew three of them so I sang loud and proud in English whilst everyone else praised in French. After the song service the worship leader came up and asked if we would like him to interpret for us, which we took him up on. After the sermon finished we were introduced to a kindred French family who have been to Australia and the kids have lived there as well, so we chatted to them about their experiences. Once the young people found out we were Aussie, a number of them insisted we stay for lunch so they could practise their English. We had a great time sharing what Fox Church does with lunch teams because they would like to try the same thing, and soon it was time for us to leave. We said our goodbyes and thanked them for a marvellous time of fellowship. What a great crew.

Lille was bustling with crowds upon crowds, which we’ve picked up since the ANZAC Day service. There are tonnes of English speaking tourists here on the CWGC trail (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) and we sometimes run into the same people several times in different cities as we all do the rounds. Lille is not French at all. The architecture reminded us of Riga more than anywhere else. We hoofed 7km around the old streets and by the time we got home, we were beat. We’d been invited at church by the local artisan baker to a birthday party for her brother, but it was 8pm before they called with the details and since we were already tuckered out, we politely declined.

Sunday, 29 April – Lille

It was a rainy day so we headed to Ypres where we could do an inside activity like the Flanders Museum. We stopped at Prowse Point Cemetery to visit the grave of a friend’s relative, and then we drove past a museum called Plugstreet. We decided to stop and go in, and it turned out to be a great little find and we spent 2 hours there. There were two things that they did differently to the other museums: 1) They provided a fantastic overview of what was happening in Europe in the lead up to WW1, and how all the countries got involved and 2) They showed how the war affected the civilians who lived in the Flanders area. Interestingly enough, 80% of the photos are from the Australian War Memorial, even though it’s a British museum. That’s possibly because many Australian soldiers ignored the rule about bringing cameras into the war zone and so there are more photos taken by Aussies than most other nationalities.

They had a story of one of the Indigenous soldiers, Douglas Grant, and I was surprised to find that he was stationed in the same battalion as Uncle Harry. I’m sure Uncle Harry would have known who he was, as having an Indigenous soldier in the ranks would have stuck out like a sore thumb against all the white fellas. Incidentally, both Harry and Douglas were wounded on 11 April during the Battle of Bullecourt. Harry was taken to a field hospital while Douglas was captured by the Germans.

We continued on to Ypres through Messines and decided against the Flanders Museum, as I couldn’t handle another museum. We wandered around the cute little town, ate Belgium chips and waffles and visited the Menin Gate. They’ve been playing The Last Post at 8pm every night at the Gate since 1928, and we would have liked to have stayed, but it was too cold and rainy at 5.30pm so we came home. It’s an impressive monument though. Nearly 60,000 names of soldiers who are missing/have no known grave. When they discover human remains due to road works or development, they’ll bury them in a nearby cemetery and if they can be identified, the name is removed from the Menin Gate.

Monday, 30 April – Le Havre

Another rainy day for our transit day, so we drove out to the coast with the intention of following the English Channel south. Unfortunately, the road was too far inland and we didn’t spot one iota of sea water all day. We did however, come across several flooded roads and once we saw one car go through, we would take the chance and cross. You never know how deep those muddy flood waters are, although with cow pastures either side and not a river in sight, it was never going to be a raging torrent. It was a pretty drive with the architecture changing from Belgium/Dutch style to more classic Normandie style (wooden frame wattle with daub). I like it more than the Belgium brick style.

Tonight we’re staying
Harold Foster. Fought at Villers-Brettoneaux, died at the Battle of Le HamelHarold Foster. Fought at Villers-Brettoneaux, died at the Battle of Le HamelHarold Foster. Fought at Villers-Brettoneaux, died at the Battle of Le Hamel

I know we look too happy but this photos has a story. All morning the weather had been changing from sunny to cloudy every 15 seconds or so. When we first started taking photos we had sombre looks, but the pictures were coming out too dark during sunny periods, so eventually we decided to retake some of the darker photos whilst there was cloud cover, and by the end there were shouts of "Cloud cover in 5 seconds. Places everyone!" This was one of the last photos and by this time we were in hysterics.
in an old cotton merchant’s estate, built in 1890, overlooking Le Havre.

Tuesday, 1 May – Honfleur

I’ve never quite understood why the term “cute as a button” exists. Why are buttons cute? I’ve never personally found a button that I’ve thought was cute. I’ve seen pretty buttons and interesting buttons, but none of them have been cute. I think the saying should be “as cute as a puppy.”

Honfleur is as cute as a puppy! It’s a medieval town that was first mentioned in writing in 1027 and is now famous for its wood and tile houses. It sits where the mouth of the Seine River meets the English Channel and was a bustling port for many centuries including being one of the 5 principal ports for the slave trade in France. Driving in and seeing all the gorgeous small houses and shops on cobblestone streets around a picturesque little marina makes one smile. It’s such a darling little place. The houses around the marina are different colours, similar to Nyhaven in Copenhagen, with shops on the street level and residences above, as is the French way of living.

It was a sunny day and as expected when the sun comes out, it was packed with a capital P and then some. We didn’t realise it until later, but it was the labour day public holiday, not to mention the two cruise ships in the port of Le Havre. No wonder we were dodging people all day.

The tourist office gave us a street map with 3 self-guided walking tours. The first tour was around the town. Every street had shops to explore from chocolatiers to patisseries to wine shops with the local product. We purchased one bottle of Sparkling Rhubarb and one bottle of Pear Juice. The second tour was walking up to a view point above town and that got the heart rate pumping. We had lunch after that – panini, crepes, Normandie tart, chocolate éclair, camembert gelato and violet gelato. After getting our fill of a delightful Honfleur, we took the third walking tour around the lock, through the gardens and plonked ourselves on a seat overlooking a pond with ducks, a swan and lilly pads with vocal frogs. As the clouds started hiding the sun, we bid farewell to one of the cutest towns in France. Gotta love Honfleur!

Wednesday, 2 May – Le Havre - Rainy and windy weather meant we had to stay indoors all day.

Thursday, 3 May – Paris

We visited Claude Monet’s House in Giverny on the way into Paris. It’s quite a massive house in a tiny little village of no more than 25 houses, but the village is super cute, as are most villages in France. There were bus loads of people there to see the Japanese garden with its little bridge over the lily pond. The gardens themselves were in full spring bloom and you can see why Monet gained inspiration. Mind you, with 8 children in the house I’m sure it wasn’t as peaceful as we’d like to think!

The drive back to Paris was charming and every turn was like we were driving through a garden. France is just one big garden!

Arrived in Paris without issue, dropped off the car, argued the unfair additional driver charge and they graciously removed it (but then quietly charged us in AUD taking a $20 commission!). It's good to be back in my adopted second home.


Additional photos below
Photos: 24, Displayed: 24


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16th May 2018

Beautiful Photo
Hello- I just fell in love with photo #24 (and #23)- I think they are both of the Japenese garden. Can you email me photo # 24, if it is possible? I would appreciate it. Thank you very much. It is one of the most beautiful photographs that I have every seen. Sam

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