In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below…
We have been to Ypres and to the hospital where John McCrae worked and wrote his famous poem, as well as to the Belgian fields where mustard gas first crept toward its victims. Today, not far away, we explored the battlefields of the Somme, where so many died to gain so little land.
The battlefield of Vimy Ridge is sacred ground for Canada, as it was there that 3600 of their soldiers lost their lives in April of 1917, taking the strategically critical ridge from the Germans. The Germans had been dug in there for three years, but the Canadians were finally able to force them to retreat. A massive monument commemorates their success, not far from the bunkers and tunnels where the British forces spent several years. Craters still mark the landscape and unexploded ordinance is believed to be present throughout the fields.
The colonial forces were heavily hit in this area. When the Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 1916, The Royal Newfoundland Regiment was nearly wiped out near Beaumont-Hamel. There is a touching memorial of a bronze caribou overlooking the battlefield and the graveyard of the regiment.
The Somme Offensive took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916, in which more than 1,000,000 men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history. The Allies agreed upon a strategy of combined offensives against the Germans in 1916 by the French, Russian, British, and Italian armies, with the Somme offensive as the Franco-British contribution. The main part of the offensive was to be made by the French Army, supported on the northern flank by British Expeditionary Forces. But French were not successful in their attack on Verdun, as the Germans were too heavily fortified.
The anniversary was just a few days ago, and preparations are already beginning for the centenary next year. The massive Thiepval Memorial to “the Missing of the Somme” is already under scaffolding. It commemorates the 73,367 Commonwealth soldiers whose remains were never recovered.
We also saw the site of “La Grande Mine,” the Lochnagar Crater created when British sappers laid 25 tons of what I guess were bombs on the German lines at La Boisette. It is a huge reminder of the force of the fighting.
It was sad to see the sites of so much carnage, especially when the fields of France looked so lovely and peaceful today.
To relax, we had lunch in Arras, which gave us time to admire the (heavily post-WWII reconstructed) Flemish architecture of the main squares. Feels like we have left France again and gone to the world of carbonnade flamande and hachis parmentier- not a bad thing.