Where possible, at least when on the continent, it is usual to take in something cultural on the trip (you've gotta stretch your legs between bars if nothing else!). May's trip to Belgium gave Owen and I an opportunity to share with each other something of our interests in military history, specifically, the Western Front (in my case) and the Atlantic Wall defences (in Owen's case). The route to Lessines is very fortuitous in terms of providing ample opportunity to indulge in both interests, being liberally scattered with meaningful architecture from both wars.
The first stop comes only minutes from driving onto French soil from the ferry car deck. About a mile from the Calais beaches can be found Batterie Oldenburg. Clearly visible from the motorway, these two huge gun emplacements proved to be remarkably tricky to drive to. However, with the car parked, the short walk across the dunes is the best (and in fact the only) way to reach these concrete megaliths. On foot, they slowly loom up until, standing before their yawning openings I found was enough to make me feel quite sick. Keen to see the interior, which housed a 21cm gun, Owen and I attempted to scale the low wall. In the event, Private Godfrey would have been quicker and more graceful than the two of us put together. Nevertheless, undeterred, after five minutes of breathlessness, the two of us had finally conquered the daunting 5 foot(!) front wall to enable a view of the interior. Of course, the guns are long gone, but to see the circular track on which the gun rotated, along with the vents on the rear wall to clear noxious fumes and gases after firing and to deal with pressure changes within, gave some impression of what it may have been like to have manned these guns in action.
Built in 1940, they were intended to soften up the south coast in advance of Operation Sealion (the code name for the planned Nazi invasion of Britain), I would imagine that the very existence of this batterie remains as a constant thorn in the side of French pride, representing as it does a very clear reminder of the dark days of occupation. Sadly though for the French, these two ugly sisters of war are set to remain. Built to resist the impact of high explosive 73 years ago , there is just no way to remove them. I suppose that with the passage of a few hundred years, nature will take its inevitable course and these constructions will crumble, but until them they will continue to gaze empty eyed across the channel.
Batterie Oldenburg, Pays De Calais
Equally sadly, amongst the usual urban graffiti that decorates any exposed wall, the presence of a few sprayed swastikas and SS symbols indicate that to some confused individuals at least Batterie Oldenburg represents something different again!
Driving south from this site, the fields are a patchwork pf concrete, a clear indication that Hitler believed that occupied Europe's Achilles Heel (in terms of a potential Allied invasion) was the Pays de Calais.
The drive down to Lessines was otherwise uneventful and I have posted on the gig itself here. Within the unremarkable town of Lessines, there was something that caught our eye however, over the canal in the centre of town.
A plaque on the bridge commemorated that actions of soldiers of the Royal Dragoon Guards who held the bridge against a German advance on 19th May 1940.
Plaque commemorating the actions of soldiers of the
Royal Dragoon Guards on 19th May 1940
The day after the gig we were able to devote to sight seeing and now it was time to indulge my interest in The Great War. For the benefit of my travelling companion, I suggested two very different regions to visit, both of which were the scenes of horrific fighting during the conflict.
In terms of monuments, few are more impressive than that erected to the memory of Canadian forces that fought over the Vimy Ridge.Details about the area and the fighting that finally secured the high ground of he ridge for the Allies can be found here.
Canadian monument on Vimy Ridge
The area itself is beautiful, heavily forested and incredibly peaceful. But the land is blighted. A couple of years shy of a century from the events that recarved this landscape and the land is pock marked still to staggering extent. Here I'm not talking of shallow depressions smoothed over the years, for here are dramatic large mine craters and concertinaed tracts of land that brought to my mind a the effect that you see when watching a pan of vigorously boiling water.
The shattered land around Vimy
What is worse is that beautiful and peaceful as this area may be now, it is also deadly. Vivid scarlet signs warn visitors at regular intervals of the dangers of stepping of the beaten track due to the tonnes of unexploded ordinance that still lies a few feet below the turf.
Moving up into the trench works, another thing struck us.... the extremely close proximity of the Allied and German front lines to the extent that to the untrained eye, even with the aid of maps, it was very difficult to understand who was facing who and where!
Restored trenches at Vimy Ridge
Front line trench fire step and trench plate on the parapet
Back in the car and southbound once more. To anyone with a passing interest in the First World War, even the road signs on this journey are enough to send a shiver down the spine...... Vimy, Arras, Cambrai....
Between Vimy and our ultimate destination of Thiepval, Owen out of the corner of his eye saw something that prompted an expletive and a rapid u-turn in the car. This was the Le Targette British Cemetary at Neuville St Vaast, in which many British artillery men are buried. However, adjacent to this cemetery lies the French military cemetery which is huge in comparison, one of 5 French cemeteries in the Pays de Calais created after the war.
Adjacent British and French cemeteries, Le Targette, Neuville St Vaast
On the other side of the coin, in this same, small settlement lies one of the largest German military cemeteries containing the remains of a staggering, 44, 833 German soldiers. In contrast to the tranquillity of the War Grave Commission plots, the German graveyards on the Western Front are a great deal more sombre with their rows of dark stone crosses and mass graves.
German cemetery, Neuville St Vaast
It is fitting that I write this piece on our visit to the Somme on 1st July 2013, 97 years to the day from the blackest and most infamous day in British military history in which 60,000 British casualties were recorded of which 20,000 were killed! This, on the first day of The Battle of The Somme.
In contrast to the landscape of Vimy ridge, the gently rolling chalk slope of the Somme belie the fact that any thing bad ever occurred here (if you turn a blind eye to the multitude of cemeteries that is). Many soldiers of the Hampshire and Sussex regiments that entered the region ahead of the battle compared the terrain favourably to home and it is true (I am from Sussex myself and am very familiar with the South Downs).
Once again here we visited the immense crater at Loch Nagar (see an earlier post here) and if in the Somme, a visit to the incredible memorial 'To The Missing Of The Somme' at Thiepval is obligatory.
Memorial to the Missing of The Somme
Next year sees the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the war and the area will be besieged once again, only this time by politicians and civic dignitaries.... sadly though for the first major anniversary since the war, no more veterans will return.
I would like to be there.
One thing more to report and that was when we were once again back in Dover. On the harbor front, a post war gift to the people of the town is a contemporary record removed from a batterie similar to that to be found in at Oldenburg that marks the shots fired at Dover.
German artillery shot tally, Dover Harbour