We planned a few days in Northern France to do some research on WWI battlefields and started at the end of the war, the Armistice. The Armistice was finally signed in Compiègne on 11 November 1918, and brought to an end the fighting between the Allies and Germany. It was to be the end of ‘the war to end war’, a phrase used as early as 1914 by H G Wells.
The area around the Somme in Northern France was a fierce battlefield throughout the war and amid all the sadness, poignancy, and sheer horror that one feels at times are many other reactions. The Commonwealth War Grave Commission is responsible for the wartime cemeteries and they are treated and tended like gardens, and if nothing else many are beautiful, quiet and peaceful places for reflection. This small cemetery near Fricourt, the Citadel New Military Cemetery, was used mainly in 1916 had one of the most beautiful displays of hostas that I have ever seen. But they didn’t take away from the sadness of the site, nestling against a hillside in peaceful, rolling farmland.
The contrast with the German cemeteries is stark. Iron crosses mark the site of four graves, and there are no flowers. The iron cross is Germany’s highest recognition of bravery in the face of the enemy and the rows of these crosses focus the mind on the bravery of thousands of young men – 17,000 in this cemetery at Fricourt. Some are only remembered by name, and buried in large mass graves. And standing outside and inbetween the ranks of iron crosses are the graves of Jewish soldiers. These sites are managed by the German War Graves Commission.
The countryside is quiet now and hidden in the folds of the hills is the Memorial to the 38th Welsh Division at Mametz Wood. The Division attacked German positions in the woods in July 1916, losing 4,000 men in the frontal attack over open ground. The woods are quiet now but the men are not forgotten.
Wherever you drive or look in this area of the Somme there are signs of the years of fighting. Thistle Dump Cemetery was used throughout the war, and Caterpillar Valley Cemetery is nearby, the resting place of the dead from 1916, and the offensives of the late summer of 1918. Over 5,000 people are buried here, and most are unknown. The cemetery also includes a memorial to 1,200 unknown soldiers from New Zealand.
We ended our first day by visiting Delville Wood, particularly poignant for me as I am South African and this is the national memorial to all the South Africans killed in war. The woods feel at peace now, but the cemetery holds over 5,000 dead who died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and again in 1918; over half are unidentified. Finally too, the contribution of black South Africans in the labour force is publicly acknowledged in the memorial. One’s imagination stalls at the thought of the battle, in woods, and the slaughter of so many.