Hitching up with Aussies in the Somme… and trying not to get blown up…

 

For the solo traveller, especially one on a road trip with hundreds of miles to cover, it can be useful to break up both the solitude and the driving fatigue with an organised tour. I chose to hop a ride with a jolly bunch of Aussies, most of whom were in the middle of wonderful travel trips themselves. They were travelling through Europe having stopped off at London and Paris, and were making their way down to either the south of France or on towards Switzerland and Italy. 

I had the pleasure of their company for a whole day, lunch included. I also had the interesting addition of seeing the First World War from the Australian perspective. The tour was excellent, organised by Terres de memoire (www.terresdememoire.com). If you think that you know all there is to know about a part of history, try taking in a tour catering for visitors from a country other than your own.  You will soon find that your view of history is very one dimensional. Where yesterday, I had visited the places that my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhill had fought alongside his British comrades, today I learnt about the vital roll played by the Anzacs in breaking through the German frontline. I also learnt about the appalling loss of life on behalf of a nation which volunteered to fight alongside its Motherland, and how it marked the transition from a nation  being tethered to the British apron strings, to one creating its own history. They played their part in the theatre of war which occurred  along a 30km line, for a gain of 12km of ground, killing around one million people. 

1916 saw an impasse between Germany and Britain. Trench warfare had set in, with neither side being able to break through the other’s defences. Loss of life was high on both sides. Approximately 60,000 men died on the first day. The Australians came to relieve the beleaguered Brits whose numbers were dramatically depleted. Pozieres was the place that would see the Australians’ finest hour. 

Attacking during the night, from the low land up to the German high land vantage point, the Anzacs succeeded in breaking through the defences. Here stands the  Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. From here it can be seen just what a magnificent tour de force the troops must have been.

DSCF5344
From the memorial, even on this misty morning it’s easy to see what a triumph the Australian breakthrough was…
DSCF5341
70,000 missing Australians have their names engraved on the walls of this memorial…
DSCF5342
Sylvestre showing us the headstones of 2 soldiers. One died on 11th November 1918 (Armistice Day), the other the day after. Many continued to fight after the end of the War, as communications were poor. Many continued to die of injuries or disease…

The German army could see for miles across the French countryside, and as they were always in a defending position, and as they had prepared for months in advance, with carefully constructed trenches and defence mechanisms, the Australian victory cannot be underestimated. It also marked a psychological change in the German army. It demonstrated the fact that they could be beaten. In all, around 624,000 Allies and 500,000 German died at the Somme. The numbers are unimaginable. Environmental studies show that iron levels in the fields of the Somme and other battlefield areas continue to be significantly higher than average, due to the large number of casualties and the intensity of the shelling.

It was a joy to travel on a bus (luxury – being able to stare out across the countryside, and no trying to overtake tractors) in the company of those who shared my history but a different one. The French guide was friendly, informative and genuinely seemed to take delight in discussing all matters war. They were as curious about this solo female traveller as I was about them travelling halfway around the world. A wonderful lunch hour was spent in the company of people who thought I was a little bit crazy, but full of guts. 

One of the highlights of the day was when a lady found her great uncle, buried in one of the many Commonwealth and German cemeteries that we visited (she had emailed the guide beforehand with details and they managed to find him), and share in her tears of sorrow and pride. This was a memorable day for us all…

DSCF5373

 

 

A read of “All Quiet on the Western Front”  by Erich Maria Remarque  will show just how horrific the war was for Germans as well as the Allies…

 

DSCF5366
Many German soldiers were repatriated after the War. Those families who could not afford to pay for repatriation of the body had to leave them in France. There are 4 names on each cross. German cemeteries are not commemorated and are usually down side roads, away from the public gaze.
DSCF5369
German cemeteries have no flowers. They more closely resemble forest and woodland rather than gardens of the British/French custom… Here, a Jewish soldier is buried next to his Christian comrades. Anti Semitism had not yet reared its ugly head…

 

 

DSCF5424
The “Iron Harvest” continues to churn up WW1 relics on a daily basis.

Mooching through one  of the farmer’s fields, I came across some shrapnel.  The fields continue to give up First World War artefacts, with soldiers being found and sometimes identified, on a regular basis.

On the way to the largest British Memorial to the 70,000 British soldiers still unaccounted for, in the Somme alone,  we met a lovely 82 year old lady called Madame Christine. Her late husband was a farmer and would regularly come home with empty shell cases that he had ploughed up:

DSCF5415
Thiepval Memorial
DSCF5402
Mme Christine’s (empty) shell cases…

 

 She also had 2 live ones:

 

DSCF5403
Mme Christine’s (not so empty) explosives… Sylvestre adopting the “So what?” pose of the French macho man…

The Département du Déminage, an arm of the French government operates in as much secrecy (to allay citizen concern) as possible to eliminate the unexploded shells which litter Northeastern France. This department has, since 1946, collected eighteen million artillery shells, ten million grenades, six hundred thousand aerial bombs and six hundred thousand underwater mines (this figure does, of course, include ordnance from W.W.II) and cleared and reclaimed two million acres. The department also receives about two million calls for the pick up of unexploded devices per year; these include grenades, mines, shells and bombs.

Mme Christine spoke no English but seemed to be able to understand me when I asked if she would mind having her photo taken with me, and adored the fact that my name is Victoria. She lives alone, her only regular contact with the outside world being the occasional group of tourists that turn up to admire her collection of war memorabilia, courtesy of the lovely tour guide Sylvestre. I would have loved to have shared a French brandy with her and discussed past times (with the help of a translator…Sylvestre perhaps?)

DSCF5411
Ah, Victoria, your French is excellent! (At least, I think that’s what she was saying…)
DSCF5412
What a wonderful lady 🙂

All by myself… or not.

 

My first night in Florence was a bit surreal. During the day I had been busy, booking into my hotel, crying and smiling intermittently at the beauty of everything and the sorrow of my broken soul. I had drunk some beer and eaten a salad. I can handle solitude during daylight hours, when the world is up and about, and there are hundreds of us solo travellers milling about. Night times are a different matter however. The night belongs to groups of friends with good food and wine. Or lovers. I was in neither camp.

By the evening of my first day, I was a little tipsy and tired. I wanted to be where other people were. I wanted to be laughing with friends. I was too scared to  move out of my room. I was feeling very sorry for myself. So I went to bed.

The following night, after a day of museums, art galleries and people watching, I went back to  my hotel room. I dressed for dinner, had dinner, sat on my bed and wondered what next. Then I gave myself a telling off. I was in Florence for only 4 days. What the hell was I worried about? I wasn’t going to find any life in my room alone. I’d find some tourists to chat to, and pass the evening in pleasant company, over a glass or two. So I headed for the hotel bar.

Perched at the bar (where I feel safe as a solo traveller), in my 5 star hotel, I felt eyes on me. There was a group of tourists (American I think, or maybe Canadian. I haven’t got the hang of the different accents yet) probably in their 60’s. Husbands and wives by the way they were talking.  I felt furtive glances yet no attempt to acknowledge me. Sitting on a stool in my black dress, black heeled boots, red lipstick (Mr T’s favourite), I looked around the hotel bar. Everyone was in couples. No one saw this sad, lonely widow, desperate for some interaction.  Who knows what they saw? A confident business woman? Someone waiting for their significant other to join them in the bar? Maybe they thought I was a whore. Women do not sit alone, at the bar, dressed up. This was an exclusively “couples only” club and I was no longer eligible to belong.  “Sod this”, I thought, and sauntered out.

 

alone in florence

 

It was a  damp evening. It rains on and off in Florence during May. It’s warm but an umbrella is needed. I walked up and down the glistening streets. There were very few people around and even fewer in the restaurants. I stopped in a nearby church and listened to an organ recital for  a while. This just made me feel more sad, so after a while I got up and moved on. I was restless and lonely.

I walked down an unprepossessing street. Minding my own business, with my umbrella up as it was drizzling, I suddenly heard a voice. “Madam, would you like some food?” I peered around my umbrella and saw a chef. I knew this because he was wearing chef’s whites. With a chef’s hat perched jauntily on his head. He was smoking a cigarette outside a trattoria. “No thank you, I’ve eaten” I said, and carried on walking. “How about a glass of wine?”. The guy was the first person I’d spoken to all day, and the two glasses of red gave me a devil may care attitude. Sod it, I’ll have a bloody drink. I also liked the fact that he was smoking. I badly wanted a cigarette and a glass of wine. And a conversation.

I crossed the road and immediately he set about getting a bistro table and a couple of chairs set up. Amused, I sat down. Il Italiano disappeared and then reappeared moments later with a glass of Prosecco, and no whites. He had changed into a t shirt and jeans. He was friendly and well trained in the art of chatting up tourists. But his conversation wasn’t the cheesy kind that makes you want to run. He was good at genuinely appearing interested in who I was and what I was doing, alone in Florence, on a drizzly Monday night.  Aware of my situation as a lone woman, I had prepared my story in advance. My husband had gone off somewhere and I was planning to meet him later. I thought of this story as the Prosecco went down and the truth came out.

Florence in the rain

 

Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go inside and watch the rest of a football match that was on the TV.  Napoli (Naples) was beating another Italian team in the Serie A.  Il Italiano, and in fact many Italians in Florence come from Naples, which is considered the fag end of Italy, so people leave to do low paid jobs in Northern Italy, which turns its nose up at them whilst being happy to hire them for the jobs that no one else wants. I  decided to watch the match. It was in a public place and I felt safe. I enjoyed a brilliant game. Il Italiano’s team won and in typical Italian fashion, he tore around the trattoria, shouting my name (which incidentally is Victoria – appropriate for the Napoli victory) only stopping to refill my glass.

The rest of the restaurant staff  were also celebrating and thought nothing of including this English lady, all in black, with not a word of Italian to her name. There were no diners in that evening but everyone was chatting and gesticulating excitedly, the way that only Italians can do. They made me laugh and smile. When Il Italiano asked me if I would like to go somewhere else for a drink, it seemed the most natural thing in the world. So I did.

We visited bars, restaurants, and finally a nightclub. Everyone knew il Italiano. And I felt, for the first time in 6 months, alive. We laughed at anything and everything. Mostly at our complete inability to understand each other, so that we had to do silly mimes to try to get our messages across.  He was a breath of fresh air in my suffocating existence. So when he asked if I wanted to be walked back to my hotel room, or if I would like to go to his apartment (right next to the Cathedral), I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want to be alone. Not that night…

He shared an apartment with the General Manager of the Uffizi Gallery. Conveniently, he was asleep. We crept in, giggling like a couple of teenagers. We spent all night making me feel new again. Forget bereavement counselling. This was the kind of therapy that I needed. To be held, and kissed and made to forget all the pain and the fear that had haunted me since November. It went against all my norms and values, yet it felt so right. It could have been so wrong. But it wasn’t.

When il italiano finally did walk me to my hotel the following morning, the group of tourists from the night before were waiting outside. They stared at me. The red lipstick had long since been kissed away, leaving only a huge smile on my face. And a triumphant look in my eye. I had found my own entertainment for the evening.