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.

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From the memorial, even on this misty morning it’s easy to see what a triumph the Australian breakthrough was…
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70,000 missing Australians have their names engraved on the walls of this memorial…
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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…

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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…

 

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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.
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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…

 

 

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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:

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

 

 She also had 2 live ones:

 

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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?)

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

 

When Mr T died, I made it my mission to become an A grade widow. I have always dealt with “stuff” in a practical way. I’ve passed every exam I’ve ever sat, got every job I’ve ever been interviewed for. Surely there would be a book or a website that would tell me what I needed to do, in 5 easy steps. Once I passed the “widow” exams,  my heart would stop breaking, my stomach would stop churning, my neck would stop aching and the fear of everything would go away.

The only books that I could find contained guides to law, finance, practical housekeeping (I seem to remember reading about ensuring that I made delicious, nutritious soups to freeze, ready to eat on the days I felt unwell. Soup? Food? Freezing bags? The only thing I prepared in advance for the shit days was a constant supply of cigarettes and a barrel full of sherry. God knows why sherry. I hate the stuff but it seemed to be the only thing in the house, it being Christmas and all) and, eventually, dating again. “Don’t compare your date with your husband.” LOL. They didn’t tell you how to get through the long, lonely hours of the night, when the bed’s too big. They didn’t advise on what to do when the yearning came to lay on his grave (as I did one night), or dig him up for one last hug ( I actually asked if I had the legal right to do this. “No”, was the unsurprising answer).

 

They also didn’t touch on  how to deal with the “skin hunger”, a phrase which I came across on Google, to explain the need for intimate physical contact with someone. Anyone who could love me the way that Mr T did. I stalked people on internet dating sites and eyed up anyone new who came into the bar. I wore a huge hat with “I’m a sad, desperate, lonely widow who’s going mad, please fuck me”. No one offered (possibly the frog eyes, fag breath and drunken slur put people off. Possibly the fact that they cared enough about me not to take advantage of me). I made the bit up about the hat but I might as well have worn it, I was so obviously needy.

 

Yoga, exercise, meals out with friends, worthwhile causes were all suggested as ways of getting through the day. Which all sounds well and good when you’re not actually trying to get through the day. I was rigid with fear and pain. I couldn’t even be bothered to open my eyes. I lay on the bed and existed.

My wonderful friends adopted me and my girls and literally dragged me out of my bed, poured bottles of wine down my neck and rocked me until my sobs subsided with exhaustion. We were all exhausted.

Finally, the books didn’t explain the extreme self- centredness that would come with this horrible new world; one in which I couldn’t communicate with my children, let alone help them to deal with their grief.  On top of my own grief, I felt remorse, sorrow and guilt at my inability to deal with anyone else’s pain. I turned into a selfish, self loathing individual. I stared for days out of the window. I drank anything I could get my hands on, smoked everything that would light and wailed. Above all else I no longer wanted to be here. I resented my children for keeping me on the planet . They were going through important exams at the time. Did I care? Did I fuck.

I can recommend “A Grief Observed” by C S Lewis as being the closest I ever came to relating to someone’s reactions to the death of a spouse.  He never got over the loss of his wife. His emotions were raw, ugly and irrational. How anyone carries on with their normal jobs and their normal lives after such an event is beyond me. I knew from the moment my husband died in my arms that I was never going to “get over it”. I couldn’t be the demure, majestic Jackie Kennedy. I was snotty, spotty and a bore. I knew it and couldn’t get out of it.

My husband was dead and so was my life. It’s difficult to write without using the usual cliches about losing a half of you, feeling like you’re free falling, having a limb amputated but all of these and more are true. The grief that I felt was indescribable but – annoyingly- completely normal. No matter what books I consulted about bereavement, widowhood, grief, I couldn’t get around the fact that my feelings were totally normal. GP visit? “It’s perfectly normal for you to feel this way”. Bereavement counsellor: “You must get out more. Try going back to work, get some routine back into your life”. Surely my grief was the greatest griefs of all griefs that have ever been felt. Noone could possibly have gone through this living hell in the way that I was? It hurt to realise that I was just one of many who were grieving for someone or something, and that everything I was feeling was “normal”. “Sorry Mrs T but you’re no one special. Yes we understand your husband’s dead but that’s life”.   I read the posts of optimism and hope that people posted on my fb page and I tried. I really tried. But my soul was lost. Nothing mattered anymore.

I felt detached from the world. I watched cars go by when I was queuing for traffic and hated the fact that, for these people, normal life was carrying on. I listened to conversations on the bus as I went to register his death – in particular a conversation between two elderly ladies who religiously analysed the funeral that they had been to the day before “It was a lovely do but I didn’t like all that chicken stuff. I don’t like eating with my fingers. They needed knives and forks”.  I wanted to scream at them: “My husband is dead! Fuck the fucking chicken!”

When I got into town to register my husband’s death, I had to run the gauntlet of “chuggers”. Lovely bunch of guys; I’m sure on any other day I’d smile and maybe even donate. But on this day, I kept my head down and ploughed through. It was Christmas 2011. The Christmas market was in full swing, people were present buying and a young guy approached me with his charity tin. “Hi madam, would you be interested in donating to…. (some charity, I forget). “No thanks”, I mutter, head down, no eye contact, desperate to escape to the sanctity of the register office where my marriage would officially end. “Why the long face, let’s see a smile”. “Well, I’m just off to register my husband’s death, so forgive me if I don’t smile” I spit at the poor unfortunate guy. I’m ashamed to say I felt glad to offload some of my anger at him. He’d done nothing wrong. I left his forlorn expression and marched off. My world was shattered and woe betide anyone who came near me with glad tidings of joy.

At the Register Office, I was met with the usual sympathetic words and kind acts from well meaning people. I read the Coroner’s report on the post mortem in silence. There was nothing wrong with Mr T. In fact, they had to do a second series of tests to try to find out what the hell he died from. Natural causes. And a propensity for the finer things in life: wine, cheese, me. “Have you any questions?” asked the kindly Registrar, after I’d filled her in with the details of my husband’s demise -“He just looked at me and died”. “Well, can I still say I’m married?” came my desperate question as I looked into her eyes. She leaned forward and sadly informed me that, as my husband had died, my marriage was now over and I was no longer a wife. I had fought for years to become my husband’s wife. It lasted five.