The Journey -
This date is, of course, the 90th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, a day unequalled in British military history (thank God) when there were 50,000 casualties, including nearly 20,000 dead.
The artillery bombardment had been going on for days, and at 0730 hrs, the troops climbed out of their trenches and headed out across 'no man's land' towards the German front lines.
In 2006 at 0730 hrs, three canally folk were on the front line. David Long is Chairman of SCARS (The Sankey Canal Restoration Society) and skipper of the nb Falcon which is permanently based over here in Europe - and especially France. Neil Arlidge is skipper of nb Earnest and a founder member of TNC (the Tuesday Night Club) whose members aim to cruise all the navigable inland waterways of Britain. Et moi, whose aim is to enjoy life, whilst harming no one in the process, and whilst sampling (but not over-indulging) as many different alcoholic beverages as possible.
The section of the front line that we were on was held by the Devonshires. It is on a bit of rising ground, beside a road, and looking out over the rolling countryside of the battlefield, towards a ridge line some four or five kilometres away. Today, this section of the front line is a small wood, which screens a clearing in it from the sight and sounds of the road. The clearing was a length of the front line trench. Today it is a very moving cemetery. As the Devonshires emerged from the cover of their trench and advanced, many were shot down. At the end of the day, the survivors buried their comrades in the safety of the trench, and erected a wooden board, on which they carved the words "The Devonshires held this trench. The Devonshires hold it still". There they remain to this day.
At 0720 the nearby church bells stared tolling, but otherwise all was quiet in the peaceful cemetery. There were 20 or 30 people there, most of them divided into groups of two or three, and each contemplating a particular grave stone, silently remembering a lost relative - a grandfather perhaps, or a great grandfather, a distant uncle or a cousin. And I guess that all of us shed a tear.
Across the road, in the open country and some 300 metres away down the road, is another cemetery, this time for the Gordons. It is unusual in that the gravestones are not spaced out, but are planted to make several curved walls of stones. It seems to have been done this way as the bodies cannot be directly associated with particular grave stones - the bodies are recorded as being "buried near this spot".
Then onto Dartmoor Cemetery, where David had a wreath to lay, and where we saw the two graves, side by side, of Sgt Lee aged 44 and Cpl Lee aged 19 of the Royal Field Artillery - father and son, both killed on the same day.
We then parked the car at Albert railway station, and went to find a convenient café where we spent the next four or five hours, discussing life, the universe and, well, everything really, but especially canally matters. We were entertained by various musical and theatrical performances that were being performed in the main square. We also saw a pigeon flying around in a shop window. When the proprietress arrived to open up, I told her, though she could see by the wrecked window display that something was up, and the birdy turdy on one of more expensive items confirmed my story. It took her half an hour to find the offender and to eject it from her premises. It walked round in a big circle and, finding nowhere better, walked back into the shop! She threw it out again. Enter ex-miner David Long who knows about these things. He picked it up, and found from its ring that it spoke Belgian. He whispered the magic words in its ear and threw it up in the air. It did one final bombing run over the shop and headed off for Belgium.
Meanwhile the town was full of folk in various forms of dress. A party of women in 19th century garb were proclaiming against war. The were some young French soldiers in their smart, short sleeved shirts and handsome kepis. There were several men of the Scottish persuasion, parading themselves in their kilts. An especially tight knit group were in 1916 military uniforms - French and British Army, and Flying Corps. And, of course, many aging Brits in the standard 'ex-soldier' uniform of grey trousers, white shirt with regimental tie, navy blue double breasted blazer sporting the regimental crest on the breast pocket, and a badged beret covering their short, white hair.
Our next appointment was at Thiepval, the great memorial to the lost - those 70,000 who were known to have been killed, but whose remains were either never found, or could not be identified. (At the Menin Gate over in Ypres, there is a similar memorial although there, as bodies are found and identified, their names are erased from the memorial. This seems not to happen at Thiepval.)
The problem was that Prince Charles was due at Thiepval. I steer clear of Royal occasions, as they invariably entail endless queues and waiting around and general personal inconvenience. The organisers are so keen that nothing should go wrong (and, hence, endanger their chances of glory, honour and preferment) that they are prepared to play fast and loose with the personal convenience and comfort of us non-royals.
Sure enough, we arrived after the Royal party had left, but there were still long queues of nicely dressed 'guests' and hangers-on trying to leave the area, and sweltering in the hot sun.
As a 'security' measure, we were not allowed to drive to Thiepval, but instead were provided with a free, air-conditioned coach from Albert railway station to Beaumont Hamel and/or Thiepval.
At Thiepval, David had another wreath to lay, for a man on his church War Memorial. Having done that, he was accosted by a young reporter from the Daily Telegraph, who wanted the background as to why the wreath was being laid, and what he thought the Great War meant to the youth of today. I have to admit that I was a touch disappointed that David didn't include in his otherwise excellent response a mention of SCARS, as this would have been an ideal opportunity to present, to a national, influential audience, the case for full restoration to cruising standards.
We then clambered onto the free bus back to Albert, retrieved the car, and drove to Cappy, where we took a train ride. During the Great War, a narrow gauge railway was built from a canal-side dock, up a considerable rise, to what had been important gun positions. The railway stayed in use after the war, serving, I think, a sugar beet factory. Now it is a tourist attraction. There are a couple of steam locos, and several diesels. The ride includes a tunnel, a bridge over a road, a climb up to the plateau and return. The climb is achieved by a zig-zag up a gradient - the engine pulls the train up the first zig, then pushes it up the zag, before pulling it up the final zig to the summit.
After all that excitement, we retired to Chez Paulette, in Cappy, to investigate their 'moules et frites'. A thin, aging, disgruntled, cigarette smoking man grudgingly served us some beer, and told us that we couldn't have any food for an hour. We waited, supping our beer. A woman came into the bar at sat at one of the tables. She was one of the most severely depressed people I have ever seen in my whole life. She was smoking and barely sipping her drink. Sometimes she looked as if she might die before our eyes, at other times she looked as if she might just be able to hang onto her life for a few minutes more.
After 45 minutes, a few more people came into the bar, including a chap with a plastic bag full of moules - our dinner apparently, for the disgruntled thin man smiled at us, and disappeared out back to cook them.
About this time, the mood towards us changed mightily, and the coolness became a warmth and friendliness - what were we doing in France, did we like the beer etc. In retrospect, this warming coincided with the English soccer team's corporate decision to demonstrate to the world how not to kick penalties, an action which caused their exit from the World Cup competition.
Then our bartender/cook reappeared to discuss our wine requirements, Bordeaux, Rhone or Riesling was on offer. I suggested that Riesling was good with moules, but that perhaps a French wine would be more appropriate. This sparked a general uprising in the bar, with detailed explanations that the Riesling grape also grows in Alsace, which is an integral part of France etc etc and did I really think that the loyal village of Cappy would permit German wine within its borders etc etc etc. I then got into complaints mode, and demanded to know why the 10 or 11 year old unpatriotic youth in the corner (who seemed to be getting stuck into the Pernod) was wearing a red football shirt and not the blue one of 'Les Bleus' (as the French call their national football team). "Absolutely right," they said, and sent him home to change. Then the moules, frites and Riesling arrived, and I took the moules round to give one to everybody. I also questioned the loyalties of the elderly gent next to me who was sucking on a Players ciggie, rather than a sweeter smelling Gauloise.
The moules were good, the frites better and the Riesling surprisingly excellent. We left very happy, having made a bunch of new friends - who would have been even happier a couple of hours later when Les Bleus progressed to the semi-finals of the football World Cup.
What a wonderful day. In the company of good friends, pondering on the deeds of ordinary folk who were prepared to die for their beliefs, and making pleasurable contacts with a bar full of jovial French folk. Though I still worry about the depressed lady - she really did look dreadfully unhappy and sad.