I’ve never done anything but dream. This, and this alone, has been the meaning of my life. My only real concern has been my inner life. FERNANDO PESSOA

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Day 6: Arras To Riencourt-Lès-Bapaume

For the next ten days or so I would walk through French Flanders, Picardy and Champagne, and would cross the rivers of the Somme, the Aisne and the Marne. I would see signposts to places such as Vimy, St Quentin and Verdun. For I was walking through the very heart of north-east France and the battlefield areas of World War One. It was a sobering experience. Of course, I happened to be there for the centenary of the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914. This picture was taken in the Beaurains Road Cemetery on the southern outskirts of Arras — I passed many War Grave cemeteries on this part of the route. It was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, whose website states: 'We commemorate the 1,700,000 men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died in the two world wars. Our cemeteries, burial plots and memorials are a lasting tribute to those who died in some 153 countries across the world.'
  


The cemetery register in Beaurains Road Cemetery.

Some cemeteries are huge, and stretch for several square miles. Others are small plots in the middle of nowhere — often on the site of field hospitals where the dead were buried as they fell.

I have no words to capture the poignancy of this.

And war still goes on every day — in Gaza, in Iraq, in Ukraine. Good God, I have no words. Only silent prayers.

The countryside I crossed was fittingly bleak: flat, treeless farmland of wheat and potatoes, sugar beet and maize. The only verticals were wind turbines (aeoliennes in French — much nicer), water towers (châteaux d'eau — water castles!) and the grey, pointed spires of distant churches. A cloudy sky loured above me. There was no accommodation in Bapaume: the priest was on holiday, and I was told I could not sleep on the floor of the church hall without his consent. All the hotels were either closed or full. Even the gypsies on the town green seemed reluctant to let me pitch my tent with them. So I left Bapaume with relief. I had a bad feeling about the place. But I knew something else would turn up.

It was an hour and a half later, and early evening, and I was eating some bread and cheese on the cemetery steps in the tiny village of Riencourt-lès-Bapaume. A car drew up and a man got out with a key to lock the chapel for the night. He introduced himself as the mayor of the village. He seemed friendly enough, so I began my story: I was a pilgrim walking to Rome, I'd found no lodgings in the previous town, did he know anywhere I could pitch my tent? He thought for a few seconds, then announced: 'You can camp here! In the graveyard! There's a lovely patch of grass in the corner, and a tap, and, look, you can have this chair from inside the chapel, and a table too if you want . . .' He then took me on a guided tour, showing me his own family's tombstones, and, pointing to one blank slab at the end of the line, winked and said: 'This one's reserved for me!' If you look hard you can just spot my tent in the centre of the photo . . .  

. . . and here it is closer up, complete with chair. I had a peaceful night, disturbed by no one, not even the graveyard ghosts . . .

7 comments:

The Weaver of Grass said...

Lovely story about that hospitable man Robert - snd that totally empty countryside (apart from the crops of course) somehow seems fitting in such a sad place. Yes I enlarged the photo and spotted the tent.

George said...

I'm no fan of war, but these large WWI and WWII cemeteries in France always pierce my heart. The level of the sacrifice is just overwhelming. After visiting the American Cemetery in Normandy a few years ago, I could think of nothing else for days.

Nice photos, and your tent looks quite comfy.

James Owens said...

I can never hear of Arras without thinking of Edward Thomas, who was killed there, but of course he was only one of many thousands swallowed in an obscenity of destruction. I'm glad for you, that you encountered some human kindness to place against that landscape.

Timecheck said...

Our travels have mostly been in southern France. No mass cemeteries, but each small town has its war memorial with the list of names. So many for such small towns.

Ruth Mowry said...

Well this is sobering. I also have no words. Somehow I can feel it through your images of these tomb stones, and the few words you did muster.

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry about delay in responding — been away for a long weekend.

Thanks for commenting, Pat...

... and yes, the tent was quite good, George — the porch a great bonus — but I kept waking up every couple of hours to change position.

Thanks so much for such a relevant, pertinent comment, James...

... and, Ralph, indeed — those war memorials...

Ruth — I tried to make a simple, stark and direct statement through those images, so I'm pleased this had an effect...

dritanje said...

It is indeed a vivid picture you give, through the photographs. This is close to the cemetery, one of many in that area, where I found my grandfather's grave. He too, died during the battle of the Somme.

But wonderful that you were able to pitch your tent by the church and the graveyard. Did you have any dreams that night?