Fromelles and Vimy Ridge

We have been travelling almost parallel to the trench lines of the first World War in a France that has had almost no mention that we can see of the fact that the war began exactly a hundred years ago this month. But we have been to both Fromelles and today to Vimy Ridge to see the Australian and Canadian memorials. Fromelles was a disaster but Vimy Ridge was a famous turning point during the war (famous in Canada anyway). The interesting point made by the guide today was that it was always seen as a great source of comfort to have either the Canadians or Australians on ones flanks since everyone felt a kind of security in knowing that such reliable forces were at their side. I can still see why that would be.

But the absence of any particular reflection about the events of a hundred years ago – and I don’t mean just at these sites but in the whole of France – is truly striking. I don’t know what I did expect but I didn’t expect nothing at all.

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22 Responses to Fromelles and Vimy Ridge

  1. Token

    The interesting point made by the guide today was that it was always seen as a great source of comfort to have either the Canadians or Australians on ones flanks…

    Today the great powers continue to use the Anglosphere nations for similar purposes as they try to keep the light of civilization on around the world.

  2. braddles

    I visited some sites around the Somme a few years ago and was also struck by the apparent indifference of those who lived there to the events of that time. There was little local development of what would seem a potentially lucrative tourist industry, and few if any clues within the towns and villages themselves of the area’s history and importance. Outside the towns there are memorials and museums, of course, but mostly maintained by foreign groups (Commonwealth War Cemeteries etc). We did come across a ‘local’ place for afternoon tea that had a nice little museum attached, but it was run by a couple of Irishmen.

  3. Perhaps leaving it unadorned and tranquil is fitting for the millions of soldiers who died for their respective homelands and families. Let them lie in peace.
    But I don’t have an opinion either way…

  4. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    I didn’t miss having any interpretation. I might have disagreed with it, for a start. So I formed my own opinions, especially about the bravery of the men from the Dominions. What hell they went through and in such spirits. The Memorials are very conspicuous, and very moving.

    I was stunned by Vimy ridge. Da Hairy Ape explained the battles to me, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the terrain, the great bomb craters. I could still feel the explosions.

  5. Baldrick

    Anybody who’s interested in reading about the disaster that was Fromelles, by C.E.W. Bean: (PDF)

    Part 1

    Part 2

  6. Zulu Kilo Two Alpha

    The Memorials are very conspicuous, and very moving.

    The statue of “Mother Canada”, mourning her slaughtered sons, on top of Vimy Ridge, is very moving, indeed.

  7. Toiling Mass

    I didn’t miss having any interpretation. I might have disagreed with it, for a start.

    Very true. Just look at what that intellectual minnow, Paul Keating (channeling that great pretentious bloated capon, Bob Ellis), had to say, and which was very nearly engraved at the War Memorial.

    The monuments and memorials from near the time of the events reflected upon are still profoundly moving. I wouldn’t trust anyone to do it well now.

  8. Dr Faustus

    The monuments and memorials from near the time of the events reflected upon are still profoundly moving. I wouldn’t trust anyone to do it well now.

    Absolutely. The German occupying forces in WW2 felt the same way too and generally preserved the British and Commonwealth monuments and war graves in good condition.

    For me the scars on the modern landscape – visible remanants of trench lines and the mine craters Lizzie describes, entire villages rebuilt in the 1920′s, little piles of rusty shells and motar bombs at farm gates waiting for collection and disposal – are similarly moving. I suspect the experience of living with this sombre history all around on a daily basis might help explain the apparent lack of public reflection on the anniversary.

  9. Aynsley Kellow

    I can recommend a visit to Verdun, especially Fort de Vaux, for an insight into the war of attrition that was being waged. It is often forgotten that the Somme was designed to draw German forces away from Verdun, an it met with some success in strategic terms — even though the slaughter is usually interpreted as a tactical failure.

    The Germans knew France would defend Verdun because of its symbolic significance from 1870. The forts were very well constructed, and had their own water supplies to withstand a long siege, but they destroyed them wen the yielded Fort de Vaux, and this counted against them defending it after they re-took it. It gives one a bit of an insight into French reluctance to fight to the last man since then – often rather unfairly characterised as ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ by those who were previously reluctant to join justifiable wars and might again be characterised as cheeseburger -eating surrender monkeys. With great power comes great responsibility.

  10. rickw

    We have been travelling almost parallel to the trench lines of the first World War in a France that has had almost no mention

    Strange that there is no mention? Maybe mentioning a bloody fight against invaders is unpopular with France’s current invaders?

  11. Diogenes

    wrt to Verdun – my great grandfather was wounded there

    German histories generally admit that the slaughter went on for much much longer than would be justified. It would appear that Crown Prince William, although inexperienced , was very popular with the Fifth Army and Ludendorff in an effort to undermine this, kept the battle going – with the disasterous result of 1918.

  12. HRT

    The most moving site for me was the headstone of an Australian digger which read something like: “Another son dead another mother grieving. For what?”

    The most disappointing was the French War Museum in Paris (http://www.musee-armee.fr/en/english-version.html). I think I saw one mention of Australia although a search today on the site for “Australia/Australian/AIF/Monash returned zero results.

  13. David

    HRT the war cemeteries are very moving. What surprised me was the number of well kept small ones, each with a Visitors Book undefaced by vandals. Whether you are religious [Christian, Jewish or whatever] or not the headstones that got to me in France and Belgium were those inscribed “A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God”.

    Not even enough to identify the poor bugger.

    That both my grandfathers survived Gallipoli, France and Belgium for one and France and Belgium the other constantly amazes me.

  14. calli

    But the absence of any particular reflection about the events of a hundred years ago – and I don’t mean just at these sites but in the whole of France – is truly striking. I don’t know what I did expect but I didn’t expect nothing at all.

    The French don’t need to mark the day, nor the hour. Those little (and sometimes heartbreakingly vast) war cemeteries dotting the countryside are reminder enough.

    It’s like a wound that remains covered because it’s too horrible to see the light of day.

    Is ploughing the farmland around the old battlefields still a dangerous job?

  15. Pedro the Ignorant

    I have a relative living in Mons, Belgium, about 30km SW of Brussels. I once asked her to ask around the locals to verify or otherwise the legend of the Angel of Mons, who supposedly appeared over the battlefield in 1915, inspired the Allied soldiers and led to a great victory.

    To my (and her) great astonishment, hardly anyone in her class at the University of Mons, and very few of the townspeople aged under 50 had even heard of the legend.

    I would have thought that living on top of the Mons battlefield, and The Angel being such a famous story, that every local would have an opinion, a family member who had seen the Angel, or could either verify or debunk the legend.

    Nothing.

  16. jupes

    But the absence of any particular reflection about the events of a hundred years ago – and I don’t mean just at these sites but in the whole of France – is truly striking. I don’t know what I did expect but I didn’t expect nothing at all.

    Maybe that’s because 100 years ago the great trench battles of the Western Front had yet to occur. The Western Front was still a war of manouvre in August / September 1914 and the armies had yet to dig in.

    They should commemorate the battles at their centenary. I’m pretty sure the Aussies will in some fashion.

  17. jupes

    I once asked her to ask around the locals to verify or otherwise the legend of the Angel of Mons, who supposedly appeared over the battlefield in 1915, inspired the Allied soldiers and led to a great victory.

    To my (and her) great astonishment, hardly anyone in her class at the University of Mons, and very few of the townspeople aged under 50 had even heard of the legend.

    Take that as an “otherwise”.

  18. Pedro the Ignorant

    Take that as an “otherwise”.

    I have always taken the legend of the Angel of Mons with a grain of salt, Jupes. War weary soldiers and the “fog of war” are an ideal scenario for either a mass hallucination or a very clever piece of positive propaganda.

    What surprised me was that the legend has much more credence and awareness among the Commonwealth countries than it does in Belgium itself.

  19. Piett

    What surprised me was that the legend has much more credence and awareness among the Commonwealth countries than it does in Belgium itself.

    That’s because the story’s origin was a piece of fiction from the pen of a Welsh horror and fantasy writer, published in a London newspaper in 1914.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Machen

  20. Zulu Kilo Two Alpha

    That’s because the story’s origin was a piece of fiction from the pen of a Welsh horror and fantasy writer, published in a London newspaper in 1914.

    John Terraine’s book “The Smoke and the Fire” has a chapter on the “Angels of Mons.”

  21. Aynsley Kellow

    HRT,
    I think your problem is that you did not visit the ‘French War Museum’ in Paris, but the Museum of the Army. There is very little in it that is not about the French Army.

  22. Elizabeth (Lizzie) B.

    the headstones that got to me in France and Belgium were those inscribed “A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God”.

    Those impressed on me too. That simple message, put there by history, of not being forgotten, was very nearly forgotten, obliterated even, in Australia on our own War Memorial in Sydney, except for public outrage. Not only by the religious; I am not a religious person but I was outraged too.

    Very nearly replaced by some weasel words. Written by someone or other; can’t think who … hmm.

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