Written between May 4th – 8th 2015
Roads – those arteries that take us from one place to another either by plan or by mistake. Roads – be they ten lane highways or simple tracks that join A to B.
There are those roads we take in life and those roads we take everyday, be it by choice, by necessity or by destiny.
Every road is important as every journey has a purpose – the morning school run, the drive to work, the Saturday morning trip to the supermarket. This last weekly drive takes me along a section of our local ring road and every time I drive past a huge sign that reads
« On this spot from 1942 to 1944, 40 Resistants were executed by the Nazis »
The « spot » in question lies behind the high barbed wire of our local arms factory. One of the overgrown and forgotten bits of what was one a huge industrial complex producing, testing and storing artillery and tank munitions. Not much there nowadays, just a few crumbling warehouses and, according to local legend, several tons of unexploded ordnance – this was where the Germans also stored their munitions during the Occupation.
On this weekend that some are marking the end of WW2 in Europe, in France we are reminded everyday of the War. Take a trip down any country road and you’ll see memorials to fallen résistance fighters, they are everywhere, and round my neck of the woods, look carefully and you’ll still find vestiges of guard posts along what was the Demarcation line between Occupied France and Free France.
Every road has its story but not every road is a testimony to history. My local roads all bear small scars of a bigger history.
I have recently been on a European road trip – we headed North with friends to spend a few days in Amsterdam. May 4th to May 8th. The dates had not been chosen with any historical aforethought ; however driving across Europe in this highly symbolic week has given us all matter for reflection.
We pull out our small street and on to the ring road, driving past the commemorative sign. Off to Vierzon to meet up with our fellow travellers. Vierzon, an important town from 1941 to 1942 – the town is a major railway junction. In the early 1940s all traffic heading north to south had to cross Vierzon. The town was one of the major crossing points from Occupied France to Vichy France, anyone from simple refugees to those fleeing the Nazis had at some point to come through here. Local railway workers were very involved in the Resistance and those few still alive who bore witness tell tales of drivers, signalmen and maintenance crews helping people to escape the Nazi Occupied north.
Off then to Amsterdam with a stop over in Brussels – A71 up through Orleans and on to Paris, then the A1 towards Lille before turning off on to the A2 up to Brussels.
The names hit you almost as soon as you leave Paris. A turn off for Compiègne – a somewhat sedate and bourgeois town that played an important part in French history. It was here, on board a railway carriage in a forest clearing that the Armistice was signed putting and end to the First World War. It was here too on June 18th 1941, in the same railway carriage that the Nazis made the French government sign their capitulation.
As the road goes on there are more signs – Montdidier, Peronne, Bapaume – on this pleasant day they are small towns nestling in the rolling countryside, in 1916 though, these villages were on the front line of the Battle of the Somme. July 1st 1916 – « The Big Push » – the first blooding of Kitchener’s volunteer army. On dawn that day, thousands of British, French and Commonwealth troops climbed out their trenches and headed across No Mans’ Land to capture German trenches – it should have been no more than a mopping up operation, German line shaving supposedly been obliterated after a week long artillery bombardment, but with the munitions shortage, the British had fired anything available, including thousands of armour piercing shells procured from the navy. The bombardment had actually had little effect. The Germans had sat tight n their deep bunkers, and on the morning of July 1st, they emerged on the firing line, loaded up their machine guns and mowed down the advancing Allied troops. The first day of the Battle of the Somme, 60,000 allied troops killed, missing in action or taken prisoner – the greatest historical loss ever in a single day’s fighting for the British army.
Further up the A1 lies Vimy – the great Canadian battle of 1917, but we have turned off on to the A2 – heading for Lille. The signpost reads « Cambrai » The Battle of Cambrai, November 20th to December 7th 1917. The first great tank battle of the First World War – 476 tanks and soldiers from Britain, the Commonwealth and The USA – the first blooding for many « doughboys ». Losses on the Allied side – 44,000 KIA, MIA or taken prisoner, and the loss of 179 tanks. Losses on the German side – 45,000 for yet another inconclusive battle.
From Cambrai we are heading into Belgium – Mons, Le Cateau – those early battles of 1914. At Mons on the 23 August 1914, the British Expeditionary force reached its limit and managed to fight off a numerically superior German force, before beginning a month long tactical withdrawal that would take the British troops back into France where they would dig in for the next four years.
Le Cateau – August 26th – an artillery battle. British guns bombard advancing German forces to cover the British retreat. Overwhelmed and low on ammunition, the order is given to destroy the guns, sot hey don’t fall into German hands. One of the few times in British military history that such an order was given.
I could dwell on detail, and I do, as I give my bored travelling companions a running commentary on each battle. They just stare back, blank-faced and indifferent. Of course though, these are not major French battles, despite some French involvement. They might figure in French histories of WW1, but they are not taught in schools. This is also the British sector of the Western Front.
Tell a Frenchman about the Battle of the Somme and it will stir no emotion in the same way that you tell a Brit about Verdun and perhaps they have never heard of that great slaughterhouse in the East of France where the Germans decided to bleed the French army into defeat in the latter half of 1916. Over 600,000 soldiers lost on both sides. It is reckoned that there are still the remains of 80,000 soldiers pushing up poppies on the former battlefield, as well as tons of unexploded munitions. So dangerous was the place that the whole battlefield was sealed off in 1920. Along the entire Western front it is reckoned that there are still the remains of some 670,000 soldiers to bring up.
The next sign on our historical road is Ypres.
Ypres or Ieper in Flemish – the British, Commonwealth and French forces cling on to that part of the front line known as the Ypres Salient – a small piece of territory around the Belgian town of Ypres that bulged into the German lines. Three major battles. September to October 1914, the British just try and cling on to the town. April 1915, at the Second battle of Ypres, the Germans try and recapture the town and the surrounding salient. The battle is noteworthy for the first use of poison gas by German forces. (The British used gas later at the Battle of Loos in the same year). Finally, the Third battle of Ypres know under is other more evocative name – the Battle of Passchendaele 1917– where British and colonial forces mount a huge offensive to break out the salient. Battle rages from June to November. Unseasonal torrential rains often make any fighting impossible. As many troops drown in the sea of mud as are killed in combat.
So many battles in such a small zone – the fields of Flanders and northern France. Major battles in a War that sowed the seeds of our common European history, yet we seem so ignorant about those shared historical events that have shaped our present. Frenchman or Brit, we learn our own respective histories without dwelling enough on our shared contribution in history.
Approaching Brussels there are signs for Waterloo – that battle that sealed the fate of Europe for nearly a century, and perhaps also, in its own way sowed seeds for future conflict. After the Napoleonic Wars, after the Battle of Waterloo, Britain bowed out of Europe for nearly a century, choosing to concentrate on Empire. Continental Europe was a bothersome thing that just dragged Britain into wars. Better to leave these Europeans to their own devices. Brittan wasn’t back fighting in Europe until August 1914. Seems kind of ironic as we drive past Waterloo that Europe is once again in the agenda. It is not yet election day in the UK, but if victorious, David Cameron has promised an « IN/OUT » referendum for the Brits. Like in 1815; we could be leaving Europe once again to let these continental types stew in their own federalist juice.
And so we reach Brussels – home to that most loathed of species, the « Brussels Bureaucrat » – those faceless besuited ladies and gents of the European Union who ell us Brits how we should live our lives. Perhaps just a slight exaggeration, but it is the firm belief of many Brits that is propagated by the tabloid press in the UK. Could David Cameron’s proposed referendum be his own Waterloo?
Day two, we drive into Holland. More signs, more battles from another war – Arnhem and Nijmegen – A bridge too far.
We have dealt with epic and bloody battles from major world conflicts, big stories in a bigger history. History though is made up of all those small stories. Those 40 French résistants executed by the Nazis in my small town in France, the sober stone memorial on a French country road marking where a resistance fighter was shot by the Wehrmacht – those names inscribed on a village war memorial …
Amsterdam though gives another name that made history – Anne Frank – not a soldier, just a teenage girl whose dream was to « run, laugh and play in the sunlight » rather than be cooped up in the cramped attic of an Amsterdam house. Forced to hide from the SS simply because she was Jewish. A short but highly symbolic chapter in the history of the Second World War. As you wander round Anne Frank’s House in Amsterdam, you cannot imagine what it must have been like to live with seven other people in such a small space. And whereas visiting a battlefield or a cemetery and seeing row upon row of white headstones might leave you mixed emotions of sadness and fear, visiting Anne Frank’s house and reading extracts from her diary, you feel no sadness, you feel no fear, Anne Frank’s writings are not redolent with these feelings, she simply wanted to live.
I don’t know if there is any lesson to learn from this road trip other than we are free. 100 years on from WW1. 70 years on from the end of WW2 in Europe, we are free to travel on those roads where previously soldiers marched to war. Very simplistic I know.
Most striking – the initial surprise when we see the names on the signposts and then the complete indifference. « Hey look, there’s a sign for Waterloo! » – reactions in the car are manifold. « Oh, I didn’t know it was here. » through to « You mean that place actually exists. » –
Striking too is the geography. We are driving though a borderless Europe. No more frontier posts. No more customs. Complete freedom of movement across these flat lands of Flanders, Belgium and Holland. I can begin to understand the relative ease with which the German armies rolled over Northern Europe in 1940. It’s taken us a couple of hours to cross Belgium. From the Dutch border we are up to Amsterdam in just over an hour – these are small countries and it seems ironic that the fate of Europe has been decided in such places.
General De Gaulle called it « The fatal Avenue » – from Holland, down through Belgium, into Northern France and then on into Normandy. Literally from Amsterdam to the Cherbourg peninsula it is flat, and according to de Gaulle any European conflict was won or lost in this long avenue running along the sea. He was right.
Finally we are heading home and so time to finish with a vision of modern Europe.
It’s a truck stop, on the E17 to the west of Antwerp. The nearest town is Waasmunster. It’s coming up for lunchtime. We pull in for a well-earned rest. The place is brick chalet with a flat roof – It looks almost abandoned. Bates Motel? Baghdad Café? It’s like one of those emblematic US highway photos – A dilapidated shack just off the highway with a rusting petrol pump and battered Coca Cola signs hanging tenuously on one last screw. We get out the car. The air is thick with the stink of urine and grease. We venture inside through the grubby and splintered door. It’s like hell’s kitchen. Three wire haired crones are slaving over hotplates and deep fat fryers, conjuring up burgers, sausages and French fries for a long line of clients. Two fat truckers sit at the bar drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. The menu is in Flemish. France may be just a short drive away, but we are in that corner of Belgium – Flanders where people refuse to speak French. My French friends are ignored when they order in their mother tongue. We have to order in English. The lady on the till can’t understand everything, so she is forced to reply in an ersatz Euro speak; fractured French with a smattering of English delivered in that distinctive guttural phlegmish Flemish accent. Burgers for everyone and also that Belgian culinary speciality – the Frite (or French fry if you prefer) Yes, a true sign of European harmony. In Britain it’s a chip or even a French fry. In Belgium it’s a Frite and in Holland it’s a chip. Sitting outside chomping away on the windswept patio – the odour of grease inside is just too much to bear without some kind of breathing apparatus. Outside – the smell of diesel fumes from trucks starting up their motors, the noise of passing traffic and the stench of urine. The owner of the shack is charging 50 Euro centimes for the toilets, so everyone is nipping into the hedges behind the shack for all their bodily needs. Welcome to Europe.
As we sit and gorge on our fried victuals, a tourist bus pulls up and disgorges a number of Chinese tourists on the truck stop. It is mayhem inside as the wire haired greasy witches try to understand several different burger orders delivered in fractured English. As is the wont of an emerging nicotine nation, most of the Chinese sit outside and light one cigarette off another, whilst those who have ordered food, consume their fresh fried European enjoyments with fork shoving curiosity and oriental parsimony. A lot of the food ends up in the dustbin. What must they think of us?
Every souvenir I have brought is proudly stamped with a « MADE IN CHINA » label. I imagine thousands of nimble-fingered Chinese factory workers assembling Amsterdam fridge magnets in the shape of joints and dildos. They must wonder what the hell we are all about, and now they are here, eating our greasy burgers, breathing our fumes and smoking in our culture on their cheap Marlboro Lights.
What is the future?
Post Election note
Monday 11th May 2015
Yes, to everyone’s surprise, David Cameron won the election and now he will “renegotiate” Britain’s position in Europe. The 2017 “IN/OUT” referendum is also still very much on the agenda. If Britain can’t get the deal it wants, it is likely to leave the European Union which will make the EU nothing more than a Franco-German talking shop.