The Battlefields of Northern France and Belgium, April 2008

Since taking this trip a couple of years back family research has revealed that I have two great uncles of my own, killed in the First World War and buried only a few miles apart, one on either side of the border in the very region that Chris and I were visiting. I must admit to taking a break from this type of enquiry since receiving the news. It is hard to discover that so much has been edited from the stories that we were told by our grandparents but apparently it was not uncommon for such devastating memories to be put aside and, if not entirely forgotten, then not discussed either. 

Molly recorded a very clever little resume of this trip which also took in some of the glorious sights of medieval Normandy, including the magnificent castle of Les Andelys and the great cathedrals of Rouen and Amiens .

Usually I get very worried when my Mum makes preparations to go on holiday but on this particular occasion it soon became apparent from all the extra things that she was packing into the car that I would be going too. I was very excited. It was still dark when we set off to pick up uncle Christopher and I enjoyed snuggling down to help him with the map reading. We drove for a bit more and then he mentioned that he had left the bag with his passport behind. That made for quite a long detour but I could tell that Mummy was just pleased that it hadn’t been her fault that we missed the boat. When we got on the evening boat I enjoyed all the fuss that the uniforms made over checking my passport (1) because I was the only dog on board. The noises and the smells were strange and I was left in a crate in the car but the vibrations reminded me of travelling on the underground and I soon went to sleep. Later, when Mummy drove off the boat it was very dark and she had to take directions from the annoying female voice in uncle Christopher’s talking box (2). We got to our destination very late but it was a friendly house (3) in the country where they had a handsome  gentleman dog who was most welcoming. Later I heard Madame say on the telephone that I was “un petit chien, absolument adorable”.

Our holiday began with a few days in a place called Normandy. Here I was introduced to the exquisite aromas of saucisson and fromage in the marketplaces, huge ruined castles to run around and the delightful French custom of allowing dogs to sit inside cafés and bars while smokers have to stand outside in the rain. I also got to find out at last what Mummy does in those great tall, pointy buildings(4) that she likes to visit when she put me in her shoulder bag and told me to be very quiet as she would not leave me outside in the freezing rain. The inside was like a great silent forest of stone, with towering columns and statues of kindly looking humans lit by rows of candles. A few other visitors did notice me but they only smiled, they are just so much more friendly to doggies in France. Quite a snowstorm started up while we were having tea in the square where the English soldiers were said to have burned a French girl(5) many years ago (no, I didn’t understand either) but we got back to our guest house safely once uncle Christopher had turned off the talking box.

Next we went to Picardy and spent several days looking around a region called Somme. People were very friendly and we stayed in a real chateau(6). Monsieur had four boisterous dogs of his own but I soon had them all under control. The thing I noticed most about Somme was how the mud seemed to get everywhere; it was pale and sticky and and quickly covered everything in a whitish crust. It got it all over the inside of the car but for once no-one blamed me. Most of the places that we visited were the sort where humans become very quiet; even the human puppies (7) were subdued and mostly I had to wait outside the gates. I saw fields and fields of stones called graves and a great tall building without any windows that was covered all over with names (8). One of the quiet places was a beautiful wood (9) with a carpet of blue flowers and in another the ground was all misshapen with bumps and dips (10), overlooked by a great fierce animal called a caribou (11). Fortunately it wasn’t real. Sometimes we drove backwards and forwards while uncle Christopher tried to find a particular place for his research. He had all sorts of copies of paintings (12) and some very old looking photographs. I could tell when the searches were successful because they took lots of photographs and then stopped somewhere friendly for tea and cakes.

A few days later we crossed the border into Belgium and I discovered that here, in the birthplace of Tintin, the natives admire little dogs even more. Frankly, one or two of the canine outfits suggested that their owners were trying a bit too hard. Ypres is a beautiful little medieval Flemish town although I heard that it was almost completely restored after the Great War. When we went to the great gate (13) with all the names carved on it I was surprised to see motorcycles and cars going underneath the arch and to notice that boy dogs had even been allowed to lift their leg on the steps. Mummy said that once you got used to the idea of the memorial being such a comfortable part of everyday life in “Wipers” then you got to appreciate it. She also pointed out a whole column of Singhs (14). We drove into the Belgian countryside to find uncle Christopher’s great uncle’s graveyard. It was so small that we missed the turning twice but when we finally found it he looked very cosy (15). There were all sorts of different badges and one of the tombstones had a star (16) instead of the usual cross, then uncle Christopher got really excited when he found three more with squiggly writing on them (17). He said that a lot of men from the Chinese Labour Corps had died in the war but that they had almost been written out of the history and he hoped that that would soon change.

I absolutely loved my visit to the Continent, it was wonderful to see the humans enjoying themselves so much. Some of the places that we visited were sombre and I heard many sad stories of all the young soldiers who had died there but the local people were so delightful and the hospitality so wonderful that it wasn’t a depressing place at all. Our final stay was in a fine old, wooden house in the country (18) where Monsieur even said that I was welcome to chase the lapins as he knew I wouldn’t be able to catch one. Of course, I had to have a try and was just getting the hang of their ducking and weaving technique when I noticed the chat noir watching me with a quizzical expression. I decided to go and help uncle Christopher unpack the car instead. Whenever we went to eat, the smells in the cafés and restaurants were amazing and I quickly realized that provided I followed the rules and never, ever begged from the table that I would get to have a taste sooner or later. The food was just heavenly. Mummy blamed something called the Euro for us not going into restaurants every day but that just meant that we had more of that delicious market food.

I had to visit a French veterinarian (19) before we left and he even asked my weight, can you imagine the indignity? He must have been distracted by my charm because we found out later that he had made a mistake on my paperwork and the uniforms at the port wouldn’t let us get on the boat. Well, that was quite a performance but we sorted it out eventually and, even though we had to spend an extra night in Calais, we didn’t let it spoil our trip. I hope that when Mummy has finished swearing about the people at DEFRA (20) we can go back to France and Belgium and find more exciting places on the other side of that great big sea.

 

Notes

1     Pet Passport, current rabies vaccine etc.

2     Satellite navigator

3     Guest house: La Cambriere, Anceaumeville                   

4     Rouen Cathedral

5     Joan of Arc

6     Guest House: Le Chateau, Monchy-Lagache

7     Visiting parties of schoolchildren

8     Thiepval, British Memorial and Cemetery

9     Delville Wood, South African Memorial and Cemetery

10   Preserved trenches

11   Beaumont Hamel, Canadian Memorial and Cemetery 

12   British War Artist, Sir William Orpen R.A.

13   The Menin Gate

14   Sikh soldiers from the British Army

15   102941 Gunner J. Pearson, Royal Garrison Artillery, 4th July 1918  age 32

16   Jewish graves are marked with the Star of David

17   “a good reputation endures forever” in Chinese characters

18   Guest house: Clos St Bertin, Oxelaere

19   Requirement before return to UK 

20   Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Categories: Europe

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