The Green Fields of France
There are very few hedgerows in the north east of France. The landscape is characterised by gently undulating ridges, swathed in a vast patchwork of wheat, corn and barley, with nothing to break the line of the horizon other than the odd church spire, wind farm or random clutch of woodland.
Looking out across the land from the crest of any ridge, from where the panorama extends if every direction, you can see for miles. It’s a humbling and serene experience, which is apt, given the much of the land is a vast, unmarked grave.
Between 1914 and 1917, the armies of Germany, France and Britain rolled back and forth across this area multiple times, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake that is unimaginable to most people alive today.
In 1914, the juggernaut of the German Imperial Army rolled up to the valley of the river Marne, threatening the outskirts of Paris, before being stopped by their own incompetence and a desperate rearguard action on the part of the French.
During 1915, the Allied and German forces tried desperately to outflank each other, gradually extending their field of conflict out towards the English Channel and the Swiss border.
With nowhere left to fight, the front settled into place, and the pursuit of the elusive breakthrough became all consuming. The Germans tried first, at Verdun, and were pushed back. The British tried next, at the Somme, and lost 20,000 men in a single day July 1st 2016.
Thirty miles of front changed hands twice over the next 12 months, at a price of tens of thousands of young, vigorous lives. There was scarcely a community in Britain, France of Germany who was not affected by the deaths of sons, brothers and husbands. The nation state had literally started eating itself from the inside out, and worse was to follow 30 years later.
I visited northeastern France in June 2014, 100 years after the fighting of the Great War first broke out. The various sites of battles have become tourist attractions, but it would be wrong to think of them as bustling, vibrant places with rows of buses parked outside.
Cemeteries are dotted all over the landscape. Their distribution seems random, but most were started during the war, at locations close to where fighting was taking place. A cemetery in the middle of a field of wheat may seem a bit odd, but 100 years previously there was no wheat in that field. If was cratered morass of death and destruction, bordered on each side by a network of trenches. The armies didn’t have the time or resources to remove bodies to cemeteries in tranquil locations in the rear. They buried their comrades where they fell, and those cemeteries persist today.
Inside the gate of each cemetery, there is a strong box, which holds a directory of the graves in the cemetery, and a visitors book.
In one particularly remote cemetery, close to what was known as the Munich Trench, I found that the last signature in the book was from a week before, and the one previous to that from another week before that. In fact, there were only about 10 signatures during the year 2014.
It was not a surprise to me that some of these cemeteries are so infrequently visited, but in 2014, the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, and in June, it was more of a disappointment than I had anticipated.
The shadow of war, which for decades had stretched across the European consciousness, seemed to have receded entirely. This terrible conflict, which happened when my grandparents were children, seemed almost prehistoric, having no more relevance to the lives and politics of Europeans today than that the diet of the Tyranasaurus Rex.
Walking along the rough farm tracks around Beaumont-Hamel, or Serre, of Fricourt, which thousands upon thousands of so-called “citizen” soldiers, many of whom had never experienced combat before, died on the first day of the Somme offensive, it is not uncommon to come across a shard of rusting metal, dug up at some time over the last hundred years by a plough.
This Iron Harvest – of shrapnel, shell fragments and general detritus of war – is everywhere in the area of the Somme offensive. A special unit of the French Army is permanently stationed nearby, to diffuse unexploded shells, and farmers receive instructions regarding how to handle ordnance that is unearthed by their machines.
Turning a corner here and there, it is not uncommon to find a small pile of spent shells, and local cafes and bars display battlefield curios in the same way that Irish pubs display whiskey jugs and vintage Guinness posters.
It’s a vivid, tactile and ominous reminder that war in Europe is still a huge part of our most recent history, and that the political, social and economic forces that conspired to bring about both the Great War and World War II, although abated, still exist today.