Well, it’s been quite a week. Pandemic numbers have gone practically stratospheric, the world has been holding its breath awaiting the outcome of the US Presidential elections, and in England we’ve gone into #Lockdown2. History in the making. Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK and the traditional two minutes’ silence felt particularly poignant this year. I’m feeling reflective.
Last year, I visited northern France and toured the war graves in the Pas-De-Calais region. I thought it might be a rather sombre trip but despite the natural sadness, it was a very positive experience. Of course, while we might study the World Wars at school, and watch war films such as Dunkirk, actually standing amongst the thousands of white crosses is something else altogether. Exploring the magnificent memorials, and talking to the dedicated team at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, who maintain war cemeteries around the globe, is a remarkable experience. If you get the opportunity to visit The CWGC Experience in northern France it is a fascinating working museum.
The Pas-De Calais is a beautiful area with lush landscapes, plenty to see and do, a thriving artisan wine and beer industry and great food. It’s also a relatively short and enjoyable journey from King’s Cross on the Eurostar, compared to the rigmarole of flying.
Clockwise above: the sumptuous interior of Notre-Dame-De-Lorette at the French Military Cemetery, Ablain-Saint-Nazaire; the exterior; and members of the Guard de Honneur, who stand duty.
Clockwise above: The magnificent Ring of Remembrance is inscribed with the names of almost 580,000 soldiers who died in the Pay-De-Calais alone, including 12 Caswell’s and almost certainly cousin Bert. There are no ranks, only names. I defy anyone not to be moved by this roll call of human sacrifice.
The region is lush and green and when I visited in summer the birds were singing and there were flowers in abundance. It was very peaceful and relaxing, with plenty of space to enjoy the fresh air.
Of course, it’s not only British soldiers who are buried and commemorated in the region. The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy Ridge is stunning. As you approach, walking, up to the top of the ridge the monument grows in size until you arrive at its base and feel almost insignificant alongside such a monumental work of art. There’s a contemporary museum here and you can also explore trenches.
Museum 14-18 at Lens. Clockwise above: Interactive maps showing the extensive bombing of the Pas-De-Calais by town; the museum’s intentionally stark, monochrome outline against the green landscape; and an exhibit marking the death of English poet, Wilfred Owen, at Ors in November 1918.
As always today, I remember Margaret Selina Caswell who died along with her fellow Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in a trench during a German bombing raid in May 1918. Margaret (probably known as Maggie to family and friends) signed up in the village of Tilford in 1916 and was just 20 years old when she died. Of course, I never met Margaret but I adored her youngest sister, Winnie, and her colourful tales of life during WWII.
The women who served in the W.A.A.C.s, later adopted by Queen Mary to become the Q.M.A.A.C., weren’t conscripted but volunteered to support the war effort in the fields of France. I can’t help wondering what my great aunt would have made of today’s world. Then I realise that, serving on the Western Front, she would have been living daily with fear and disease. And back home and elsewhere in Europe the Spanish Flu, the pandemic which began in 1918 and continued until 1920, was raging. I feel humble and eternally grateful.
That’s all for this week. Wherever you are in the world I hope your week ahead sees you safe and well, and hopeful.
As always please check the Foreign travel advice web site for the latest on domestic and international travel guidelines.
Unless otherwise stated, I have no affiliation with the brands mentioned but simply aim to share places and products that have caught my eye. I will always state if a post is sponsored or gifted.