On the second full day of our stay in Amiens, we drove about forty minutes north to Arras, another name associated with the First World War. It was around 10km from the front line, and it was so badly damaged that around three-quarters of it needed rebuilding after the war. You would never think that now, as you stroll its unusual interconnecting squares framed by colourful rows of buildings.
We started the day by walking right the way around the edge of the two squares taking in the views.
There wasn’t an awful lot going on, as it was a Bank Holiday (and in France that appears to mean everywhere is empty, rather than heaving as it would be in the UK), but there were a few restaurants open and it was a lovely day for sitting out in the sun. A few people were playing petanque in the middle of the square.
The town hall and belfry are apparently a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but were closed, so we’ll have to visit those another time. The city is also famous for its network of medieval tunnels, which were instrumental in allowing British troops to capture the city back from the Germans in 1917. You can visit them, and that’s another thing for our next trip.
This time, we didn’t spend too long in the city itself, as our plan was to make the short drive to Vimy Ridge, scene of a key battle on the 9th of April 1917, the year after the Somme. As you approach the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge, the churned up ground is the first indication that you’re walking on the former battlefield. The ground was granted to the Canadians in 1922 to thank them for their role in the war, and, like Beaumont-Hamel, it’s run by Canadian students.
The land is still so uneven and so dangerous from unexploded shells that a herd of sheep is employed to keep the grass short.
We went on a free guided tour with one of the Canadian students, who was most informative. The site preserves the German and Allied front lines as they were in April and May of 1917, when Canadian forces attacked during the Battles of Arras (on the first day of which the poet Edward Thomas was killed). This is the German front line, showing the trenches a bit more as they would have looked during the war. Apparently the sandbags were falling down and the trenches in a state of decay by the time the Canadians took over the site in 1922, so they were reconstructed along their original lines using concrete-filled sandbags to keep them up. The material from the sandbags has since rotted away, leaving just the concrete.
The Germans had held this spot since early in the war, and it gave them a great vantage point; from the ridge, you can see for miles around. It also gave them control over the nearby coalfields, which were obviously useful.
You can tell that this is a German trench from features like this – a sturdy lookout post. The Allied trenches had dugouts in the walls, but seemingly nothing reinforced with concrete like this.
These huge mine craters in No Man’s Land were created deliberately to help give the Allies an advantage in trench-building – the side of the crater formed a natural defensive line. Along with Beaumont-Hamel, this is one of the very few surviving areas of First World War battlefield in existence. I believe I remember reading somewhere that 80% of the surviving battlefield is managed by the Canadians, one again showing that they had foresight that the British and French seemed to have lacked in preserving the battle-scarred landscape for posterity. Like Beaumont-Hamel, the battleground is also a cemetery where the remains of many soldiers still lie.
Unlike the catastrophe at Beaumont-Hamel during the Battle of the Somme, the Canadian assault on Vimy Ridge was successful thanks to the use of more sophisticated tactics (including a so-called “creeping barrage”, where soldiers advanced behind a rain of bullets) and meticulous reconnaissance and planning. However, 3,598 Canadian men died in this battle and over 7,000 were wounded.
This photo is taken from the Allied front line, looking out over No Man’s Land. You can just see the electric fence to the right that marks out the top of the German front line, so you can see how remarkably close the two lines were. The distance varied, but in some places it was as close as 25 metres. In the excellent on-site museum, I learned that the Germans used to hold up provocative or derogatory signs over the top of their trenches for the Allied troops to read, so that’s another indication of how close they were.
Both the German and Allied trenches preserved here are observation trenches, where each side tried to gather as much information as possible about what the other was up to. This is the Allied trench.
This is a sniper plate, designed to give soldiers some protection from enemy fire as they looked out across No Man’s Land.
A great deal of the Allied activity went on underground in an extensive network of tunnels, which were dug by Welsh miners (who were apparently paid five times as much as a regular soldier owing to the usefulness of their skills and experience underground). You can visit a section of the tunnels as part of the free guided tour, which is well worth doing. It’s cold down there, and it sent shivers down my spine to learn that the soldiers would have to wait down there for anything from 12 to 36 hours before the start of the battle.
It’s a relief to come out into the sunshine after being down there in the cold, damp tunnels. After that we walked up to the monument, which serves as a memorial for the 60,000 Canadians killed in the First World War.
Taking in the view from the monument, you can appreciate why this was such a good stronghold for the Germans. The commanding views made it easy for them to control this area, and you can see the pyramid-like slag heaps that indicate the mining activities that made the area doubly attractive.
We went back to Arras after that, and had a drink sitting in the square while we reflected on everything we’d seen over the past couple of days.
It’s a moving experience visiting the places associated with war, but tremendously interesting as well. It’s hard to imagine the horror the soldiers of the First World War experienced, but visiting the battle-scarred landscape – perhaps accompanied by a book of First World War poetry, and/or some of the haunting photographs taken in the trenches – one can start to get a sense of it. On the subject of which, it seems fitting to end this write-up with a poem, and I’ve been re-reading a great deal of them trying to find one that feels appropriate to end on. I settled on Aftermath, written in 1919 by Siegfried Sassoon. Sassoon survived the war, dying in 1967 and – I never knew this until a few days ago – is buried in Mells, the small village where I went to primary school.
Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz–
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench–
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, ‘Is it all going to happen again?’
Do you remember that hour of din before the attack–
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads–those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?
Have you forgotten yet?…
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.