Have Bag, Will Travel
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The campsite where we were staying in the village of Berny-Riviere was about a mile away from the nearby town of Vic-Sur-Aisne. Not many people from the campsite seemed to go there because everything that a family needed was provided for on site.
I didn’t want to go on a trampoline, or a rowing boat, go fishing or play laser-quest and I didn’t want to pay for Wifi when it should be free so I got into the habit of after breakfast taking myself off to the town where I found a rather agreeable bar with pavement tables and free internet access. After a few days my granddaughter Molly began to join me and I liked that.
Vic-Sur-Aisne turned out to be a rather interesting town. During the First-World-War it was almost permanently on the front line with fighting never far away. It sits equidistance between the major battle sites of the Somme to the north and Verdun to the east. What made it important was that it was a major railway interchange where troops would be transferred back and forth to the battle lines in between front line duty and periods of rest or to be hospitalised.
This meant that it came under regular enemy fire and even today the older buildings in the town show pock-marked battle scars where shells and bullets had picked away at the stones and the bricks. A few years ago I visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in old Yugoslavia and twenty years after the civil war I wasn’t surprised to still see the evidence of fighting in damage to the buildings but here in France I was somewhat taken aback to be examining shrapnel damage from a hundred years ago.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is situated on a linear historical site called the Ligne Rouge, which is a walk (a long walk) or a drive along a route which more or less represents the approximate Front Line of the war. Approximate because it did move back and forth a little bit over the four years of the conflict. Every village has a war memorial which honours the fallen in both World Wars and every village has a military graveyard gruesomely disproportionate to the size of the village.
Vic-Sur-Aisne is no exception, it has a population of under two thousand but in the military graveyard there are over three thousand memorial white crosses as headstones. I visited the graveyard one day to pay my respects. On another day I visited the nearby graveyard at Ambleny where there are nearly eleven thousand graves and I was struck by the enormity of the War and the appalling number of casualties.
Ambleny is the largest military graveyard in Picardy and contains the graves of two French soldiers who were caught in civilian clothing in a bar and were shot as deserters to set an example to others. There was no such thing as PTSD in 1917. They were posthumously pardoned in 1923. I bet they were glad about that!
I liked the town of Vic-Sur-Aisne, I liked the Wednesday street market where I bought Toulouse sausage to make a cassoulet, I liked the friendly local people in the bar who made me feel welcome, I liked the boulangerie that sold tempting pastries, I liked sitting on the pavement outside the bar beneath the tower of a medieval castle where I daily reflected on the history of the region and thanked my lucky stars that I have never been involved in such horror as previously took place here.
I daily thanked the soldiers that died here protecting freedom and democracy so that one hundred years later it was possible to come here with my family and friends to enjoy a lovely holiday…
One of the popular activities at La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite was fishing.
These days I can’t really understand the point of catching fish (if fox hunting is illegal then why isn’t fishing – it is the same thing) but I used to go fishing for about three years between ten and thirteen years old. I had a three piece rod, two parts cane and the third part sky blue fibreglass with a spinning reel which, to be honest, I never really got the hang of, a wicker basket, a plastic box for my various floats and miscellaneous bait boxes for bread, cheese, garden worms, maggots and ground bait.
Fishing was generally quite boring but one day became quite lively when my friend Colin Barratt (who was forbidden by his parents to go to the canal on account of not being able to swim) fell in while struggling to land a four-ounce Perch with a home made rod and line.
He had turned up just as we were about to go to the canal so we made him a rod from a garden cane with a bit of string and a nylon line and hook and persuaded him, against his better judgement, to join us. One minute he was standing on the towpath with his garden cane rod and bit of string and there was an almighty splash and Colin was thrashing about in the water, spluttering and gasping and generally struggling for his life. Between us we dragged him out without having to jump in ourselves and took him home and left him dripping and bedraggled on the doorstep. We didn’t see him again for about three months after that but to make him feel better we told him that it was a monster Pike that had pulled him in.
This story was not all childhood fantasy I have to say and had some dubious foundation in fact because there was always a story that there was a big fish lurking in the reeds on the opposite bank to the towpath that was alleged to be a trophy pike which is a rather big fish that can live for thirty years and grow to over thirty pounds in weight – always supposing that no one is going to drag it out of the water on the end of a fishing line that is.
We never really caught very much, a few greedy perch, the odd roach and loads and loads of gudgeon but there was never enough for a good meal. Sometimes if we were fishing too close to the bottom we would bring up a crayfish and the only sensible thing to do was to cut the line and throw it back, hook and all.
Actually by the time I was thirteen I had tired of fishing in the same way that I had tired of Boy Scouts and Saturday morning cinema because by this time I had discovered girls and the only good thing about the canal towpath after that was that it was a good place for snogging. I didn’t really like catching fish at all, I thought it was cruel, so used to dangle a hook in the water with no bait attached while I concentrated on adolescent activities.
Water always had a special attraction and when we weren’t messing about on the canal there was always Sprick Brook where we used to fish for minnows and red-breasted Sticklebacks and take them home in jam-jars in the days before goldfish. Sprick brook ran under the railway bridge on Hillmorton Lane and was just the sort of place where you could have an accident and no one would find you for days until someone organised a search party.
I still find fishing completely pointless and I am always amused by people who have twelve foot rods and sit on one side of the river and I always want to ask them why they don’t just get a shorter one and go and sit on the opposite bank?
Maybe it is because fish are just too smart. One time in Portugal at the the ancient town of Ponte de Lima I walked across a bridge that crosses the River Lima into the town and watched some men optimistically trying to catch the huge carp that we could see clearly swimming in the water below and teasing the optimistic fishermen on the bridge above. They were big fish and had been around a long time so I don’t think they were going to get caught that afternoon.
If it was a pike that pulled Colin into the canal that afternoon I like to think it knew exactly what it was doing!
Close by to where we were staying in Vic-Sur-Aisne was a particular place that I was keen to visit so one morning after breakfast I set off alone towards Compiègne and to the Clairière de l’Armistice, a historic site where the armistice of 1918 brought the First-World-War to an end and where in 1940 Adolf Hitler dictated the terms of the surrender of France.
The site is deep in the Compiègne Forest about forty miles or so north-east of Paris at a railway junction that was quickly prepared in October/November 1918 to enable the German negotiators to meet with the soon to be victorious allies.
It is not a spectacular site, there is nothing grand about it, it is one of those places that you visit because of what happened there not for what you are going to see. Two momentous moments in European history.
It is a clearing now but in 1918 it was still part of the dense forest. On the site is a memorial stone on the site of the railway carriage where the armistice was signed, a statue of Marshall Foch who led the Allied negotiations and a reconstructed Alsace-Lorraine Monument, depicting a German Eagle impaled on a French sword. Alsace-Lorraine in eastern France had been annexed to Germany in 1870 after French defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, an event that France had never accepted, an open wound as it were and 1918 was the date that it returned to France.
“HERE ON THE ELEVENTH OF NOVEMBER 1918 SUCCUMBED THE CRIMINAL PRIDE OF THE GERMAN REICH. VANQUISHED BY THE FREE PEOPLES WHICH IT TRIED TO ENSLAVE.”
There is also a small museum in a squat, ugly building with relics and artifacts from the war and a faithful reconstruction of the railway carriage in which the armistice was signed. I’ll tell you why it is a reconstruction in just a minute…
The terms of the Armistice represented total victory for France and the Allies and abject humiliation for the Germans. There was a revolution in Berlin, the Kaiser had abdicated and now the country was saddled with crippling war reparations and the ultimate humiliation of occupation. In France this must have seemed like a good idea at the time but it began a process of resentment that twenty years later would become the Second-World-War.
There is nothing so satisfying as rubbing peoples noses in the dirt but generally this sort of satisfaction is only ever temporary.
The Armistice was signed at around seven o’clock on 11th November and came into effect at eleven o’clock – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
What I didn’t know is that whilst we use the red poppy as a symbol of remembrance in France they use the blue cornflower in recognition of the traditional colour of the French army uniform.
The railway carriage immediately became a symbol of the victory, for a while it became part of the official Presidential Train and was paraded triumphantly around the country and then after a couple of years it was taken to Paris and exhibited on public display. Later it was returned to the Forest of Compiègne and the museum site and statues were erected in what was now the clearing or glade.
Fast forward twenty years now and Adolf Hitler is in power and in1940 attacks France and the country is defeated and overwhelmed in a matter of only weeks. Hitler visited Paris to celebrate his victory and then turned his attention to the terms of the armistice. This was the moment in history when Germany took its revenge for 1918.
On his way back to Berlin Hitler stopped off at Compiègne, had the railway carriage moved from the museum to the exact spot where the 1918 armistice was signed and there dictated his terms to defeated France.
When he had finished rubbing French noses in the dirt the railway carriage was moved to Berlin as a trophy of war and a symbol of restored national pride and the Armistice site was brutally demolished by German army demolition experts on Hitler’s orders three days later. The Alsace-Lorraine memorial was ceremonially destroyed and all evidence of the site was obliterated, with the notable exception that is of the statue of Marshal Foch – Hitler intentionally ordered it to be left intact, so that it would be left honouring not a victory but only a wasteland and that he could look over it forever and see that everything that he had achieved in 1918 had been reversed. Germany didn’t just have Alsace-Lorraine it had all of France.
For somewhere so significant in European history it is not a big site, an hour or so is enough to see it all but for me this was not the point. I have visited several places where previously the monsters of history might have walked and breathed, Stalin in Moscow, The Emperor Caligula in Rome, General Franco in Madrid, Maximilien Robespierre in Paris but I cannot be absolutely positive that I walked in their exact footsteps, at the armistice sight in the Clairière de l’Armistice I can be completely certain that I walked across the same piece of ground as Adolf Hitler and that is a slightly uneasy feeling.
Who do you think is the biggest monster in World history…?
Adolf Hitler – 60,000,000 WW2 deaths and 6,000,000 Jews in the concentration camps
Joseph Stalin – 60,000,000 citizens of the USSR in a series of political purges
Maximilien Robespierre – 17,000 guillotined in nine months in the Reign of Terror
Emperor Caligula – Mad, Bad and Bloodthirsty, no accurate data available
Pol Pot – 3,000,000 deaths in Cambodian genocide
Margaret Thatcher – 500,000 miners jobs sacrificed on the altar of political dogma
Michael O’Leary – 2,000 flight cancellations 2017 because he is a gobshite twat!
Please feel free to make alternative suggestions…
Back now to Compiègne and to the Clairière de l’Armistice. In 1945 as the Red Army closed in on Berlin the railway carriage was moved for its own protection to a secret site in a forest in Thuringia where at some point it was burnt and destroyed. There are conflicting accounts about this, some say that German SS officers destroyed it to prevent it falling into enemy hands, some say German POWs set fire to it as an act of revenge and others that US troops unaware of its significance dismantled it and used it for firewood. That is why there is a reconstruction at the museum site.
As I drove back to the campsite I reflected on the visit. I had to smirk when it crossed my mind that in 1914-18 and 1939-45 we fought alongside France against the tyranny of Germany but today these two countries gang up against us because we exercise our democratic right to leave the European Union.
Anyway, back now to holidays and the innocence of childhood…
… My granddaughter, she knows nothing about war, conflict, genocide, politics, unpleasantness, not even a little unkindness…
ecause he is a twat
“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace. Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book
Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in France because, according to the Official Tourist Board, there are almost five-thousand but it seems to me to includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and just about two thousand five hundred in Spain.
In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.
The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece. Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.
I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle. Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.
The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.
After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing. A statue of Joan of Arc. There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.
A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine. At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile. During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France. Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.
Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France. To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.
She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.
Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted. The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.
After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.
From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.
I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.
It was too early to book into our holiday accommodation which was only just a few miles away so after a surprisingly good IBIS Hotel breakfast we set out to explore the town of Soissons.
The place was unusually quiet for a Monday morning and many of the shops in the town centre were closed (maybe it was a public holiday or perhaps they just don’t open on a Monday) but we didn’t let that bother us, we hadn’t come for the shops but rather to do some sightseeing.
It is a peaceful town today but it has had rather a turbulent past and on account of its strategic location was once a much more important place than it is today.
I was amused by a passage in a guide book which read – “The election of Pepin the Short took place in Soissons in the 8th century and in 923, following a battle outside the town walls, Charles the Simple gave up his throne in favour of the House of France”
I mention this because if I had been a King at around this time I would have taken great offence to names like these and would have preferred something like Andrew the Brave or Andrew the Wise, something altogether a little more flattering.
This is Pepin the Short…
Although in fairness rather like the unfortunate Pepin I wouldn’t have been able to effectively dispute the title Andrew the Short.
A quick look at Royal history reveals that the French had a habit of giving their monarchs uncomplimentary appendages, Louis II was the Stammerer, Louis V was called the Do Nothing, and Louis VI was known as the Fat!
My research throws up what simply has to be my all-time favourite – sometime in the late thirteenth century, Ivailo of Bulgaria was called the Cabbage! Rather like the England Football Manager Graham Taylor (1990-93) who was unflatteringly branded Turnip Taylor after a run of disappointing results and failure to qualify for the Football World Cup Finals.
I couldn’t help wondering if they were aware of these nicknames or if they were like school teachers who were all given names behind their backs by the students. Come to think about it now however, although we always thought that they were secret I am inclined to believe that each and every one of them knew exactly what we called them.
We used to have a geography teacher called Nogger Hickinbotham, a woodwork teacher called Plod Barker, an art teacher called Tap Underwood and a French teacher called Pluto Thompson but I am afraid that I am completely unable to explain the origin of any of those ridiculous names.
In the first year at Dunsmore School for Boys in Rugby my younger brother Richard helpfully recorded all of these names for posterity in the 1969/70 school Year Book…
Back now to Soissons.
During the Hundred Years’ War, French forces committed a notorious massacre of English archers stationed at the town’s garrison in which many of the French townsfolk were themselves murdered. The massacre of French citizens by French soldiers shocked Europe and Henry V of England, noting that the town of Soissons was dedicated to the Saints Crispin and Crispinian, claimed to avenge the honour of the Saints when he met the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt on St Crispin’s Day 1415.
The last big upheaval in the town was during the First-World-War (1914-18). In the German Spring offensive of 1918 Soissons fell into enemy hands but after massive bombardment by the French in July the town was recaptured. When I say town what I really mean is what was left of it after repeated attacks the centre including the Cathedral was almost totally destroyed and had to be almost completely rebuilt in the post war years.
During the battle the Allies suffered 107,000 casualties (95,000 French and 12,000 American), the Germans suffered 168,000 casualties and the French High Command justified the deaths and the destruction on the basis that Soissons was an important strategic town that protected invasion and occupation of Paris. More about this later…
An interesting fact about the Battle of the Soissonnais and of the Ourcq is that during the campaign Adolf Hitler, the future Führer of Nazi Germany was awarded the Iron Cross First Class at Soissons on August 4th 1918. More about him later…
Anyway we spent an enjoyable morning exploring the streets of Soissons, the Town Hall, the Cathedral (every French Town has a mighty Cathedral) and finally the ruins of the Abbaye de St-Jean-Des-Vignes. The Abbaye is a magnificent place even today but could have been even more magnificent but for the fact that in 1805 the Bishop of Soissons approved its demolition to provide building materials to repair the nearby Cathedral – there was no UNESCO World Heritage Committee to prevent this sort of thing in 1805.
We completed our walk and finished the morning with an ice cream at a pavement bakery and with the clock ticking towards check-in time we left and made our way the La Croix du Vieux Pont Campsite where we still a little bit early so we waited patiently for our lodge to become available and while the children swam in the swimming pool I acquainted myself with the poolside bar facilities.
Does anyone have a favourite memorable nickname?