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!
Every now and again you write a post and you think “That is a good one” you think “I am going to be busy dealing with responses to this one” and then no one stops by to read it, comment on it or even just press the like button in passing.
I wish I understood WordPress and the people who use it.
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