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…