Ghosts of The Somme - We Are Here
In a week which saw the exit of the UK from the EU; a unification originally meant to prevent war on the continent ever again, Europe and the UK have been busy remembering 1 July 1916; today is the centenary of the first day of fighting in the Battle of The Somme.
These days you can cycle the battlefields of Europe, a particularly poignant trip this year.
Characterised by some of the most criminally stupid military leadership decisions; and that’s saying something, on 1 July English, Scots and Welsh troops alone had over 55,000 casualties, of which 19,000 died.
That same day, the Germans another 12,000 dead, the French lost thousands, the Australians, the Kiwis, the Canadians, Indians and Pakistanis, South Africans and even poor bloody Bermuda sent troops.
You could start in Flanders and attend the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate – a tribute to the dead and missing of the Ypres. Commemorated every day since 1928 except during the German occupation - even in 1944 as the Germans were retreating from the other end of town, the locals immediately recommenced the ceremony at the Gate. The Menin Gate lists the names of 55,000 soldiers with no known grave.
You could ride along Belgium's excellent cycle ways and stop at the Essex Farm Cemetery; where John MacRae wrote "In Flanders Fields" , the poem which gave us the poppy flower as the symbol of remembrance.
You could ride on to the Langemark cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers are buried, and then on to Tyne Cot Cemetery, home of another 12,000 war graves and the names of another 35,000 missing dead. Travelling by bike gives you time to ponder what you've just seen and read, and to contrast the modern day rural pleasantness with the mud and the death of 100 years ago.
You might stop at the mine craters of the Messines Ridge. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded that day after the attack on Messines, the prelude to which was the detonation of 19 massive mines, with the blasts reportedly heard in London. Both British and Commonwealth troops, notably the ANZACS advanced slowly behind a creeping artillery barrage. There's a New Zealand Memorial at Messines.
You could cycle on to Fromelles, and think about the scenery, and of more bitter fighting by Australians and visit the Canadian Memorial at Vimy Ridge with its lunar landscape of craters. The memorial park contains sections of trench and tunnels, which you can walk through, as well as a small museum.
Then to Gommecourt and then Serre, with its haunting cemeteries and the memorials to the "Pals Battalions". Back then recruitment had this fantastic idea of signing up friends and families in the same battalions; so that when a specific battalion was wiped out with no survivors, entire families, entire villages and small towns lost all their men aged under sixty.
Entire generations of craftsmen, farmers, gone. Newfoundland and Labrador lost so many men they had to give up the idea of pursuing their independence; they simply no longer had a sustainable population.
Cycle to Beaumont Hamel and past the Hawthorn Ridge mine crater to Auchonvillers and then the Newfoundland Memorial Park, where the Newfoundland Regiment was all but wiped out with all of its officers and 90% of its men killed or wounded on 1 July 1916. The memorial at Thiepval, which together with the Menin Gate, is perhaps the most important of the Great War. Dramatic views of the open landscape are seen through the soaring arches where the names of 75,000 missing are carved.
There are so many more sites of remembrance you could visit, either with an organised cycling battlefields tour group, or even just with a friend; the battlefields maps are easy to follow and the roads are excellent. There's something about doing this by bike, by putting more personal effort into it, that makes me feel it would be a more meaningful trip.
So Lest we Forget for the sacrifices, for the people who gave their lives, but eternal shame and Best We Forget on military leaders who sat away from the danger, the decision-makers who blithely ordered their country’s children off to die horrible bloody deaths.