Showing posts with label France. Show all posts
Showing posts with label France. Show all posts

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: What the kids said

If you read my previous two posts on Vimy Ridge in Northern France, about the Trenches, click here, and the Memorial, click here, you will know that we visited whilst on a family holiday. As you may be able to guess, I have a reputation for encouraging a museum visit or two, especially when visiting somewhere new and this is not always met with enthusiasm.

However, I did my research, got a good recommendation and was not going to miss this opportunity, two weeks before the centenary of the beginning of the World War One, to visit a First World War site.

So in all, fifteen of us went to Vimy Ridge, aged three (my youngest nephew) to seventy-two (my dad).

From arriving and seeing bomb craters, to the memorial, trenches, tunnels and visitor centre, everyone was captivated. In fact my family were so keen that we were often (perhaps annoyingly) one step ahead with our questions. Our guide often replied, "I was just coming to that".

Our guide, Francoise, a Francophile Canadian bought so much to life with stories, information, questions and answers. No question was too much trouble and every one was answered, and he even let the group answer questions and share their stories.
A big public thankyou to Francoise!

In the car heading back, we listened to Terry Deary, his 'Horrible History' of the First World War. 

That evening at dinner (not at my instigation) my sister in law asked the kids if they had had a good day. They had. She then asked them "what they had found out today?" I got my notebook out immediately and began scribbling. Here's what they found out.

"Four out of twenty soldiers got stuck (and died) in the mud." age 10

"Returning soldiers (after the war) were treated badly,
especially those wounded and disabled." age 11

"The soldiers got to know each others faces." age 3 (very nearly 4)

"Adolf Hitler killed himself." age 10

"Hitler survived the whole of World War One as a runner." age 11

"Hitler was the fastest communication runner." age 7

"When you went for a pee, you had to pull your trousers down and have a white flag
as they didn't have toilets in the trenches." age 13

"If you go back (desert the front line) you get shot by your own team mates." age 11

"When trenches are close to each other, they can make truces with each other
so they could do certain things, like Christmas
and agree that they wouldn't throw hand-grenades." age 11

"8 million people died in the war, 20 million died of spanish flu in the world after the war." age 11

"There was 30 meters between the trenches." age 15

"If you were a runner, you would only survive (on average) for four days." age 7

"To find out how far away the gun shot was,
you listened to the gap between the light flash and the sound." age 11

"If you go into the middle of no mans land and the other person goes into the middle
with a white flag, you could have a chat." age 10

"On no mans land, the only thing that could grow is poppies." age 11

I'm sure this isn't just what they learnt at Vimy Ridge, whilst there, we didn't talk about Christmas, nor the poppies. However, it's interesting what children take on board, what they find interesting and important. It's mostly about the human experience of war, about getting stuck in the mud, what happens if you desert, going to the toilet, truces, returning home after the war, and enemies and allies talking to each other.

More information about Vimy Ridge,
a National Historic Site of Canada here.
I highly recommend it for families.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: The Memorial

Mentioned in my last post here, we went 'en famille' to Vimy Ridge in Northern France, a First World War battlefield site. You can read that post by clicking here.
Now I bring you the memorial.

Driving into this National Historic Site of Canada the first thing you all notice is the landscape. "Is that where a bomb landed?", we heard from the back of the car. It was.
We were told that the landscape was scarred by shelling and bombing, but it doesn't really look scarred, it has a kind of beauty, holding memories and prompting questions.

One question was answered for us. The trees were all planted after the war. However, you can't go off and explore, as they can't guarantee that no explosives remain, mines and bombs. Our guide tells us that apparently, "not so far away, a mine exploded during a storm when the ground was struck by lightning".
This impresses the kids.

The monument impresses us all, young and old. It sits on a hill, Hill 145, so called because it is 145 meters above sea level, the highest point of Vimy Ridge.

Walking towards the monument, it's hard to comprehend the scale of it. Commemorating the taking of Vimy Ridge by the Canadian Corps in 1917, remembering the 3,598 Canadians who gave their lives during that battle.
"A victory, but the bloodiest day in history for the Canadians." 

The columns represent Canada and France, the sorrows and sacrifice of war.

Between the columns sits a young dying soldier.

Not sure my nephew should have been climbing the memorial, but just looking at him gave you such a sense of the scale of the monument. The living touching the dying.

The figures on top represent truth and justice, peace and knowledge.

Spirit of sacrifice and Torch Bearer.

Mourners sit at the base, grieving for their loss,

...and male.

Over 11,000 names are carved on the walls, Canadian soldiers who died in France during the First World war, some of whom were never found.

I'm not quite sure who asked it first, I know I was thinking it. Perhaps it was my nephew, my husband, my sister-in-law? But how did something so huge and so white, and considering its location in Northern France, survive the Second World War? Our guide knew the answer. It can't have been the first time it had been asked.

It wasn't a case of luck, that it just happened to survive any bombing by planes flying across Northern Europe.  No, Hitler purposefully, not only spared the Canadian monument but sent SS forces to protect it. In 1940, Hitler had himself photographed at Vimy Ridge to refute the reports in Canadian newspapers that Nazi Germany had destroyed it. Apparently this was all because this is a monument to peace and not a celebration of war.

Sorrow and sacrifice. 

More about the Vimy Ridge memorial on this website here

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Vimy Ridge: The Trenches

It seems fitting that for this month,
with the centenary of the beginning of the First World War,
that we visit sites that pay homage and commemorate the 'Great War'.
I began November with my last post about the poppies at the Tower of London, here.

During the half-term break,
we went to Vimy Ridge in Northern France, a National Historic Site of Canada.

Despite wondering how you should behave
when visiting places that mark very solemn events
(especially with our kids and their cousins, all eight of them, aged three to fifteen),
we were excited to find out that we were in Canada.
Well on Canadian soil anyway,
the French have given the land, this historic site, 107 hectares to Canada.

When driving into the site, the first thing that struck all of us
was the ground,
pockmarked by shells.

 Recently I have been looking at paintings by Paul and John Nash,
commissioned as official war artists during the First World war,
and have been puzzled by their paintings of the landscape, so bumpy and undulated.
But seeing this, it all made sense.
The ground at Vimy Ridge was never levelled after the war,
it still holds evidence of shell holes and bomb craters.
However after the war, it was reforested,
we were looking at trees all the same age, nearly 100 years old.

If you're interested to see how John and Paul Nash painted the landscape,

All fifteen of us booked into an English language tour by a Canadian guide
and headed underground.

Our tour guide began by making the context for the Canadian involvement
in the First World war very clear.
In 1914 Canada was still part of the British Empire,
so as our guide told us, when Britain declared war, Canada was by rights involved.
It wasn't a question of asking whether or not to participate,
but of deciding what their contribution should be.
Canada sent four divisions, their soldiers all volunteers.

For me, this was a day of challenging so many preconceptions,
making me think about things that had never even struck me before.
The landscape, the Commonwealth.

Underground, "subways" (we are in Canada) were built to bring men to the front,
safely and secretly.
Fourteen miles of tunnels, one meter wide and two meters high,
were dug out by hand, by Welsh miners, through the chalk ground.

Using these...
...pick axes and shovels.
They make much less noise than using explosives to blast your way through the ground.
It took them three months, working 24 hours a day, three eight hour shifts.

The tunnels have been modified for visitors today,
widened and supported with concrete.
However the problem of flooding remains.
Soldiers often had to wade knee deep through these tunnels,
and recently they have had to close the tunnels to visitors and wait for the water to recede.
The colour of the walls shows the water line from the last flood.

Underground there were headquarters, electricity,
telecommunications and some accommodation.
You got to sleep down here if you were a runner.

Runners were a vital part of communication.
Running from the front line, wearing a white armband, back to operations with messages.
This sounded dangerous, and it was.
We were asked what we thought was the average life expectancy of a runner
on the front line.
No-one could have guessed at the answer.
Four days!
But this was a post soldiers willingly volunteered for,
the reward of six times your regular salary,
and getting to sleep in the relative safety and shelter of the tunnels,
being away from the trenches, must have perhaps made it an appealing option
despite the risks.

"Anyone know the most famous German runner?"
There's a story.

From the tunnels, we headed to the front line, to the trenches.
"Trenches of 1917/18, like fortresses, very well thought out defences."

These trenches once two and a half meters deep,
are now lined with replica concrete sandbags and duck boards.

In the visitor centre you get an idea of what the walls of the trenches
would have looked like,
real sandbags and barbed wire,
without the rats, wet and lice that plagued the them.

Facing the enemy, a place to put your rifle and protect your head.

Although this trench is kitted out with replica sandbags and duckboards,
its position is very real.
Here in Vimy Ridge, the front line is only thirty meters from the German trenches opposite.
We were astounded,
Apparently soldiers began to recognise each others faces across no mans land.

From the German front line, faces were easy to spot in the Canadian trench opposite.

Between front lines, bomb craters, no mans land landscaping,
exploded deliberately to make crossing it difficult.

Learning about war in the trenches,
led us to ask questions about life in the trenches.
Where did you go to the toilet?
What happened if you ran away?

The toilet facilities:
Apparently there were latrine trenches,
but if there weren't, there was a truce, the deal here was that
if you climbed over top with a white flag and your pants down (remember this is Canadian speak), you were signalling that you were going to the loo (British speak)
and you weren't shot at.
There was also a truce, an agreement, at Vimy Ridge that hand-grenades would not be used.

As for running away, a question asked by my eleven year old son,
I wondered what was going through his mind.
Deserters were, "shot by their own".
they were few in the Canadian Corp.
We were told that this was perhaps because they were volunteers.
In the words of our guide, the soldiers knew that,
"if you deserted there was a hundred percent chance you were going to die,
if you advanced (over the top), you might live".
What a way to live.

Photos in the visitor centre

It was with this visit in mind that the following weekend,
we went to see the Tower Poppies at the Tower of London,
Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red,
a poppy for each Commonwealth and British fatality.
Looking at the sea of red poppies in the moat, it wasn't too difficult to imagine those
blood swept lands.
You can read my thoughts on the Tower Poppies on a previous post, here.

Information about Vimy Ridge and visitor centre, here.

This seemed like such a long post,
that I have decided to post about the Vimy Ridge memorial separately in my next post,
coming soon.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Chambord: "House!"

On holiday in France we went to see Chambord
a beautiful yet absolutely huge chateau,
a royal palace,
the largest in the Loire Valley.

Chambord wasn't intended as a permanent residence,
Francoise the first only spent a few weeks a year here.
Some holiday home!

Consequently all the furnishings were temporary,
kings and queens of France, didn't travel lightly,
they brought everything with them.

Imagine carting all this stuff around and then unpacking,
hanging curtains,

and draping walls.

They really really didn't travel lightly.

My family is not that familiar with the kings and queens of France,
but helpfully their paintings are labelled.
We've heard of Marie Antoinette,
her reputation precedes her.

Wondering what kings and queens of france got up to
for those few weeks a year in their country residence,
we spotted a few clues in their taste for home decor.
This research is evidenced based,
we have no specialist knowledge of French history,
it's just based on what we saw.



and wild boar,
with ferocious looking hounds.

On the ground floor,
everywhere you look, 
quarry is being savagely attacked by dogs,
in oils and bronze.  

These foxes got off lightly
they look relatively unscathed.

However upstairs,
 more 'genteel' entertainment is on display.

The "National Board Game".

I say 'genteel', we obviously don't know how competitive Marie Antoinette was.
Mind you, I might have let her win, more often than not!

We recognised this game.
We loved the idea of Marie Antoinette playing bingo.
A far cry from a bingo night in the village hall.
How do you say "legs eleven" in French?


Even Marie Antoinette's dog was more 'genteel' in appearance.
That demure face and yellow ribbon,
surely no threat to the wild boar.

Hunting and board games not for us,
we had a great time...

...playing hide 'n' seek in the fireplaces,

...reminded of Dickensian alleyways on the roof terrace,
auditioning for 'Oliver'.

...and marvelling at how this 'upstairs' stone parquet flooring,
'bounced slightly as visitors moved around the room.
Was it going to fall down?

Surely with this magnificent ceiling below, it couldn't.

I couldn't end this blog post  without showing you Chambord's famous
double helix staircase.
Two spiral staircases that intertwine over three floors
yet never meet.

Kind of simple,
but complicated,
especially as they go in the same direction.
It was said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci.
There's no proof though.

If you're in the area,
do pop in.
Chambord's details are on the website here.
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