Signs of war

I came upon this piece recently.I wrote in in 2007 and looking it over now, I probably decided I hadn’t quite finished it off. But maybe that’s correct for war always seems to leave unfinished business.

–ooo–

The first world war finished close on 100 years ago. I judge that it would be hard for most people to look at a landscape and be able to see signs of it ever having taken place. There are visible remains of trenches in places, gentle undulations now which hide their former significance. I can think of one place, quite near the town of Albert (Somme) where there is a huge bomb crater, preserved as a tourist attraction. But in the Somme area, which I know better than the Belgian area around Ypres, there is gentle, rolling countryside with woodland and attractive villages. A close look reveals that the villages have no truly old buildings – they all seem to be of approximately 1920s construction.

What there are, of course, are vast cemeteries.

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This one is French and is on Vimy Ridge. Just to visit is a really moving experience.

World War 2 leaves far more relics. I imagine most military structures were built to cope with war and, although damaged, the remains are enormous pieces of concrete. From our, UK perspective, it was very much a coastal war. The D Day landings took the most appalling number of lives, but effectively, the war was won in the coastal strip and the advance to Paris and then in to Germany was moderately swift.

The British coast has many structures called pill boxes where soldiers could hide up safely and snipe at intruders. So, too, the French coast, but they were invaded and much damage was done.

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It was only two or three days ago that we stopped off at Cap Blanc Nez – I had seen that the visibility was quite good whilst driving on the motorway near Boulogne. The English coast was visible. I’d been up on this headland several times before, but this time the low sun really accentuated the shell holes all over the hillside. I expect they were fired from ships to ‘soften up’ the enemy, but there were guns capable of firing 7 ton shells across the channel.

The Normandy beaches, where D Day took place, are over 200 miles from this scene, near Calais. If anything, they are even more pitted by shellfire.

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This is Pointe du Hoc. A German gun emplacement here was taken by a force of 220 Americans who had to fire rope ladders up a cliff and then climb up. 220 started. Just 90 made it. What we see in this shot is that ‘softening up’ process. This was a place where Germans lived and obviously killed many Americans. But over 60 years on it is easy to see why the fight had been taken out of them.

We are quite sensitive to the German war graves and the families who come to visit them. I can go and visit the graves of my great uncles and other, more distant relatives and I can have that sort of smug feeling that they died for what was right. Mind you, I’m talking WW1 there and in truth, nothing was right. But for the relatives of German WW2 soldiers things must be tough because, I assume, most Germans accept that Hitler was evil, or at least misguided. It must be hard to go to a grave and think, ‘my relative died for a cause that was wrong.’

On a previous visit to this area, as long ago as 1991, we visited the Peace museum at Caen. The first exhibit is newsreel film of the D Day landings. But film taken by people on both sides is shown, side by side. It’s moving too. There’s a song I know and love, actually about an English civil war battle at a little place in Oxfordshire, called Cropredy which goes,

‘The king’s men fought in red and gold. Though Cromwell’s men were plainer
The blood they spilled was coloured just the same.’

The song is Red and Gold – performed by Fairport Convention.

And of course, the side by side films at Caen make that very point – there were two sides to the war and they died and were severely maimed, just the same.

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