Friday 13th April 2012, Tournai, Belgium
We’ve now crossed into Belgium, but only temporarily. Tomorrow we hope to take the train to Lille and this is the nearest campsite we could find.
This morning it was freezing inside Modestine and even colder outside. We heroically showered despite the facilities having no heating and cold stone floors. (Thankfully tonight’s site is much more cosy.) By 9am we were on our way to Vimy Ridge, midway between Arras and Lens, and the site of the Canadian troops’ great victory in 1917.
The ridge, towering above the surrounding plains, was a significant point in the German defence system. French assaults in 1914-15 failed to capture it and the German army was heavily entrenched. Attacking on 9th April 1917, using superior weapons, advanced strategies and having the element of surprise, the four Canadian divisions, working together for the first time, stormed the ridge and broke through the enemy lines. Victory came at a price with over 10,000 casualties including 3,598 soldiers who lost their lives. However it changed the course of the war for the Allied forces and instilled a great sense of pride in the Canadian nation. Before this, fighting had reached a stalemate along the Western Front as opposing armies struggled to push back the enemy. Following the breakthrough at Vimy, Allied forces pushed forward and by 1918 the war was at an end. The Germans however learned much about Canadian tactics at Vimy which they put to good use at Paschendale shortly after when the Canadians, though eventually victorious, suffered even greater casualties.
On the highest point of the ridge there is an impressive Canadian war memorial constructed from white limestone. It is inscribed with the names of more than 11,000 Canadian soldiers killed in France who have no known grave. Many are buried in cemeteries in the surrounding countryside. In total over 66,000 Canadians died in France during WWI.
The surrounding woods along the top of the ridge are pockmarked with shell craters and the remains of trenches zigzag between the trees. Sections of both the German and Canadian defences have been restored. They are in a far better state than they would ever have been at the time and we were able to climb down right into the trenches of the front line on both sides, separated by only a few metres of no-man’s-land broken up by craters from artillery bombardment and underground mining. Although a moving experience the area has been completely sanitised and we were accompanied round by charming, helpful young Canadian guides. Because of this it did not make the same impression that we experienced at Verdun where we felt we had stumbled into the battlefield during a brief lull in the fighting which might resume at any moment.
One thing we had never realised is that apart from trenches, both sides built tunnels under no-man’s-land towards each others’ trenches. Sometimes these would be packed with explosives and detonated, at other times they provided a safe area for front-line command centres, housing troops and, as happened with the Canadian soldiers at Vimy, enabling thousands of troops to come right up to the enemy lines before breaking out of the tunnel to pour onto the unprepared German troops, taking them by surprise. We joined a group of young Australians touring the battlefields of Northern Europe before heading towards Gallipoli for the annual Anzac memorial service on 25th April. Together we were taken down into the tunnels, cut into the chalk and stretching some eleven kilometres beneath the ridge. We followed the very stretch that was taken by Canadian soldiers, where they slept in the tunnel on the night of 8th April 1917. At 5.30am the final part of the tunnel was broken through and the assault began.
We’d been up on the ridge all morning. History becomes very real when you can actually walk the same trenches and touch the same tunnel walls as these young soldiers. That is as far as I wish to follow them. I’m happy to observe it from the safe distance of 95 years on. They were undoubtedly very brave but even now I cannot imagine how they must have felt in the mud of the trenches, how they stayed sane, ate their last meal in the darkness of the tunnel, picked up their weapons and moved forward to meet their fate. And those that survived then moved on to do it all over again at Paschendale, knowing exactly what horrors they would be facing.
During the afternoon we drove across the rest of France, traversing countless small French towns all with their road works, diversions and Lidl supermarkets. We reached Tournai mid-afternoon and settled Modestine on the campsite. Chatting to the manager here we told him of our plans to take the train to Lille tomorrow. He looked concerned and warned us it was a long walk to the station and parking would be difficult. He then offered to drive us there himself! People can be just so kind! We walked into town this afternoon and found our way to the station. It’s not too bad so I don’t think we need to bother him but such friendliness leaves us with a lovely glow.
Having checked out the trains we returned to the historic town centre, passing through pleasant gardens with fountains and statues. The Grand-Place is triangular in shape, cobbled and surrounded by brick houses with stepped façades or scrolled gables. Most of the buildings were damaged during WWI and as at Arras have been rebuilt in style. Personally I cannot tell which parts are old and which rebuilt, so carefully has it been done. There is the old cloth hall and also a beautiful 13th century belfry which is on the Unesco World Heritage list. So too is the cathedral.
To get under the skin of Belgium we found a lively bar and spent a pleasant interlude sampling the local beer while the rain fell outside. By the time we’d walked back to the campsite by a route taking in more historic sites it was time to prepare supper in our faithful Remoska.
Saturday 14th April 2012, Tournai, Belgium
It was a chilly 2 degrees when we woke to the sound of our alarm at 7am. There was also a clinging white fog as we made our way on foot to the station. The countryside of flat agricultural land was mainly hidden in the mist as the international train whisked us back across the border into France. Just before we arrived at Lille we passed an imposing building with a sign proclaiming it to be the Université de la Poste. We were intrigued. What exactly did they teach them? Having attained a degree in deciphering badly addressed envelopes could they then study for a masters in bicycle maintenance, sack handling and violent dog avoidance? One thing was for sure, they’d be men of letters once they graduated!
At 9am we walked out of Lille-Flandres station into the heart of the city. Once, not long before we retired, by chance both of us were sent to separate meetings in London by our employers on the same Friday afternoon. On a whim, instead of returning to Exeter in the evening we took the Eurostar TGV to Lille for the weekend. We enjoyed it so much we were eager to return today when we found it as vibrant, impressive and full of character as we did back then.
We have been walking around the city all day. Due to an old foot injury I was exhausted by lunch time and our progress during the afternoon was at a slower pace. We have though, “done” Lille! With more time we would have gone into more museums, civic buildings and churches but we have at least seen all the principal sites. Lille is the capital of Northern France and has much of the atmosphere of Paris with its wide, tree-lined boulevards, manicured parks, 19th century tenements with their wrought-iron balconies, suburban street markets and of course its cafe culture. There are bars and coffee shops on many street corners. The sun eventually appeared and making up for lost time it shone cheerfully encouraging visitors to take advantage of the pavement terraces.
The centre of the city has several huge cobbled squares, one dominated by the Opera and the gilded clock tower of the Chamber of Commerce.
The other is even larger and more magnificent with a large central fountain and ornately decorated civic buildings. The Grande Place has been renamed Place General de Gaulle in honour of the former president and statesman born in the city.
Walking across town we found the Musée de Beaux-Arts overlooking a public garden with the Prefecture on the opposite side.
We walked up to the citadel, yet another designed by Vauban with star shaped battlements. Today we discovered at last why there are so many forts designed by him. He was commissioned by Louis XIV to construct massive, impregnable forts at the boundaries of the French kingdom as new regions were assimilated. A sort of 17th century Maginot line! Lille only became part of France in1667, slightly later than Arras with its similar fort. Prior to this both had been part of the Habsburg Empire.
Near the citadel we discovered an unusual monument in memory of pigeon fanciers of WWI shot by the enemy for their role in the fighting. At that time pigeons were the fastest and most reliable way of getting messages sent between the front line and the centre of command.
Lille international station with hourly trains to London St. Pancras is a complete contrast to the central station. A multi-level glass and steel structure with lifts and escalators it stands beside the modern shopping mall surrounded by modernistic sculptures on a stone concourse.
We investigated both the station and the shopping mall to ensure a balanced impression of the city but quickly moved on to explore the winding, crowded streets of le Vieux Lille with their little artisanal shops selling wines, cheeses, cigars, chic souvenirs and above all, cakes and chocolate. The shop windows are works of art. Somewhere around here we stopped for crusty chicken sandwiches and coffee. We’d certainly earned a sit-down!
By mid afternoon I could walk no more so we took the train back to Tournai. Returning wearily to the campsite we discovered we are located on the side of a recreational lake created from an old quarry where lime was extracted and burned in kilns for agricultural purposes. The local village houses were originally built for the quarry men who created in a corner of one of the quarries a replica of the grotto at Lourdes which they used for their prayers. Open air services are still held there today. Beside the village church we discovered a plaque to one of the quarrymen who refused to work for the enemy during the time of occupation in WWI and died after ill-treatment by the Germans in 1917. He is honoured as a local hero.
And finally, this is the sort of multi-lingual muddle that results in Belgium where they do not have the advantage of the Académie française to maintain the purity of the language!