"He’s a cheery old card," grunted Harry to JackOf course, we weren't slogging on foot but cruising on motorcycles, and Howard's plan of attack was more or less faultless.
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.
Inspired by last year's battlefield tourism around Ypres, this was a long weekend on the Somme. It was more about sightseeing than riding, but the beauty of bikes is that the journey is part of the fun. Unless it's raining.
We were a group of ten, on eight bikes. Some of us hadn't met each other before, but there's nothing like a shared riding experience to make dinner conversation flow. Five of us met up at Maidstone services on Friday May 1st, we picked up another pair at the Eurotunnel terminal, then the holiday was under way.
One of our party, Mike, wanted to find the final resting-place of a family member. Armed with a location and plot number, we visited one of the many, many small cemeteries dotted around the region, their lawns, plants and gleaming white headstones tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It was nice to feel we had a connection to these long-ago heroes.
We went on to the Australian Memorial Park at Fromelles with its emotive statue, 'Cobbers', and the soaring white towers of the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge. From here it was just a few treelined miles to the town of Arras and our hotel in a cobbled square. I checked in and returned to the bike for my luggage just as the last three members of the expedition, who had taken a later shuttle, rolled in.
On Saturday everyone eschewed the hotel's €9 breakfast and went in search of coffee and croissants at the various cafés around the square. A pleasant ride out of Arras found us at the Museum of the Somme shortly before it closed for lunch, so we decided to go elsewhere.
We had lunch in the village of Auchonvillers, which the Tommies, bless them, dubbed Ocean Villas, at a tea room featuring excellent food, half a dozen cats, and part of a support trench.
Most of the afternoon was spent at Newfoundland Park. For some reason, I found this the most profoundly moving experience of the weekend. Perhaps because Newfoundland was so tiny, remote and poor, yet gave her sons so willingly; perhaps because of the enormous feeling of peacefulness that pervades the site, or the beautiful statues. Also, if you have already learned that when two or three headstones in a cemetery are touching it's because the bodies were so tangled up the parts could not be reliably matched up with their proper owners, imagine the impact of coming upon this:
All the stones in those two long rows are touching each other.
On our first evening we had enjoyed a three-courses-plus-cheese meal of local cuisine; tonight we gave in to the crippling exchange rate and had pizza. The evening was no less jolly for this, however.
We returned to the Museum of the Somme on Sunday morning just as it started to rain heavily. Housed in a mediaeval tunnel under the town (which was used as late as the Second World War, as an air raid shelter) and filled with dioramas, documents and relics, this was well worth the trip. To make it back out into the open air you have to pass through a very effective simulated trench with sound and light effects.
When we emerged from underground the rain had stopped. Excellent planning, there.
There was just time to inspect the vast Lochnagar mine crater on our way to lunch at Le Tommy, where they do English-style chips but unfortunately also English-style omelettes.
The last stop of the day was Delville Wood, site of a bloody six-day battle for the South African Brigade and now a memorial dedicated to South African military history.
Howard had promised a day of 'proper riding' on Monday, and this was duly delivered with an outing to the Clarière de l'Armistice, the railway carriage where the Armistice was signed on November 11th, 1918 (actually a reproduction of the fittings in an identical carriage, since the original was destroyed by the Germans after the French surrender in 1940).
It took us longer than expected to reach Compiègne, and we decided to stop for food somewhere on the way. But before that, there was another stop to make. I was going to see the Red Baron crash site.
I have written a more detailed account over at wings_n_wires. This square of yellow rape was where it happened - where the highest-scoring ace of the First World War landed his plane in his dying moments, the identity of his killer a mystery that would trouble historians into the next century. As you can tell from the photo, I was unnaturally delighted to be overlooking a freezing, windswept field when I could have been having dinner.
Our final group meal and the last ride back to Arras, watching the line of bobbing red tail-lights up ahead as I tail-ended the procession.
The next morning the party began to break up: three had already left for prior commitments, another set off for a baccy run, and the southern contingent parted from us at Vimy Ridge, where we had returned for another look. Howard and I lingered for a tour of the reconstructed trenches and the mining tunnels, enjoyed sandwiches in a nearby bar, were taken to the Eurotunnel freight terminal by sat-nav freakout, missed our slot and incurred a penalty charge.
I said goodbye to Howard at Maidstone services, four days and 700 miles after our rendez-vous. I hope I've given some idea of how rich in history and sights this area is; I haven't even mentioned the other cemeteries and smaller memorials we stopped at, or the many we passed along the way. Plans for a return trip are already in the works...