The poem that begins with “In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses row on row” was written by a Canadian, Lieut.-Col. John McCrae, while he was serving as a doctor during World War I. After the death of a close friend who perished, he wrote the poem while thinking about the poppies that grew among the graves of the fallen at his dressing station at a farm near Ypres in Belgium. McCrae didn’t die of wounds, but of pneumonia in January 1918 with the war still raging. He was buried at the Communal Cemetery at Wimereux near Boulogne on the Channel Coast.
Drive through the battlefields of the Somme southwest of Arras on the D929, the highway between Albert and Bapaume, and you can’t help noticing the poppies at the edge of the fields of wheat where white crosses stand “row on row” in the 410 military cemeteries.
There the Great War in 1916 tortured the earth and killed 127,751 British Commonwealth soldiers, with an average death of 893 men per day.
The numbers are frightening. From 1914 to 1918, action on the Somme front alone took the lives of 207,007 Commonwealth servicemen. German dead amounted to 119,672, while the French lost 90,158 souls. The Canadian corps, which went into action only in September 1916, suffered 24,029 fatal casualties, with the Newfoundland Regiment suffering the greatest losses when it fought at the battle for Beaumont-Hamel. Australia mourned the death 23,000 of its soldiers who fell within 45 days, the highest rate of attrition of any army in the conflict.
There are 425,000 identified graves in France and Belgium and 318,000 names of soldiers with no identified grave. More than half of the 5,000 Canadian dead from the battle of the Somme, unleashed on July 1, 1916, have no known grave. The remains of some of them still lie buried in the farmlands of northern France. Their names have been engraved on the walls of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge.
These killing fields made their way into film and literature. “This land here cost 20 lives a foot this summer,” says Dick Diver to Rosemary in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is The Night when they visit the battlefields seven years after the war.
“A whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward from behind. And another empire walked very slowly backwards a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.”
The D929, a road that dates back to Roman times, cuts through the battlefields where the land lies peacefully, unlike that July morning in 1916, when the Allies started their “Big Push.” It’s there that the poppies blow, and it’s there that white headstones grace the land.
Outside Bapaume is the Warlencourt British Cemetery, one of the largest in the Somme area, containing 3,450 graves. A plaque at the entrance notes that bitter fighting took place in 1916 near this site. The cemetery is a concentration cemetery, where the dead were buried close to the place they fell. Some 2,815 British, 478 Australians, 79 New Zealanders, 128 South Africans, four Canadians and two German soldiers now rest under the headstones that bear names, regimental badges and, in the case of a Canadian, the Maple Leaf. The headstones of those who could not be identified have the inscription “A Soldier of the Great War – Known Unto God”.
Farther down this historic road, at the highest point of the Pozières Ridge, two memorials appear on each side of the highway. One is the Tank Memorial that marks the spot from where tanks went into action on Sept. 15, 1916, the first time tanks were used in the Somme area.
Across the road is a memorial marking a grass-covered ground on which a contested windmill stood whose capture and that of the village of Pozières took a heavy toll on the Australians. The stone tablet there notes that “here was the centre of the struggle in this part of the Somme Battlefield in July and August 1916. Australian troops fell more thickly on this ridge than on any other battlefield of the war.”
From there, looking northwest, you can make out the Thiepval Memorial that rises over the former battlefields. Standing 45 metres high, as tall as the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, it commemorates all “the Tommies who died” as the plaque near it says. It is the largest British war memorial, dedicated to all the missing British servicemen who perished at the Somme between 1915 and 1917 and who have no known graves. Their names have been engraved into the walls of the multi-arched structure – 73,357 British soldiers, including 858 South Africans, are immortalized there.
From there, a road leads to the village of Thiepval, or what’s left of it, as the fighting there, in July 1916, was especially cruel. It took three British divisions and some 10 weeks to capture the hamlet. A nearby roadway was officially called the Bloody Road, owing to the mass of dead heaped up on it at the end of the day.
The Thiepval Memorial was inaugurated in 1932 by the president of France and the Prince of Wales. Every year on July 1, the Battle of the Somme is commemorated there.
The gentle Somme landscapes, with their rolling hills and golden wheat fields now bask in the summer sun. Yet the fact that every so often bodies are still being unearthed belies the tranquility. As late as 1982, the remains of 49 British and two German soldiers were discovered by a local farmer. Shrapnel balls, cartridges, bullets and stakes for barbed wire can still be found.
The task of maintaining the cemeteries in northern France and Belgium, resting place of some 600,000 Commonwealth soldiers, is born by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Work on the cemeteries and the gathering of bodies began in 1920 and ended by 1934. The land for the cemeteries was granted by the French and Belgian governments.
If you go:
The best map of the Somme area is the yellow Michelin No. 236 or 53. A car is essential if you are travelling individually. The best car rental plan if you stay in Europe for 21 days or longer is that of Renault Eurodrive. Renault’s website is at www. renault-eurodrive.com.
To book accommodations, either bed&breakfast or self-catering flats in rural areas, visit www.gites-de-france.fr Pictures and e-mail addressses and the owner’s name and telephone numbers are listed.
The site of a grave of a soldier can be traced through the Commonwealth War Graves Commission at its office in Maidenhead, U.K. It also supplies maps with a “cemetery overprint” in the Michelin series numbers 51, 52, 53. (No. 53 deals with the Somme area).