Bandicooting in the Somme – Visiting Commonwealth War Graves

We cruise into Dover a few hours before our 10pm ferry sailing. I put 150 pounds on my phone at the money machine and we buy a cheap roast chicken, bread rolls and a bottle of milk for dinner. We eat in the van in the ferry car park, watching the endless lines of trucks coming and going from the wharf.
It’s early autumn and warm with a light rain. We notice that virtually no passengers or cars use this ferry service, just truckies. Before we drive on board we have to be checked by the French border police. The young woman who stamps our passports does it with her left hand which also holds a lit cigarette. Welcome to France! They stick a tool into our petrol tank, checking for something illegal. Please declare all animals. This couldn’t be more different from entering New Zealand.
We’re at the head of the queue now. A big screen keeps us entertained with messages including the statistics of Dover port, the busiest ferry port in Europe. Yesterday 6683 trucks, 332 coaches, 6422 cars and 36,370 people passed this way.
On board with the van safely parked in the hold, we stand in the stern and watch the white cliffs receding. Excited doesn’t begin to describe how we feel.
We’re second off the ship in Dunkirk. It’s after 1am and we’re looking for a car park where we can spend the night but there’s just an endless straight road with rabbits running in the headlights. No traffic and no worries for John driving on the right.
We find the little town of St Martin-au-Laert, park in a flower-filled square outside the town hall and crawl into bed.
At 8.30 next morning as workers park their cars around us, we climb into the cab and head into the country to make breakfast.
It’s flat – a region of agribusiness with huge paddocks, no fences and no weeds.

Farming the French Way
Farming the French Way

At Sailly-le-Sec we check in to a peaceful camping ground and entertain ourselves with a copy of the Times which is days old. We learn that the Duke of Edinburgh, Patron of the Guinea Pig Club, was represented by an Air Vice Marshall at a service of thanksgiving to mark the 65th anniversary of the club. After a couple of years in Britain this sort of thing still gives us a laugh.
That night we hear an owl calling.
Next morning we walk along the banks of the Somme which is wide and slow. Men are fishing from stands with long poles. Huck Finn comes to mind.

Somme River, France
Somme River, France

On our way again we barrel along avenues of planes and poplars, and look across ploughed and newly harvested expanses of chalky soil. Potatoes are mounded in piles the length of a small train. Charles Dickens’ 1846 description “from a dreary plain, to an interminable avenue, and from an interminable avenue to a dreary plain again” still applies.
We stop at Bronfay Farm Military Cemetery which has the graves of 500 Commonwealth soldiers. The farm over the road has a mural on the barn – the Red Baron’s Fokker triplane in a dogfight with a French plane.

The Red Baron, Bronfay Farm, France
The Red Baron, Bronfay Farm, France

The cemetery is beautifully kept with well tended roses and other bright flowers. Snails with shells striped in pink, black and yellow crawl across the headstones. Peacock butterflies cling to a bush of large pink flowers. Solitary oak trees stand on the perimeter, with a green sea of maize stretching beyond that.
Heading off again we come across red poppies on the roadside. A kestrel hovers. Military cemeteries appear every couple of kilometres.
The horizon is stencilled with the shapes of trees, church spires, villages, farm buildings and patches of forest.
Just out of Longueval, the New Zealand Memorial is enclosed on three sides by 8 metre Lawson cypresses, and encircled by a low beech hedge. Symmetry rules in Commonwealth War Graves Commission constructions.

New Zealand Forces Memorial at Longueval, France
New Zealand Forces Memorial at Longueval, France

The New Zealand soldiers arrived here on 15 September 1916, fresh from the horrors of Gallipoli. It’s a very depressing thought. We get out the army surplus folding shovel and bandicoot some potatoes from a neighbouring field in memory of those ill-fated young men so far from home.
Down the road we pull over and ask a woman for directions to the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery. When I tell her we’re from New Zealand she beams.
The cemetery is elevated above the surrounding countryside, huge and orderly, containing graves and memorials for British, Australian, South African, Canadian and New Zealand soldiers. Carved into the headstones are the insignia of the various regiments: for New Zealand a fern, Cheshire an acorn and oak leaves, Ireland a harp, South Africa an antelope, and the Gordon Highlanders have a deer.
Over a thousand names of missing New Zealand soldiers are inscribed on a wall while 219 are buried here. Of the 750,000 Commonwealth soldiers who died in World War 1, over 500,000 were in France, and of those 300,000 have no grave.
It’s a very sobering experience, lessened slightly by the beauty of the architecture and the peacefulness of the surroundings. We’ve felt compelled to pass through this place and pay our respects before heading off for a month of self indulgent rambling.
We chat to a stonemason painstakingly restoring headstones. He tells us that ten men are employed on the stone work in this area, as well as gardeners. The stone is brought out from England.

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, France
Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, France

Then we’re off again down more avenues. Off a back road we find a secluded spot surrounded by forest, park for the night and sample the local red wine. We love it. Now which one was that? The 3 Euro bottle or the 5 Euro one? We can’t work out which day of the week it is. I pick up a piece of chalk and it looks like cheese.

Our Park in the Forest
Our Park in the Forest

Our next night is in Langres a walled Medieval town. We go for a walk and come across an old lady. I say “bonjour” and she’s taken aback to be spoken to by a tourist. She says we are “gentils” and wishes us “bonnes vacances”.
A very cheap and laid back camp on the ramparts looks perfect so we fetch the van and park it before the evening influx of mainly Dutch and German campers. It’s fascinating watching them activate the stabilisers on their immaculate caravans with a special gadget, wearing gloves. With their satellite dishes, laptops, doormats and pets they’re in sharp contrast to us in our builder’s van with little more than a mattress and toilet in the back.
We luxuriate in the simplicity of our life. We have everything we need and French supermarkets provide the rest with their fabulous olives, salami, cheeses and wine. The bakeries are almost religious in their provision of crisp and fragrant bread. French drivers are exemplary with their courtesy and good behaviour, and the roads are a gentle introduction to driving in Europe, signposted to perfection.
A sign in Langres tells us that Venice is 820 kilometres away. We need to get moving south now to maximise our time in Italy. The country is rolling with smaller farms, cattle in beautiful condition, and birds of prey. We cross the sprawling Rhone River with its turquoise snow fed water then see forested mountains in the distance.
After a night in the railway station car park in Voiron we make a big push for Italy, south east past Grenoble then into spectacular mountains. It’s all hydro dams, tunnels, waterfalls, conifers, and deciduous trees showing their autumn colours.

Heading to the Pass
Heading to the Pass

We pass mountains up to 3500 metres high, and behind them even bigger ones. In a tiny village we see a large concrete elephant standing beside the road. It must be a reference to Hannibal who left Spain with thousands of soldiers plus elephants in the spring of 218 BC and travelled to Italy to attack the Romans, probably crossing the Alps just south of the pass we’re using, the Col de Montgenevre at 1854 metres.
At 2000 metres we see cattle, one with a big bell round its neck, then half a kilometre of road is covered with a concrete roof to protect the traffic from avalanches. We head down through a long valley in 4th gear and John is crowing over the van’s compression. Donkeys, larch and rosehips flash past in the gaps between the tunnels.
We stop for an hour in Briancon and fortify ourselves with bread stuffed with runny Rocquefort cheese and our own espresso. Gathering our thoughts we have a quick Italian lesson: “buon giorno”, “arrivaderci”. Well it’s a start.
There’s no visible border crossing and suddenly we’re in Italy, freewheeling downhill with a sense of anticipation to rival Dickens or Hannibal.

© 2011, Travel Magpie. All rights reserved.

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