Thursday, 23 July 2015

Battlefields of the North

American cemetery at Omaha Beach
We have spent the last two weeks in Normandy and Picardy, two rural regions in the North of France known for their war history and natural beauty. Both have had turbulent pasts, being invaded by France's neighbouring countries numerous times.

Normandy's lush countryside and long stretches of coastline tell a chilling tale about the war days in France. The beaches of the North coast are where the D day surprise invasion by the Allied forces took place which marked the beginning of the end of World War Two. You can easily imagine how the countryside may have looked and felt during the German Occupation. There is a trail dedicated to D day directing tourists to the beach landing sites, cemeteries for the soldiers and bunkers. We visited Omaha Beach, where American troops landed on 5th June 1944. We went to the American cemetery and memorial which is pristinely kept and so surreal against the blue sky. It is one of those memorable moments when you see the rows of white crosses stretching infinitely into the distance in every direction. The burial sites for the German soldiers are much simpler in contrast.
 

Overlord D-day museum

The largest seaborne invasion in history, D-day was codenamed Operation Overlord. There were very specific conditions needed for the operation to take place; the moon had to be full for visibility and the weather had to be clear. The Allied army asked for postcards of Normandy to be sent for an exhibition in order to figure out the geography of the region. The German army had built up stronger fortifications near Nord Pas de Calais as that was where the Allieds were expected to strike. The Overlord Museum was an excellent place to visit, explaining the background to the invasion and why it was a successful surprise attack, with lots of diaramas and REAL TANKS. Master 7 was full of questions about World War Two. Why was the German army in France? Why did England help France? It has been a challenge to explain it to him.

We stayed in a beautiful part of Normandy called the Manche, full of ancient stone - walled farms. We had the run of an old manor house on what used to be a goat farm.  Fresh baguette and croissants were on the table each morning. Sheep wandered past our kitchen window. It really was what you would imagine the quintessential French country escape to be. It was fantastic to see the kids running around with the gang of children that lived there and climbing trees and just BEING KIDS. We visited a farm park (Parc Animalier) with animals from around the world, including camels, lemurs and strange humped cows. But I think the biggest hits were feeding the lemurs and the pony rides.


A field of poppies in the Somme


Caterpillar Valley Cemetery
 Next we stayed in the Baie de Somme, Picardy so it was World War One history time. The Somme area is part of the Western front where many battles took place between the German army and the French. The armies were stuck in deadlock, both in their trenches from 1914 to 1918. What a surreal feeling to stand in front of the New Zealand memorial in Longueval on an overcast day in France. The memorial displays the names of 1205 New Zealand men who died in the Battle of the Somme and whose bodies were never found.
 
NZ Memorial at Longueval
From miles away, you can see this crater in a hillside. It is really sobering to walk around the huge Lochnagar crater, which was formed by Allied engineers detonating 27 tons of explosives to tunnel under the Nazi defences. It happened on July 1st, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It is the largest man-made crater in the world at 91m across and 21 metres deep. Allied troops marched in a straight line towards the German defences and many thousands from both sides were killed on this site. The crater is now owned by an Englishman who saved it from being filled in and opened it to the public. 
 
 
 
Not far away, the underground museum at Albert has a fascinating collection of letters, relics and dummy soldiers. A medieval tunnel under the town was transformed into an air raid shelter during World War Two. It has since been made into a museum about the trenches in the First World War and the bombing of the area. There is a collection of art made from the shell covers by the soldiers. At the end of the visit, there is a dark tunnel with sound and lights to show what it was like in the trenches. Yip, pretty scary for the kids...

Albert underground museum


Some houses in Ault
The chalk cliffs above Ault
 
Picardy is dotted with towns full of brick buildings that have been rebuilt after the wars. It looks quite different to many other parts of France. It has been accused of lacking in culture but I think this area has paid a huge debt to the country. There are lovely beaches in this area (as in all regions we visited) such as Quend plage.
 
One morning, we woke up to find bugs crawling on our arms. Once we started looking, we noticed them all over us and the walls of the house. This wasn't just a few, they were literally covering everything. Of course, we thought there was some sort of flea infestation and went out to purchase the biggest baddest spray we could find. Later, I asked a guest at the accommodation about it and he said it was just 'mouches d'orage' and not to worry about it. These flies apparently turn up before a storm and disappear again after the rain. That is exactly what happened in the end - may be nothing to worry about but pretty annoying!
 
Our next step is to load our car onto the train under the Channel for a few weeks' sojourn in England. And so goodbye to France. I really should say au revoir as I'm sure I'll be back again.
 
I will leave you with some of France's bizarre old laws which are still in place today:
 
1. You cannot name a pig Napoleon in France
2. You must keep a bale of hay handy in case the king comes past (to feed his horse)
3. No alcohol is allowed in the work place, except wine, beer and cider
4. Ketchup is forbidden in school canteens (it is too American)
5. Men must wear speedos in French swimming pools


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