Sunday July 3rd
Trip Start Jun 17, 2011
28Trip End Jul 06, 2011
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Where I stayed
Le Relais des 2 Rivieres
We started with a quick 150km blast on the motorway to get closer to the 'action', past Charleroi & Mons & exited about 20km before Cambrai and continued on country roads towards our goal. I'd selected a couple of places that were close as I knew we wouldn't have a huge amount of time. Our first 'official' stop was Martinpuigh Bunker, not because of any prior knowledge but rather it sounded interesting. I knew we'd also find other memorials & cemetries as we wandered along & I wanted to be able to stop as the mood took us. And so it proved to be...
The first one we came across was a sign in Bapaume for an Australian cemetry. Normally most of the talk is about British this & American (not so much where WW1 is concerned but bear with me) that so I was very interested to get another perspective. And it's a country that I have very fond memories of. The sign pointed up a wee lane and even though I thought 'this can't be right' I took it. It was right & we shortly found a small cemetry with about 220 headstones (inc a couple of German ones) Although it was hidden away it was immaculately kept with freshly mown grass & roses in full bloom. And while we were there we met 3 Aussies who were looking for lost relations.
From there we shortly found a sign for another Australian cemetry (the name of which currently escapes me) so we stopped there too. And while we were there the 3 Aussies arrived too. Not wanting to intrude we headed up the road to a tiny cemetry (Thilloy Road) in the middle of a corn field. It was mainly English casualities but included an Indian & a number of Germans (mostly 'unknown') too.
And then we finally made it to the bunker which wasn't nearly as exciting as it sounded. It was on the edge of a field of cattle, the fence was diverted around the bunker, and consisted of 2 concrete half domes over corrugated iron with an entry ramp between the 2. There was absolutely no info on site so I can't even tell you whose it was....
Shortly after that we came across a small memorial on the edge of a village. All it said was "To the memory of nine brave men, July 29th 1916, 82nd Field Coy, RE" (presumably Royal Engineers) & then listed their names. There was no plaque or info sign and nowhere on our travels did we see anything else about it. I'll have to Google it, me thinks.
Our route took us through Pozieres where we viewed the church & a memorial to local losses. A sign on the corner pointed to the First Australian Division memorial which I was expecting to be a small plaque or cross but the thing is huge. It's a single edifice in a large fenced off area but despite it's size it's very simple yet effective. There's several display boards telling how the Aussies had suffered hugh casualities trying to capture a German fortification (which they named Gibraltar, presumably because it was as difficult to scale as the rock) & get into Pozieres just behind it. They eventually managed it after weeks of close combat only to have the Germans take it back later. The Aussies lost more men in this single (though sustained) action than they had in the whole of the Gallipoli campaign !
Over the ridge our next planned stop could be seen so we headed there. Now I'm sure you've all seen pictures of the Thiepval Memorial but the sheer scale of it was something else. It commemerates 72,000 British soldiers who lost their lives in the area but whose remains have never been identified. You've no idea how much space that many names take up when carved into stone. Absolutely astounding. The visitor centre beside it has a really clear & concise presentation covering everything from how the war started to the various actions & the final armistace. Well worth a visit if ever you're in the area. And it's all free.
Then it was on to the Ulster Tower memorial which is an exact replica of the tower in Clandeboy estate where the Ulster regiments trained. Like Thiepval, and presumably other memorials, they'd had a commeration on July 1st and the inside was full of single poppies & wreaths and messages from all over Ulster. There's a little cafe behind the tower, run by a lovely couple from the North, where we had our late 'lunch' - a cup of tea & a shared packet of crisps as they'd run out of everything else ! There's also a display in a room off the cafe.
Time was now marching on and we'd covered very little milage in the last 3 or four hours so we decided that we'd put in another almost 2 hours & ride to Rouen, again on local roads (and a bit of boreen & unpaved track as it turned out !) in beautiful summer evening weather. It had actually been nice all day but the combination of lovely, mainly deserted, roads and warm sunshine really made it. And after seeing & reading all the war stuff it was good to be alive & riding a bike.
Made it to our hotel in Rouen, showered & went out for grub - Sam had rack of lamb (probably Irish & likely delivered by one of Aidans mates !) while I felt I deserved a steak.
A short spin of just over 100km in the morning will take us to Pegasus Bridge & the start of our WW2 'experience'. Time is running out - only one full day left - before the poxy ferry on Tuesday evening :-(