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Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France – a remembrance trip

We sent our writer Scott on a poignant trip to Nord-Pas-de-Calais. The now peaceful French towns of Arras and Or were the site of battlefields where thousands of men were killed during World War 1, including the famous war poet Wilfred Owen…

As we walked around and listened to the guides, the true tragedy what had happened gradually started to sink in. The number of casualties during WW1 is believed to be around 37 million (with over 16 million deaths) and if you had passed through this particular corner of France towards the end of 1918, nothing would have remained, not a single house, church or even a tree.

Some of the bloodiest battles of World War I were fought in this region and today the area is an important site for ‘remembrance tourism’ with many cemeteries and memorials scattered throughout the region reminding visitors of the War’s true cost. One man who died was the young Wilfred Owen, one of the world’s most famous war poets, who was senselessly shot dead aged just 25 during the very last week of war.

back of WO museum

Our first stop was Ors at ‘La Maison Forestiere’, a small white house which looks like a sculpture from the outside but we learnt it was also where Wilfred Owen spent his last night. Local councillors wanted to put an artistic and literary project in place that would commemorate Owen and today it’s both an artistic memorial and a free museum. We climbed down the circular ramp which leads down to the cramped cellar (where Wilfred Owen and 20 fellow soldiers once sheltered) and we fell silent as we read the words inscribed on the stark, white wall.

bottom of his letter

There was a letter written to his mother, which was full of optimism about returning home but we learnt tragically he died before she received it. His most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est, is also beautifully inscribed in his own handwriting. The title literally means ‘How sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country’ but in the final stanza of the poem, Owen bitterly refers to this as ‘The old lie’.

Where Wilfred died

French cemetary

We then followed Owen final footsteps along the seven kilometre trail through the woods to the Sambre Canal – the spot where he was killed just seven days before Armistice Day and then onto the town’s cemetery where the fallen poet was buried.

Notre Dame de Lorette

France

The following day we visited Notre Dame de Lorette, which is also known as the Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery. Whilst Owen was laid to rest in with just a small number of other soldiers in the local cemetery, here row upon row of simple white crosses of more than 40,000 of Christian, Jewish and Muslim graves all lie side by side.

Vimy

The graveyard is close to Vimy Ridge, the spot where part of the Battle of Arras was fought in April 1917. We learnt how Canadian troops fiercely fought the Germans after the Allies were unable to assist with backup. Due to the soldier’s brave effort, the land has been turned into a Memorial Park where people can pay their respect and visit the trenches. It is not until you visit the centre and see No Man’s Land that you realise that the soldiers were less than five metres from each other when they were fighting.

Remembrance Trails

Our trip to Nord-Pas-de-Calais was a very interesting, moving and at times a difficult trip, but this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War Northern France and a century on, I couldn’t think of any better way to pay my respects to the soldiers who fought so bravely.

All words and images by regular contributor Scott Balaam.

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Scott started his travelling life back in 1999, when he headed off on a solo jaunt to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia with just a backpack, a camera and a spirit for adventure. After that, the travel bug bit hard and now he is always seeking to head off somewhere new. Over the years he has lived in Italy, Qatar, Ireland and the UK but his spiritual home will always be Rome as this is the city which most satisfies his unrelenting craving for culture, good food and football. Scott loves nothing better than to be behind the camera and has also just started his own blog called Bars and Spas. As well as Rome he also counts Melbourne and Tel Aviv among his favourite places and now permanently resides in Dublin. Follow Scott on Google+ and Twitter

17 Comments

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      Scott Balaam

      2 July, 2014 at 8:37 pm

      Yes – I fully agree. We are so lucky not to be faced with that. It’s so sad that there are still countries around the world that are.

      Reply
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      Scott Balaam

      30 June, 2014 at 9:38 pm

      I found it really hard to get my head around how many people died – It was such a waste. So many young people killed.

      Reply
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    Emma

    30 June, 2014 at 10:15 am

    A very moving blog and so important too, I think everybody should visit something like this in their lifetime. Really beautiful photos too.

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    Marky Bobs

    30 June, 2014 at 10:03 am

    A fantastic read that was the perfect balance of informational and emotional. I recently visited Riga and the whole country of Latvia has been torn apart by war and reading this it really brought me back to the feelings I had whilst on my trip.

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      Scott Balaam

      30 June, 2014 at 9:43 pm

      Did you go to the museum of Occupation in Riga? So sad. Everyone was in tears walking around. A few days earlier I went to the Genocide museum in Vilnius which was also really upsetting – Both places taught me so much about the Baltic states that I had no idea about.

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    Lauren

    29 June, 2014 at 2:56 am

    Thank you for the tour! Your photos are great and your descriptions are very moving. It is difficult to visit a place like this but very important that we remember!

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    Catherine

    28 June, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I had no idea that in no mans land they were only five metres away from each other- I had always imagined it was ten times that, if not more. It’s so horrific, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what the soldiers went through.

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    Glamorous Glutton

    28 June, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    I’ve done this trip, I’m ashamed to say rather reluctantly, with Mr Glam and the Glam 20 Something. I was astonished at the magnitude of the casualties. It’s only in seeing the swathe of crosses that you really know the cost of WW1. Despite being reluctant, I loved the peace, the reflection and the respect that I felt in every memorial site we went to and I’d love to visit again. GG

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