First day walking. And what a day. Weather windy and overcast through late afternoon and early evening when it really fined up. I was sweating on the walk back to Albert. Left Albert on the D.938 and walked to Fricourt, stopping at a couple of cemeteries on the way. They really are scattered all over the place, tucked away in quiet folds in the landscape, each beautifully landscaped and maintained by the CWGC. This matches perfectly one of the lasting impressions of my first trip to the battlefields, where I recall a view from high ground incorporating no fewer than 6 cemeteries. Pretty as they are, visiting them in sequence quickly becomes rather depressing. Awareness of the suffering and bereavement encapsulated by those sterile white stones and their dignified inscriptions soon soon builds to the point where it is all but impossible to hold any clear sense that real individuals rest beneath them. It will be interesting to see how my reaction to the cemeteries evolves over the next 10 days.
In any event, at Fricourt I left the unpleasantly busy D.938 behind and moved on to smaller roads and cart paths, taking parts or all of several walks outlined in Paul Reed’s Walking the Somme – supplemented with sites on Major and Mrs. Holts’ map of the Somme Battlefields. (Both excellent resources by the way, though the former is naturally superior for walkers). I took a great many pictures and videos, documenting the landscape the flora and fauna. (All still rough and unedited at this point, but I’ll get some up on Flickr and Youtube statim). My overall impression of the environment, especially once I got on the back roads and on those occasions when I wasn’t accompanied by tractors or planes swooping into the Albert/Picardie airport, was of something very close to a pastoral idyll. Green and golden fields spread over gentle hills and ridges dotted with lush woods and copses; quiet streams and winding roads connecting sleepy little farming villages. Rich with songbirds, wood fowl and small fauna such as rabbits and hedgehogs. At first glance there’s almost nothing to indicate what happened in the region 96 years ago. Cemeteries are the great exception of course. But closer examination reveals other vestiges. The iron harvest (bits of barbed wire and shell fragments) litters fields wherever fighting was particularly intense and or prolonged. And as soon as one gets out of the plowed fields and into wooded areas where huge tractors have not been at work one sees the scars on the landscape. Today, this was clearest in the Tambour Craters west of Fricourt and in the Bois Francais, above the Fricourt-Mametz line. The southwest corner of the latter contains a small memorial to a French soldier and around it, trenches, shell-holes, and mine craters. They appear at the very edge of the wood; the instant one passes the fringe of dense undergrowth at its border. The transition is as stark as the move from the bright sunlight of the afternoon, to the shadowy gloom under the canopy. I wonder if all the woods in the area are the same? I imagine so.