For years my Dad and I have been promising ourselves we’d go to see where my grandfather, Leo, fought at the Somme. Having enlisted to the East Kents in Fermoy in 1914, Leo Lyons O’Shaughnessy somehow survived four years on the Western Front. Although he rarely spoke about it after his return, and died in the 1970s, my Dad’s research over the years had given us a good idea of his movements throughout the war, and last Christmas, I bit the bullet and bought us flights from Cork to Paris.
From Charles de Gaulle Airport, we struck for Gare du Nord and hopped on a train for Albert, the main town in the Somme area. Arriving into the town centre from the train station, bags in hand, I asked directions of a local couple and nothing would do them but to drive us to our hotel, a comfortable but badly located Ibis. And they say the Irish are welcoming!
Albert is located in what’s referred to as ‘invasion alley’. The Somme has been part of the Spanish Netherlands, Belgium, France and occupied by Germany and the British, and most of the towns in the region have underground tunnels dating back to the 13th century where locals used to hide during invasions.
The next morning, our first stop with guide Olivier Dirson of Chemins d’Histoires was the Museum du Somme in Albert. It’s located underneath the town’s baroque-style church, rebuilt following the war. Those 13th century tunnels became air raid tunnels in WW2 and they are an incredible location to display artefacts, memorabilia and tableaux of the nearby battlefields. Scenes of the different trenches, ‘trench art’ made by bored soldiers, weapons, letters, books and other personal items make the boredom, despair and trauma of the trenches very real.
From the museum, Olivier drove us around the battlefields, making clever use of a dashboard tablet to display trench maps for the different battles, photographs and even original footage of shell blasts and soldiers going over the top. Travelling through April showers around immaculate, gently rolling fields, the level of carnage and destruction those same fields saw is inconceivable now. Shelling that could be heard as far away as Hampstead Heath on 1 July 1916, the major British offensive, left carnage; a churned up, hellish mess of over 70,000 bodies, barbed wire and the Somme’s sticky, chalky mud. It’s heartbreaking to think of the youth and enthusiasm that died here, and impossible to imagine the effect on those who survived, like Leo.
You can see swathes of white across some fields where shells churned up layers of chalk far below the soil; the land has not regained its fertility, and soldiers’ remains are still regularly discovered. Dotted around are graveyards and memorials to fallen soldiers of different nations including the well known Lochnagar Crater and Thiepval monument.
For lunch we visited the ‘Tommy café’ in Pozieres, eating mediocre soup and sandwiches amid a disquieting display of British jingoism aimed at Australians. After that disappointment we found some proper French fare for dinner at the Hotel Restaurant du Basilique in Albert. Surrounded by chic French ladies with edgy haircuts and scarlet lipstick, their less chic husbands, and a motley crew of visitors like ourselves, we enjoyed a slap up steak dinner at reasonable rates while we let the impact of an emotional day sink in.
Our final night was in Paris, at the Hotel Paris Rivoli in the Marais. Arriving back at Gare du Nord about 4pm (check trains in advance as they’re not as frequent on Saturdays), we took the Metro to Rue de Rivoli – the hotel is simple, with a very basic breakfast, but friendly and in a great spot. French, Italian, Indian and Turkish food is all on offer nearby and if you’re not bothered about sightseeing you’d spend a very pleasant evening sampling wine in the plentiful bars of the Marais.
At the nearby Pont Neuf, the Vedettes du Pont Neuf barge tours cost just €14 each and bring you past most of the major landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and various palaces and parks. It’s atmospheric and brings Paris to you without effort over about 90 minutes – just sit back and enjoy the ambience.
As flights to Cork return in the afternoon, we spent a pleasant Sunday morning wandering around Pere Lachaise cemetery, visiting the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison among others and enjoying un café au lait among the locals at Cafe Martin near the Gambetta metro. From there it was back by metro and train to Charles de Gaulle after a whirlwind trip through time and memory with a distinct French flavour.
Flight information on aerlingus.com. Check out cheminsdhistoire.com to book tours with Olivier Dirson.