Review of the Year 2019

Pozieres memorial shrouded in the mist March 2019

Well yet again we have come near to the end of the year and most importantly the decade, arguably the most tumultuous decade in recent times. But as you know me I am always hopeful that things will turn out right in the end. In regards to my journey 2019 has been a extremely positive and rewarding year. Although I haven’t visited the Western Front as much this year as I would have liked to have done, as compared to 2018, I have still managed to cover a new area of that line that stretched from Switzerland to the North Sea over a century ago. 2019 opened up to me a new meaning to the Great War, not only in the physical aspect but on the spiritual aspect of it too. It led me to a new darker and far more potent meaning of the suffering endured by all sides in the War to End All Wars.

I visited the Somme in March and took a incredibly great deal from it. I enjoyed the early morning walks on the hallowed battlefield. Walking Mash Valley at La Boisselle over the Ovillers spur towards Thiepval was incredibly special, seeing as the Sun rose the chalk lines of the German front line positions marked indelibly for all time in the soil. Notably also the walk on the other side of La Boisselle at Sausage valley where I walked from Lochnagar Crater over the German front line towards Gordon Dump Cemetery and the infamous village of Contalmaison. Finally on the last day, alongside my friend Lucy, we walked through the dense Somme mist up the once bloodsoaked Albert-Bapaume road towards Pozieres, with the beautiful Cemetery and Memorial hugging the road. Probably one of the most stupid and dangerous things I have ever attempted, but incredibly rewarding. As we walked into the complex the Cemetery was surrounded by the morning mist. The spirit of the dead of the Somme emerged quietly, with dignity, honour and purpose as the sun tried to burn through, it gave me an incredible uplifting feeling which i had never felt before. I was immersed in the Spirit of the Glorious dead, it was pleased to welcome me, and yet also it begged me to return very soon. I took probably my best ever photo and captured the moment forever. I hope that that memory will never leave me.

Then in June, myself alongside Papa travelled on our annual Battlefield trip. But this time we did something completely different and fresh. We travelled to the Chemin De Dames, and did a flying tour of certain locations on the first day. Cerny en Laonnois, Soupir Farm, Vendresse Cemetery, the 1914 battlefield alongside the River Aisne. Soupir churchyard, the destroyed village of Chivy which made a lasting impression, the chapel abandoned, the birds nest in the holy water font, the birds flying around the chapel of remembrance with excrement everywhere, Faith had left that place, and it was not going to return at any particular point in the near future. After visiting the chapel we headed towards the French Cemetery at Craonne before going round to the Meuse. To the citadel of Verdun.

Beautiful, horrific, breathtaking beyond compare, Verdun for me is a place of such heroism, sacrifice, bravery, defiance, endurance and absolute sheer futility. It is to me a place where, not too long ago Hell became present on this earth and yet a century later it holds so much more than that. Once a place of unimaginable darkness, the worst form of the human condition, and its capacity to destroy so many. A century later Verdun has retreated well away from the forefront of the French nation and its overwhelmingly conflicted consciousness. Alongside the ghosts of the past in the natural amphitheatre above the city, it is trying and thankfully succeeding to adopt a far more tolerant and patient stance in the troubled world we now live in. It taught me incredibly valuable lessons. Not to take things for granted, treat people with a lot more respect than i ever did before, be more tolerant of my own mortality and others and most importantly to be thankful that I live in more peaceful times. But most importantly accept that the Great War maimed, destroyed, poisoned and killed so many. Not only men of my country but other European nations as well. The remains of French and German soldiers underneath the ossuary of Douaumont forever stays with me, and questions my own mortality and of what will happen to me when I pass beyond the limit of human sight. It probably gave me more questions to answer, more explanations to make. It in all fairness I probably didn’t Verdun the respect it deserved at first, but by the last day of visiting Cemeteries, bunkers, forts, hills, destroyed villages I accepted and respected the significance of the place that is Verdun. There is no other place like it. To truly understand Verdun, you have to allow yourself to disappear into its inner darkness before you can step into the new light that shines around it.

I also visited the area around Verdun and St Mihiel, the beautiful, symbolic memorial church of the village of Marbotte, below the killing ground of the forest of Apremont, the Church floor once covered in the blood of many French Poilus who waited for their own enteral reckoning, some as holy mass was taking place. Many of them now lie buried in the French Cemetery across the main road. The notorious trench of thirst, the remnants of abandoned trenches and bunkers hidden deep in the forests. I became immersed in it all alongside Papa. The beautiful but sterile American Cemeteries of Meuse Argonne and St Mihiel, the Memorials at Montsec and Montfaucon. But also the majestic beauty of the Vauquois region and the remains of a village that was mined into oblivion. It had so much to give and yet in the woods beyond, it was so desperate to hide.

I look forward to 2020 with a great deal of optimism, I’m doggedly trying to complete my first University assignment before the deadline day in January. I will hopefully be returning to the Western Front in March, before the Annual expedition to Flanders in June, returning hopefully to the Somme and a new battlefield, either the Battlefield of Le Cateau or Cambrai. We will see how things progress. I hope it all goes well.

Venite Adoremus Dominum.

Wishing Everybody a very Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for the New Year and Decade!

And The Earth Abideth Forever

Martin Joseph

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