Grappling with the Great War

Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”

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Family and friends, we gather at Chavasse Farm in Hardecourt-aux-Bois

 

“Before the world grew mad, the Somme was a placid stream of Picardy, flowing gently through a broad and winding valley northwards to the English Channel.” A.D. Gistwood, The Somme

It’s important to say from the outset that I have no personal connection to war. The Great War and the Second World War didn’t touch my immediate family. Growing up, I had no interest in these horrors, and, truth be told, little interest in history, period.

But aging has brought with it a fervent need to grapple with history. I’ve written two books that are set within the context of the Second World War. I’ve become fascinated at how people’s lives are altered irreparably by conflict.

However, until this summer, The Great War was still relegated into the mists of the distant past. Tromping through the mud of northern France, peering through the cold rain at 100-year old gravestones and arguing late into the night about the subtleties of the Battle of the Somme was not exactly on my “bucket list.”

Dave Griffths is a retired history teacher who has just finished an MA in history. He has a deep passion for the Great War as it played out in farmer’s fields in France. Dave is a close friend of our cousins Peta and Bryan and six years ago, he took Tim and I on a “Magical Mystery Tour,” giving us a view into some lesser-known aspects of Burgundian history. (See: https://a-lewis.net/2011/08/19/daves-magical-mystery-tour/)

To this day, no one can remember how his offer to take a group of family and friends on a tour of The Somme came about. I think we might have all agreed because we knew that it would mean several days of living together and drinking good wine. A bit of a lark, as the Brits say.

Dave takes his work seriously. And it must be stated off the top that any errors in my reportage are my own. Dave’s facts and figures are thoroughly researched. He assigned us homework and books to read before we arrived. He booked accommodations. He arranged meals. He planned a tour that focused, primarily, on the first day of the Battle of The Somme, July 1, 1916.

And so, as hot summer days plunged into a frigid autumn, we converged on Chavasse Farm, http://www.chavasseferme.com/in the French hamlet of Hardecourt-aux-Bois. Chavasse Farm specializes in catering to people who come to explore the battlefields of the Somme, sometimes to trace family history, to walk paths they’ve read about or heard in family lore. The walls are filled with artifacts, memorabilia and informative articles.

Ever the good student, I had read the assigned texts, and more. But looking around the walls of Chevasse Farm, I could see I was definitely out of my depth. That’s ok, I thought, there will be good company and good wine. The war is just a backdrop.

Our first night at the farm was a joyful coming together of family and friends. Large pots of Boeuf Bourguignon, fluffy potatoes, and bottles of Cremant. Only Dave was anxious, knowing as he did the impact that the next fours days were to have on us all.

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Our first night at Chavasse Farm