Lost and Found in Northern France

Nov 12, 2023
Source: Supplied.

It was while holidaying in Paris, that Tania Farrelly found the inspiration for her second novel, War Of Hearts, set at the end of The Great War.

It was in the footsteps of Australian diggers and allied espionage networks that she then trod, opening her eyes to the lost stories of ordinary women who became civilian spies and a long- forgotten tale of Anzac history writ large on the walls of a primary school in the small village of Villers-Bretonneux.

Autumn in France, with its vibrant foliage and warm, wistful afternoons is always a divine time to holiday (it also off-peak and economical) but taking the time to explore Northern France and walk in the footsteps of our fallen fore-fathers, takes that experience to a higher plane.

This November, 105 years ago, World War I came to its bloody close in the tiny French town of Sedan (pronounced Sed-on). And it’s here I began my search for the buried secrets of the Great War. Sedan and the surrounding Ardennes forest is a two-and-a-half hour train ride northeast of Paris and arriving you find yourself in a natural wonderland bathed in mystical silvery light.

It’s a land of wild boars, deer, giant oak and plump, puffy mistletoe all reflected on the mirrored surface of the Meuse River. It’s hard to believe this place was desecrated by two world wars and the many other conflicts besides. Its key strategic location near intersection of France, Belgium and Luxembourg has made it a lip- smacking proposition for rulers of every fiefdom. Any wonder Sedan boasts the largest medieval fortress in all of Europe. Construction of Fort de Sedan began in the 1400’s and various rulers kept adding to it, to create a monumental 35,000 square metre bulwark. It was here Napoleon III capitulated to the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and here that French and Belgian civilians were held prisoner and executed in World War One (a fact lost to most). Today it is a heritage-listed tourist attraction; a place of Harry Potter children’s parties, medieval dioramas and an upscale hotel.

Beyond the village, evidence of war is achingly present. What is not, however, is that the largest spy network of the World War One, La Dame Blanche operated in this town with their train watchers and couriers, helping the allies to bring the war to its denouement. Still, the bullet-riddled buildings tell their tales well enough and in the surrounding pastures, whether cycling, walking or hiking amongst cud  chewing dairy cows or landscapes of green crops bordered by thick ancient forests, the entrails of war are evident in the large black Germans block houses dotted about. Underfoot you’ll still find bullet shells, hidden trenches and mud -fossilised barbed wire coils. And on a hillside amongst hundreds of French gravestones, one lone Australian soldier rests. Stanley Williams from Camden NSW who died from wounds in May 1918 is buried at Bazeilles Communal Cemetery (Grave No. 25).

This story of lost and found shifts west, to the Somme, where today all is quiet on the Western Front. The city of Amiens provides a scenic jumping off point for tours to the battlegrounds of the region and for spending time at the Sir John Monash Centre: The Australian Memorial War Museum.

This city of Amiens, known as the Venice of France, with its canals, floating markets, tiny medieval houses, and mazes of lane ways is a tribute to lost era of simple romanticism. In the centre of town is the grand steepled cathedral (the largest in all of France and a triumph of medieval architecture) and beyond that is the Musée de Picardie which displays century old art. Then there’s an old-time carousel, theatres, boutiques, puppet shows, stylish hotels and cafes that line the Quartier St.-Leu’s narrow streets and canals. You don’t have to look far to see why Jules Verne made this place home for a time.

In Amiens cathedral we pick up the story of Australian soldiers. Just beyond the northern door a stone plaque pays tribute to the ANZACS. Moving further into the cathedral into the apse you’ll find the weeping angel that became a big tourist attraction for the Australian soldiers.

There is nothing more moving than visiting the Australian War Memorial just outside of Villers Bretonneux where our fore-fathers fought and won decisive battles to put French villages back into allied hands. There are hundreds of graves (many unmarked) but all carrying the souls of the men who died there. The museum is beautifully conceived, built beneath the hill that many young soldiers charged up.

Villers Bretonneux is a moving experience too; the people there have never forgotten the role Australians played in their survival. Flying outside their town hall is the Australian flag and further on, down a narrow street in the centre of town, you’ll find a primary school named ‘Victoria’ in tribute to the Victorian school children who raised the money via a ‘penny drive’ to rebuild the school.

To make the most of things, I would recommend using a private tour company. Their knowledge of the Anzac stories is extensive, and like me, you might be lucky enough to lunch in Albert, where a gilded Madonna stands atop Albert Cathedral. During the war, she was hit but not toppled, creating the appearance of a swimmer diving into a pool and thus the diggers in true laconic fashion dubbed the Madonna ‘Fanny Durack’ after the legendary swimmer of the day. (See left)

From Amiens, if you like your war history or simply prefer Belgium chocolate, beer, and waffles – Brussels it’s just a stone’s throw away by train.

And it was in the Brussels war museum that I was captivated by this cabinet of trinkets all lost by fallen soldiers and then found later in the mud of the battlefields. Then I wondered – What if one of those trinkets was the key to solving a cold case mystery? And that was the spark that would eventually encase all of these places, experience and stories of ‘lost and found ‘inside my new novel War of Hearts.

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