Posts Tagged ‘Arras’

I am writing this, my 99th post, on the day before the first anniversary of my blog. Around 65,000 words have soiled the screen since New Year’s Eve 2010 when I embarked, belatedly and anxiously, on this expedition (a word I prefer to that ubiquitous “journey” that every reality TV contestant and sportsperson seem to be on nowadays).

The birthday and century will be rung up tomorrow, fittingly, whilst I reside in the northern English town of Lancaster where it all started, though the blog has been half way around the world in that time – well, Barcelona, Northern France, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and the length and breadth of the UK.

I thought I should take the opportunity here to reflect upon the success or otherwise of my efforts over the past 12 months.  Although you’re burdened with my voice today, I have arranged for a guest writer to offer their own unique insights in tomorrow’s centenary post – of which more later.

In only my second post – This Writing Lark – I stated my aim was to produce “worthwhile written work that others might enjoy”.  I hope that I have succeeded in this, at least some of the time (“you can’t please all of the people…..”), and the comments, such as they have been, have certainly been positive. But I need to engage with my readers more if I am to build a significant platform for my work.  I have plans to ensure that this happens, courtesy of the advice from Kristen Lamb, Anne R. Allen and other luminaries on the blogging scene. 

As I indicated in my recent posts entitled Blogging versus Writing and Yes!!!! I AM a Writer it is only now that I am beginning to feel like a writer.  Ideas for posts present themselves more readily than before, especially than in the summer months when, to be fair, the distractions were greater. I now need rather then just want to write.

So what will the New Year bring? I will blog at least twice a week, essentially on the same subjects that have filled it this year, including the resurrection of the San Francisco themed features, and engage in much more comment and discussion with other bloggers than I have managed before.  Twitter and, to a lesser extent, Facebook, will complete my social networking activity.

But 2012 will be different – as I had always planned – in that I now intend to focus on other forms of writing than the blog.  In addition to submitting work to relevant publications I will also be dipping my toe in the competition waters.  Finally, and by no means least, I will be working on more substantial, long term projects, once I have clarified to my own satisfaction which of those should take precedence (or whether they should be tackled concurrently). 

One palpable change that I intend to make is in the design of the blog.  The current theme has served me well, and whilst it does fulfill the basic requirements – clear and well organised – it is a little dull.  I think a funkier image is necessary, so I will be researching the increasing range of WordPress themes to find the one that fits best.  I won’t rush into this, and it is possible my conclusion might still be to retain the current one, but, equally, don’t be surprised if you receive a more colourful greeting when you visit in the New Year.   

Before I sign off, I’d like to thank WordPress for making the task of designing and writing on the blog much less onerous than I had feared, as well as my friend Pete who recommended the platform in the first place – that was inspired advice. 

I will now leave you in the less predictable hands of my guest writer for the centenary blog, namely “Blog” himself (at least I think it’s a he), who will be offering his own idiosyncratic opinions on the past 12 months. 

I’ll see you again in the first post of 2012. Happy New Year!

Now, how do I get rid of that falling snow over the Golden Gate Bridge!

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A clear, crisp November morning in Northern France has given way to a chill pall of fog and drizzle.  A young, slim French mother guides her three, maybe four, year old daughter around a muddy field full of stone and flowers.  They hold hands, but, occasionally, the small girl cannot contain her curiosity and runs to a rosebush that catches her eye.

This is no family Sunday morning stroll, however.  It is Remembrance Day and they are walking among the 2,681 burials of the men from the UK and Commonwealth, slain during the Great War of nearly a century ago.  A large white memorial, which forms the entrance point for the cemetery, commemorates on its walls 34,785 forces of the UK, South Africa and New Zealand, with no known grave, who died in the Arras sector between the spring of 1916 and August 1918, many of whom killed in the Battle of Arras during April and May 1917.

The Arras Memorial and Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery is the first world war battlefield that I have visited, despite passing dozens over the years and, each time, blithely proclaiming that “we must visit” some one day.  Well, that day has arrived.  But, even then, this two mile pilgrimage from the centre of Arras on a morning more suited to the month of November than any others have been so far this year, was not planned.  The weekend away with friends had been booked four months ago and the timing determined purely on our respective availabilities.  It is only in recent days that I have felt drawn towards the location at which Siegfried Sassoon placed Harry and Jack in his poem called The General, of which more later.

Aside from the nationalities I have already referred to, there is a separate plot for 17 Germans. That might be understandable, but then there is one, Max Klemt, who died on 15th February 1917 (his age is not known), who is placed in the middle of row upon row of the British fallen.  There are so many unanswered questions and forgotten stories in this place.

Each stone provides the information, where known, about the name, rank, regiment and date of death of the individual.  The most telling fact, however, is age.  Whilst there are a number of men who died in their thirties, even forties, the large majority were untimely ripped from the world between the ages of 18 and 25.  I am moved especially by one group of stones, placed closer together than any others in the cemetery, that hold the graves of five privates in the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, none of whom lived past 24.  Another comrade, equally mysteriously, stands a little apart from the others. They must have been as close friends in life as they are physically close in death.

I scour the walls of the memorial for sight of my family name in vain.  I have no reason to believe that I would have come across it, and am thankful in a sense that I have not – I would hope to have prepared myself first.  But then again I am desperately disappointed.  This place plays havoc with your emotions.

Although I am haunted by the names and especially ages of those laid out before me in neat rows in this sodden field that tests the impermeability of my new boots, Harry and Jack in that Sassoon poem seem more real, and their fate captures my overriding emotion, not of worthless grief, though that is strong enough, but of anger and contempt for the politicians and officers that bullied and hoodwinked such men to their early deaths:

“Good morning, good morning” the General said

when we met last week on our way to the line.

Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ‘em dead,

and we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.

“He’s a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack

as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

I suddenly remember the mother and daughter and look around for them.  But they have slipped away.  I ponder what their story might have been.  Were they, perhaps, the descendants of a teenage “tommy” and a local girl? I cannot think what other reason might have brought them to this grim, dank scene this morning. I hope that they have returned to a warm, welcoming home, an ordinary, everyday event that we take for granted but which was snatched from those young men with whom we have shared this space over the past hour.

But I have stayed here, at least for today, long enough.  Having had no breakfast, the call of lunch is insistent.  And we have a 70 mile drive back to the shuttle terminal this afternoon before returning to our lives of comfort and plenty.

Already, my thoughts turn to my next visit to one of the battlefields of Northern France and Belgium. We will certainly not pass one by so casually in the future.

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