I MUST be getting older, because I have finally come round to my dad’s point of view about ice cream, which is that vanilla is hard to beat. And I have started to care about war memorials, too, which somehow never touched me – I mean really touched me, as opposed to arousing a sort of dutiful sadness – until now.
One of my favourite walks with Digby is to climb up and over the top of this side of the valley, in a big circuit that takes us past old Jadot’s hamlet, past the ghost of the beautiful wood that was entirely razed a few months ago (my friend Jack says you can always tell when a farmer is planning to sell up, because he will start cutting down all his trees), and past a granite memorial inset with black marble, on which are carved the names and ages of five Frenchman of the Resistance, who are said to have been killed here in 1944. Before you ask, I don’t know how or why. But we often stop here, because Digby is addicted to the snortable smells in the bushes, and because something about this spot intrigues me. Whatever happened here, happened so very close to La Folie. And for us modern Britons, war is a faraway phenomenon. Bombings aside, we have no idea how it might feel, close to home.
Today, something makes me knock on the door of one of the nearby houses, where old Monsieur and Madame Robuchon run the gite in which my parents stayed for our wedding. But Monsieur Robuchon seems so unfazed by my question about the memorial, that I almost think he was expecting me. Ushering me into the kitchen, he says he remembers the 7th of August 1944 only too well.
“So you were here, in this very house?” I ask. Even now, I find it amazing how the French never want to move.
“And not only that,” nods Madame, “but he still sleeps in the same bed in which he was born.”
She explains how, after D-Day, a company of SS troops briefly billeted in Jolibois were in a hurry to move out. The Americans (it’s never the Brits, when the French discuss Liberation) were on their way. Fearing an ambush on the main road, the Germans opted instead to take the little chemin that runs past the bottom of the drive to La Folie. Or at least, that’s what theywould [ital] have done. But a French collaborator had spied a group of young Resistance fighters hiding in the hedgerows en route, and tipped off the SS.
So the Germans chose a third route out of Jolibois: the route that Digby and I take for our favourite walk. Guided by their informer, they took the ancient cart-track which passes slap-bang in front of La Folie, before heading steeply up through the woods. I have seen old Jadot negotiate this track on his quad-bike, but it must have been quite a challenge for war-weary soldiers weighed down with heavy kit.
I struggle to picture them now in their square helmets, their leather boots trampling the nettles in the very places where Digby sniffs at his favourite smells. Did they happen to pluck a blackberry from the brambles, as they heaved their machine guns up the hill?
At the top, the steep-sided path emerges just opposite Robuchon’s house. Staring at the table, Robuchon describes how the Germans crept up behind the would-be ambush, and raked the hedgerows with heavy machine-gun fire. Two young men were killed outright. Robuchon himself, then aged 15, was pulled out of his house and taken to the farm where I buy my hay, with a pistol jammed into his neck.
“I thought I was dead,” he says, shaking his head. “But the lady of the house spoke German, and invited the officer in for a drink. I heard him playing the piano in there. And then I was released.”
That evening two more young men were brought to the farm and shot. And from his bedroom window, Robuchon could see the half-stripped body of another man who had been beaten to death with rifle-butts in the bean-field across the road. “That was poor Henri Gadioux,” he recalls, gazing out of the window. “He only came to Jolibois that day because he wanted to see his pregnant wife.”
The path feels different to me now, as I walk home. The shadows have thickened. If this is so for me, then how must the people of an occupied country feel, when their invaders finally leave?
Last week, I made a day-trip up towards Lille, in search of the childhood home of a resistance hero, still living, whose story I am helping to write. Driving through that drearily flat landscape, where bayonet-sharp church spires pierce the low sky, I kept seeing reminders of how much of northern France, once a battlefield, is now a burial ground. War graves litter the earth. Every roundabout I passed seemed to have a sign pointing to another military cemetery.
I was expecting these places to be vast and impersonal; almost chilling in their military precision. Like everyone else, I have seen the pictures of rank upon rank of white headstones, perfect in their bloodless symmetry; imagined that the graveyards of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would be hollow places, packaging up wartime loss in a clean and tidy way, so as not to scare the horses or put a damper on recruitment.
But not a bit of it. No, as I stand alone on the velvet grass of the Pont d’Achelles military cemetery in Nieppe, I somehow forget that I am meant to be seeking out a man who is still alive. And I understand what Alice’s father meant, when he told me that our war cemeteries are one of things that make him incredibly proud to be British.
I have never walked upon turf as soft as this. And I like the feeling that I am meant to be here, even though there are many signs that this walled garden is hallowed ground. It’s not just the platonic grass. It’s the way the flowers and shrubs planted with apparent randomness across the rows of graves have been pruned in their weedless beds. The way every letter of every chiselled inscription is still legible. The way everything feels just right.
Someone has placed a cellophaned bouquet of fresh white roses on the grave of Private C. J. Ryan, of the 55th battalion, Australian Infantry, who died on the 27th November 1917, aged 21. I gently push aside the branches of the shrub at the base of his headstone, to read the inscription carved beneath: “In memory of our dearly beloved son and brother.” So this Private Ryan is not some faceless, numbered killing machine. He is someone’s lost boy; someone’s heartache forever. How touching it is, that 94 years after this young Australian’s death, there are still fresh flowers upon his grave in France.
We will remember them, we announce, in hushed voices and various languages, on Remembrance Sunday. And the older I get, the more I find that I do.
© Michael Wright