Category Archives: Wars, Battlefields, Prose & Poetry of War

Tours of the various areas where major battles took place, mainly of wars in the 19th century and the prose and poetry of those wars plus the Vietnam war.

A CRETAN VILLAGE WITH 2 MUSEUMS

Crete is the largest island in Greece, a place of dramatic mountain ranges and gorges dotted with ancient ruins and architecture from the medieval period onwards.  Known as the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of Zeus, the island provides the backdrop for many of the Greek myths and legends we are familiar with.

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Throughout the island are scattered hamlets and villages and high in the dramatic White Mountains not far from Chania, lies the village of Therissos, which has not just one, but two museums.  One would be unusual in a place of this size (pop. just over 100) but to find two is extraordinary.

The-Modern-Resistance-Museum-at-Therissos
The Modern Resistance Museum

I visited the village two years ago when I was staying at Malarme on the coast, mainly to visit the Museum dedicated to the Greek resistance in World War II which I had heard about in the course of my studies in war history.

Saviour-of-Crete

Home-of-the-great--Eleftherios-Venizelos
Home of the great patriot Eleftherios Venizelos

Sadly, my interest in the wars in which my own country had been involved had led me to neglect local Greek history.  I had a lot to learn about the resistance of Therissos over many decades, centuries one might say.

Talking to local people, I soon realized that the important museum for them was the one dedicated to the great Greek patriot and politician, Eleftherios Venizelos who fought for Cretan independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, who became the island’s first independent Prime Minister in 1905 and then Prime Minister of Greece in 1910.   Of more importance to the locals, however, was the fact that Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan constitution, that he took part in the armed uprising in 1905 which deposed Prince George, and that he negotiated the unification of Crete with Greece.

He lived in Therissos and his house is now a museum dedicated to Venizelos and other local people who were involved in the struggles for freedom from the Ottomans.

The other museum, one dedicated to World War ll, is a purpose built modern space with few artefacts but many pictures and letters.  Unfortunately, not many of these are translated but sometimes a volunteer is on hand who can help with this.  Entry is so cheap I felt duty bound to leave a large donation as it is purely self-supporting.  It is very local to the young men who died fighting the Germans in the mountains, a bloody conflict that is known for the savagery on both sides.

Photo from Resistance Museum in Therissos

Some of the pictures are harrowing and deal with the war on the mainland as well as the war on Crete, pictures of starving children, scenes from the village of Kandonos which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the killing of 50 Germans, and pictures of the terrible life lived by the villagers during the harsh winters.

The savagery on both sides was legendary, from the locals shooting parachutists out of the sky in cold blood to the occupying forces, shooting whole families and villages on what often seemed a whim. It is difficult to take all this in, surrounded as one is by a landscape of such beauty.

War Memorial in Maloliopoulo

The-Dotto-Train-navigates-the-Therisso-Gorge I journeyed up from the coast on the little ‘Dotto’ train with which most of us are familiar in cities and resorts, but in this case, it traversed the famous Therisso Gorge.  It surged up the hill in under an hour, through magnificent scenery, the air heady with the scent of herbs, great swathes of wild thyme, rosemary, pine, marjoram, oregano, and fennel. Many of the olive trees along the side of the road are hundreds of years old and behind the rocky caves can be glimpsed walnut, almond, hazelnut and chestnut trees.

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Mountain Goats

In the village itself, red, white and pink oleander trees bloomed, the scent mingling with the smell of cooking from the little tavernas that were operating, some with open wood fires and all serving delicious Greek salads and fresh fish, alongside local dishes infused with the scent of pine seeds, olive oil and fennel.

The little Dotto train allowed about two or three hours for a visit, long enough to wander around the village, have some lunch and still have to time visit both museums.

I enjoyed the trip so much I went back a second time a few days later and spent more time in the museums, reading the letters with the help of a student and trying to come to grips with what had happened here where the resistance hid out for many years during the second world war, harried and hunted like animals, during bitter winters of extreme cold, and parched summers of unbearable heat.

The photographs tell a tragic tale and I am haunted by them still.

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Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:

Crete:  The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991).  Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor):  John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955).  A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.

HIROSHIMA – August 1945 and TODAY

It is difficult to write about Hiroshima.

Nuclear accidents seem to happen, or be avoided, on a regular basis these days; countries arm themselves with ever more terrible bombs, nuclear power is poised to replace coal and gas, and the world sails on as though the 1945 destruction of two Japanese cities had never happened.

It was Sunday, August 6, 1945, and the early morning sun shone from the blue sky over Hiroshima, Japan.  It had been a night of constant alerts with sirens warning of planes overhead but early in the morning, the all-clear sounded.  The streets were full of people, workers returning from night shifts, day workers on their way to take their place, military workers, factory watchmen, women shopping, secondary school children making fire breaks, all, we can suppose, weary after a sleepless night.

Shortly after 7 a.m. an urgent communique came to the Military Command at Hiroshima Central Broadcasting, cut short after just a few phrases by a blinding flash, a blast of searing heat and a roar that shook the earth from its orbit.

Enola Gay
The Enola Gay, the ‘plane that dropped the first Atom Bond on Hiroshima

It was 8.15 a.m when the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a five-ton bomb over Hiroshima and a blast equivalent to the power of 15,000 tons of TNT reduced four square miles of the city to ruins, instantly killing 80,000 men, women, and children.  People turned to charcoal there and then, limbless and headless bodies flew through the air, and on the ground writhed still living bodies, their flesh torn from their limbs.  Tens of thousands more died in the following weeks from wounds and radiation poisoning.  In total, it is said that 140,000 died from the effects of the bomb the Americans called “Little Boy”, 80,000 on the day and 60,000 from injuries and the combined effects of flash burns, trauma, radiation burns, and illness. Three days later, another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki, killing nearly 40,000 more. A few days later, Japan announced its surrender.

Cenotaph at Night with Dome in background, Hiroshima

Cenotaph at Night with Dome in Background, Hiroshima Peace Park – Steve Moore

In 1970, five countries had A & H bombs, the USA, the UK, the USSR, France and China, and they signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty designating  themselves nuclear powers and prohibiting all other countries from possessing nuclear weapons for 25 years.  As we know, other countries now possess the bomb, or the wherewithal to make a bomb, although the fact is often denied.

The Memorial Cenotaph in Hiroshima is located in the centre of the Peace Park,  It is a saddle-shaped structure which was erected in 1952, the shape representing a sanctuary for the souls of the A-Bomb victims.  Inside it holds a list of their names.

Hiroshima clock

Clock in Hiroshima Museum showing how many days since the bomb was dropped and, below that, how many days since the last nuclear test.- Mari Nicholson

There is a Global Peace Watch Clock within the Museum in Hiroshima Memorial Park which displays the number of days since the A-bombing of the city which killed thousands and left thousands more to die painful deaths from radiation poisoning and still others to live with the effects of the poison.  Below the clock is another number which shows the number of days since the most recent nuclear test.  It can be surprisingly low as many underground tests are conducted which are low enough not to create a critical mass of fissile material and so does not attract publicity.  One has to ask oneself why nations feel the need to continually increase the power of their bombs when just one or two set off from different sides of the world could end of our world and our civilisation.

The Museum is dedicated to telling visitors the history of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and among the exhibits are a number of articles and  remains damaged by the bomb, together with poignant pictures and sad memorabilia.

Hiroshima Dome
Hiroshima Dome, the only building left standing after the bomb was dropped – Mari Nicholson

Hiroshima is not like the rest of Japan.  It was flattened when the Atomic Bomb was dropped on it.  It has been re-built and is now a soulless place of dull, grey concrete, wide avenues, boulevards, shopping malls and all the accoutrements of a modern city.  What is lacks is a soul.  That was destroyed in 1945.

Visitors to the city will be moved by the World Heritage Site of the A-Bomb Dome, Hiroshima’s most famous site .  It stands forlornly by the river across from the Peace Memorial Park, as a reminder of the power that rained down upon the city half a century ago and brought such terrible devastation to its people.  On that fateful day it stood within 100 metres from what became ground zero.  The A-Bomb Dome is a propped up ruin, the only building still standing.  Try and visit it at night if possible, when it is lit from the interior as well as the exterior.  It is quite eerie.

 

Peace Park Memorial
Children’s Peace Monument based on the story of Sasaki Sadako

The Children’s Peace Memorial in the Peace Park is continually covered in thousands of tiny folded paper cranes, a symbol of longevity and happiness in Japan, which come in by the busload from schools all over Japan on a regular basis.  The Memorial was inspired by the story of leukaemia victim Sasaki Sadako, who, at age ten contracted the disease, after which she embarked on a task to make 1000 paper cranes in the belief that if she succeeded she would survive.  Sadly she died having only completed 644 but her classmates completed the task, and so started a tradition that continues to this day.

School children in Peace Park learning about the Bomb and its results

School children learn the lessons of history on the banks of the river that guided the Atomic Bomb to Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson

The Peace Memorial Park is located across the Aioi-bashi Bridge and includes the Cenotaph which  lists the name of all the known victims.  The river is said to have been the bomber’s point of aim on that fateful morning.  Beneath the Cenotaph burns a flame, set to burn until the last atomic bomb has been destroyed, at which point it will be extinguished.  Thousands of sufferers from radiation burns threw themselves into the river in an effort to ease the pain but to no avail, and hundreds of corpses remained afloat in the water for days after the blast.

The Peace Memorial Museum is the place to find information.  It delivers a simple anti-atomic warfare message with a power that can leave you in tears.  The depiction of destruction and suffering is told with no pulling of punches and makes one think of what modern warfare, using these bombs, would be like.

08.30–18.00 March-July, Sept-Nov:   0830 – 19.00 August:  08.30-17.00 Dec-Feb.

Tel: (082)2414004.  Admission 50 yen.  Tram line 2 and 6 from Hiroshima station.

http://www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/top_e.html

Other places to visit:

Hiroshima Art Museum which has Dali’s Dream of Venus and works by the Japanese artist Hirayama Ikuo who was present during the bombing.

Shukkelen Garden.  Located next to the Hiroshima Art Museum

MitakiDera: the Three Waterfalls Temple, a quiet and secluded gem with a fine view over the city.

 

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Photograph by Steve Moore

 

Red Torii Gate at Miyajima, near Hiroshima
Red Torii Gate in Miyajima, outside Hiroshima – Mari Nicholson

Best trip outside the city – to Miyajima.  The  famous Red Torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine (at least the one that is most photographed) can be seen here, in a very touristy town but one with great charm.   While there, try the famed oysters, raw, deep-fried, or in hot pot dish, the savoury pancakes and the ice-cream sandwich in a brioche bun.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Time

 

This is the AFTER photograph.  I wasn’t there to take the BEFORE shot, but most of us will have seen the terrible pictures of the 1944 D-Day Landings in Normandy, France, even seen the film The Longest Day, in which the graphic images of the horrors of that day and the terrible happenings on the beaches code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword are now part of history.   It was a Time of heroism on a grand scale and a Time of mistakes on an equally grand scale.  It heralded the end of the beginning of the war that tore Europe apart, the one we call The Second World War, but it also heralded a Time of hope when it seemed that Peace might finally descend on Europe.

To me, this Memorial to some of those who lost their lives on the beaches of Normandy signifies Time Past and Time Remembered.

 © Mari NicholsonD-Day Landings.  War Memorial on Normandy Beaches

Bayeux: D-Day Landings in Normandy

Although the UNESCO listed Bayeux Tapestry that depicts the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror dominates Bayeux, this Normandy town has much more to offer than just the tapestry (actually an embroidery stitched on linen).

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux Image Copyright Ville de Bayeux
Section of the Bayeux Tapestry in Bayeux
Copyright Ville de Bayeux

The splendid and beautiful Norman-Romanesque-Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Bayeux, consecrated in 1077, in the centre of this very historic city is well worth a visit, as is the Bishop’s Palace which stands next to it and which is now a museum.

Les Amoureux de Bayeux Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Bayeux Tourist office
Les Amoureux de Bayeux Cathedral.
Photo courtesy of Bayeux Tourist office
Grand Hotel dArgouges
Grand Hotel dArgouges

Many of the buildings you will come across in the old town were former monasteries, as Bayeux was once an important religious centre, but in the streets adjoining, most of the historic houses have been converted into designer boutiques and fine restaurants.

Bayeux, The Cathedral. Copyright Mari Nicholson
Bayeux, The Cathedral. Copyright Mari Nicholson

Bayeux offers the tourist excellent sightseeing, from its War Museum, British and Commonwealth war cemetery, and the D-Day Landing beaches which lie close by, to the surrounding countryside with grand châteaux and abbeys and the lure of Calvados producing distilleries.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Section of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo Copyright Ville de Bayeux
Section of the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo provided by Ville de Bayeux

Although the Bayeux tapestry has its home in France, it is believed that it was originally made in southern England.  The graphic tale of the invasion and the battles that took place are at the centre of the canvas that measures over 70 metres (230 feet) in length, in fifty-eight action-packed scenes of bloody battles.  Severed limbs and decapitated heads graphically explain the ongoing carnage, while religious allegories and illustrations of everyday life in the 11th century make up the borders.  The panel-by-panel audio guide which is included in the entry fee is a great asset as you view the tapestry

Bayeux Museum Ticket
Bayeux Museum Ticket

Bayeux in World War II

Bayeux, The River Aure
Bayeux, The River Aure. Copyright Mari Nicholson

Bayeux is the only town in Normandy to be left completely undamaged after World War II and had the great good fortune to be quickly liberated by the Allies after the D-Day landings.  For a brief period, it was the capital of Free France after General De Gaulle arrived hot on the heels of the Allied forces in 1944 and set up his government in the town.

The biggest British cemetery in Normandy is found in Bayeux with 4,648 graves. For those who have come to look at the D-Day landing beaches, a visit to this cemetery, Bayeux’s own War Museum, and the vast cemetery for over 10,000  US troops in Omaha, puts in focus the sacrifices made in these parts.

D-Day Landings at Arromanches

Bayeux is the perfect place to choose as the point from which to tour the beaches of the Normandy landings as they are all within easy reach of the town.  I wouldn’t advise doing them all on the same day, but a couple of beaches and a Museum are quite possible.   Before heading for what are actually quite beautiful beaches, a trip to Arromanches 360 is recommended. This is a circular cinema, unique in France, that immerses you in the Battle of Normandy, allowing you to see everything “in the round” over 360 degrees in a 35-minute session.  Original archived images from Canada, Germany, UK and French collections retracing the 100 days of the battle, are shown on nine screens to give the 360ᵒ effect.  This is a fine tribute to the allied soldiers and the more than 20,000 civilians who died to free Western Europe, and whose personal stories are told in interviews: a very special museum.   Prices are given below.

The Mulberry Harbour and beach at Arromanches:

Mulberry Harbour on Arromanches Beach
Mulberry Harbour on Arromanches Beach. Copyright Mari Nicholson

From the beach at Arromanches you can see the remains of several pontoons.  The artificial Mulberry Ports A and B were prefabricated in England and towed into place at Gold Beach at speeds of 5 m.p.h. from June 7th.  Seventeen ships were sunk at sea to form a breakwater called Gooseberry and a huge 10 miles of roadway was then created. Mulberries were, and still remain, a terrific technological feat.

By the end of the 100 days in which it was used, the completed harbour had become more efficient than either Cherbourg or Le Havre, and during this time it disembarked 2.3 million men, 500,000 vehicles and 4 million tons of equipment and supplies.

Pillboxes on the cliffs of this small fishing port helped the Germans defend and control the town so the fighting to capture the cliffs and advance into France was fierce and bloody.

After a visit to Arromanches 360 and seeing the beaches and cliffs which the combatants had to scale after landing, one has a much better idea of the hell that is war.

Prices for Arromanches 360

Adults: 5 €   Students/Children/Seniors (over 60 years): 4,50 €    Children (under 10 years), veterans: free

Opening Times:    27TH Jan – 31st March  10.00 –17.00 (closed 2nd Feb): 1st Apl – 31st May  10.00-18.00: 1st June–31st August  09.40 – 18.40: 1st-30th Sept 10.00-18.10:  1st Oct – 11th Nov. 10.00-17.40:  12th Nov-31Dec 10.10-17.10 (Closed on Mondays except on 21st and 28 December.

Address:  Chemin du Calvaire – BP 9 – 14117 Arromanches-les-Bains.  Tel 02 31 06 06 45 resa@memorial-caen.fr       website: www.arromanches360.com

War Memorial, D=Day Landings in Normandy
War Memorial, D=Day Landings in Normandy. Copyright Mari Nicholson

D-Day Landings at Normandy

A Section of the over-10,000+ Graves at Omaha Beach Cemetery

Just back from Normandy where I’ve been touring the beaches and cliffs of the Normandy landing area where the invasion of France that led to the end of the 2nd World War took place.   It was an emotional trip even though no one close to me had died in the horror that was unleashed that day, but one cannot fail to be moved when confronted with a cemetery containing 10,500 white crosses each one guarding a fallen combatant.

It was June 6th, 1944, when the assault on the French coast took place.  Every type of transport at the Allies disposal was thrown into the battle and incredible ingenuity allowed Bailey bridges and the Mulberry pontoons to be shipped across the Channel without the Germans knowing. Horsa gliders towed by ‘planes carried the British 6th Airbourne Division across the channel to storm the bridges at Ranville-Bénouville (known today as Pegasus Bridge).  The most intensely fought over sands, the six-mile-wide Omaha beach, largest of all the five beaches on the coast (Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha and Utah) was to be taken by the US 1st Army led by Omar Bradley. The plan was to land infantry troops alongside armoured amphibious Sherman tanks, but the Shermans never made it.  The tanks were released from their landing craft too far away from the beach as there was a much greater swell further out to sea than the Americans had bargained on and all but two of the tanks sank shortly after leaving their craft. Many units landed in the wrong place due to the strong tides and winds carrying the landing craft away from their positions.

Omaha is most remembered for the casualties the Americans took there as the German machine gun fire tore into the troops as they tried to sprint across the beach to the seawall.  It was a massacre, a terrible loss of life.

Although Hollywoodish, the film The Longest Day, gives a very good impression of what that day in June was like.  I watched it before I departed for France and again on my return a few days ago when I was able to recognise some of the places I’d visited.  The weather didn’t favour the invaders, nor did it favour me as I walked in their footsteps: Normandy is famous for its changeable climate.

There are many wonderful Museums, and I’ve appended photographs of their leaflets below, but if there is time for only one or two, make it (1) The Memorial of Caen in the town of the same name and 2) Pegasus Museum.  The Memorial of Caen, as well as artefacts, has lots of cinematic clips and chairs on which to rest while you watch – a boon for many people.  It also has a great restaurant and a good snack bar/cafe.  I was there for 4 hours but could have done with 6, and I didn’t have time to tour the bunker, nor to visit The Cold War Exhibition which I was told was excellent.  Pegasus Museum has the bridge, a replica of the glider that landed just a few yards from it, and another glider in the grounds into which you can climb for an exploration of the conditions in which the parachutists made that journey across the channel.  In the area also is the original cafe in which Major Howard set up his HQ shortly after he landed, and where the tea and coffee are pretty good.

Major John Howard's Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge.
Major John Howard’s Headquarters immediately after landing at Pegasus Bridge. Today known as The Pegasus Bridge Cafe it i still in the hands of the family who owned it in 1945.

I hope to blog about individual beaches in due course.

A Selection of Mueums along the Normandu Coast
A Selection of Museums along the Normandy Coast

The German Cemetery in Crete

The Granite Cross that Dominates the Entrance to the Cemetery

The huge granite cross, starkly outlined against the blue sky, dominates the entrance to the German War Cemetery in Malame, Crete, scene of some of the most ferocious fighting during the Second World War – the aptly named Battle of Crete. The cemetery, home to the remains of 4,700 German soldiers who died on the island, is easy to find as it is just off the coast road in Malame, a short distance from Chania.

The German Cemetery High Above Malame, Crete
The German Cemetery, high above Malarme

Once in the cemetery proper, one is faced with sombre, grey granite crosses dotted about the area with small granite plaques embedded in the ground, each one bearing the name of two soldiers who lie beneath.  Interspersed with the grey lozenge-like plaques are tough grasses and plant forms that can withstand the dry heat and the cold, snowy winters of Crete.

Plaque to a German Soldier
Plaque to a fallen soldier

The Battle of Malame in May 1941 has become famous as one of attack and counter attack, assault and retreat, with the Cretan partisans and what remained of the Greek army on the island, fighting alongside a New Zealand infantry company, the RAF and Fleet Air Arm personnel left stranded at the airfield.

Three crosses and two plaques.
Three crosses and two plaques.

Over 500 Junkers attacked in a blitzkrieg similar to that launched on Guernica, Spain, five years earlier.  Historians still query why the powers-that-be failed to realize that Hitler might try the same tactics again five years later.

Wave after wave of German paratroopers invaded the island. The Junkers were followed by an armada of paratroopers who were ferried in on gliders and parachute troop carriers and who darkened the sky as they descended in their thousands.  (There were 70 gliders each one holding 10 paratroopers and these were followed by parachute troop carriers). Many were shot as they descended or were enmeshed in the surrounding olive trees.

The invaders who died in this assault were initially interred at 62 locations on the island but in 1960, following permission from the Greek Government, the Germans were permitted to recover these bodies which were then transferred to the Gonia monastery at Kolymbari. (The Monastery had been a centre for the Resistance during the Battle of Crete and the monks were imprisoned in Chania prisons, after the Germans found guns inside the chapel).

German Cemetery at Malame
View of the German Cemetery with its crosses and granite plaques.

In 1971 the remains of 4,465 German troops were transferred to their current resting place in Malame, designed as a cemetery for the Germans who died on the four main battlegrounds of Malame, Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion.  The cemetery was consecrated on 6th October 1974.

The human cost paid by the German and Allied forces in the fight for Crete was very high.  There is a little Museum on the cemetery site with information on the walls about the history of the battles but most Cretans dispute the interpretations offered.

View from The German Cemetery at Malame
View to the Coast from the German Cemetery

From the cemetery the view to the coast is stunning.  Standing at the top one can see far into the deep blue bay of Chania across hillsides dotted with olive trees, winding down to the Tavronitis River.  Goats graze among the trees, their bleating rising from below sounding eerily like a child crying. A thin ribbon of road runs between the olive groves and the Aegean Sea beyond, and it is hard to imagine the horror that erupted in this peaceful area 75 years ago, or to visualize the dead and dying that littered the beaches and fields.

Neither side has exact numbers of fallen soldiers.

R.I.P.

Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:

Crete:  The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991).  Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor):  John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955).  A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.

Jersey at War 1940-1945

It is often forgotten in the rush to visit yet another battlefield in France that just a few miles from England’s south coast, the only territory belonging to Great Britain endured almost five years of a harsh and brutal German occupation.

Now at Peace, the Beautiful Island of Jersey
Now at Peace, the Beautiful Island of Jersey

Hitler saw the Channel Islands as a strategic landing stage for an invasion of mainland France, and when in 1940 Churchill deemed the Islands indefensible (despite their heroic efforts to save Allied forces during the evacuation from Dunkirk) their occupation by the Germans became inevitable.

Entrance to the War Tunnels
Entrance to the War Tunnels
Museum Entrance to War Tunnels
Museum Entrance to War Tunnels

The story of Jersey’s occupation and the building of the tunnels is unfolded in slow and moving detail on a tour of Ho8 (Höhlgangsanlage 8), the kilometre long underground fortification that was conceived by the Germans as both store-rooms and a bombproof barracks. Known as The War Tunnels, this series of galleries is the best known of Jersey’s many tunnel complexes built by more than 5,000 forced labourers from Europe and Africa – Russians, Poles, Spanish Republicans, French and Algerian POWs.

These men all suffered at the hands of the occupiers, but the most barbaric and brutal treatment was meted out to the Russians who were regarded by the Nazis as Untermenschen – subhuman.  They were abused, beaten, starved and, literally, worked to death.

Islanders will tell you that the dead Russians were shovelled into the walls and buried where they had fallen: just a few years ago these wall burials were one of the facts mentioned on the Tunnel tour but when I enquired this time I was told that there was no real evidence for this particular barbarity.

Russian POWs on Jersey during World War ll
Russian POWs on Jersey during World War ll

Just before the occupation there were approximately 50,000 people living on Jersey, mostly native islanders, some seasonal workers from Ireland, France and Italy and some Austrian and Swiss.   Amid the panic in June 1940 Whitehall gave the islanders the option of leaving within 24 hours or remaining on the undefended island: by the end of the day nearly half the population had registered to leave.

Many changed their minds, however, when they saw how the people were packed, for the journey, like sardines on the only transport available – coal and cement boats – and eventually only 6,600 left. From the beginning of the occupation in July 1940, up until December 1940, there were only 1,750 German soldiers on Jersey, but within a year the number had increased to 11,500.

To the Soldaten it was a paradise, a holiday island with shops full of goods, gardens full of flowers, and a not too unfriendly people.  Photographs lining the tunnel walls show them relaxing on beaches in the sunshine, swimming, motoring, walking, young men enjoying a near normal life – a long way from the middle of war. German Wax Works[1] But the atmosphere changed on October 21st 1940, when the Order was passed demanding a register of all known Jews and Jewish businesses.  In June, 1942, it was ordered that all wirelesses be handed in and just three months later, on September 15th, the Order came for all British-born islanders to be deported to Germany.   Over several days 1,200 of them were led away to an unknown fate with more deportations following in February 1943 when the Germans rounded up the remaining Jews, Freemasons, retired army officers and protesters.

And now food was getting short.  Tea was made from bramble leaves or carrots, coffee from acorns or roasted parsnips, shoes were repaired with bits of wood, clothes cut from old curtains, and lipstick made from oil and coloured dyes.  Soap was a rarity (sand mixed with ash was used as a substitute) gas was cut off every evening, and communal bake houses and soup kitchens were opened.

Scene from the Museum in Jersey. Wax Work of Woman and Food
Scene from the Museum in Jersey. Wax Work of Woman and Food

Some girls found it hard to resist the handsome young blond soldiers and there was a certain amount of fraternisation despite the stigma it carried: the other islanders called them ‘Jerry bags’ and worse.  They weren’t the only ones who fraternised, however.

Lack of food and clothing was a great incentive to work for the Germans because of the high wages paid and the extra rations given. There was resistance to the occupation in the form of painting V-signs on buildings, the theft of arms and explosives from barracks, and the use of the forbidden radios: if caught, the penalty was harsh – deportation to a concentration camp in Germany.  The same punishment was meted out for offering food and shelter to escaping POWs and it is recorded that three members of one family were deported for merely offering some food to starving prisoners:  one member of the family died in the gas chambers at Ravensbrὒck.

Reminders of the 1939-45 war still to be seen in Jersey
Reminders of the 1939-45 war still to be seen in Jersey

These are the stories you hear as you walk through the underground galleries, each dedicated to a period.  There are last letters written to loved ones, daily printed Orders from the German occupiers and tableaux showing German soldiers speaking careful English to the young women of Jersey.

But the most moving of all images are the pictures of the starving Russian POWs dressed in rags, whose dark, haunted eyes staring out of the photographs speak of their utter despair.  It is an exhibition that tells the story of the Occupation in the words and pictures of the people who lived through it.

The final, unfinished, tunnel is black as the deepest night, a flickering light at the end of the tunnel the only sign of the outside world.  As you grope your way through the darkness, a tremendous noise erupts and echoes around the cavelike space as though the world were about to end.  The earth seems to vibrate beneath your feet, the sound of rocks crashing round about is deafening and there is an overwhelming feeling that the ceiling is about to collapse, burying you forever.  And you think back to the pictures of the POWs you’ve seen and you know why each one wore a haunted look.

Black Tunnel in which the POWs worked.
Black Tunnel in which the POWs worked.

The Normandy landings in 1944 heralded the final phase of the German occupation of the Islands, but it also meant that the supply routes were cut off.   For the next eight months, the local population and the 28,000-strong German garrison were close to starvation both sides vying for the sparse grasses, berries, and edible tubers that were in the fields. Churchhill refused to help the islanders as he considered that the Germans, who were caught between France and England with no hope of escape, would benefit from such assistance.

The Germans acted with surprising decency towards the end of the war.  When Red Cross parcels arrived for the starving people of Jersey, the soldiers delivered them to the houses and it is recorded that no parcels were opened and that no food was stolen.  It is almost hard to believe, considering that they too were starving and considering also, their former behaviour.

Outside the tunnels, The Garden of Reflection provides a peaceful place in which to reflect on the suffering of the islanders, rendered defenceless by the UK and forced to find a way of existing with the enemy, and of the POWs who lived lives of utter misery and degradation.  The lives of all are brought vividly to life in the tunnels of Ho8 Höhlgangsanlage, the Jersey War Tunnels.

Jersey today, bright and cheerful
Jersey today, bright and cheerful

 ALL  FULL PAGE IMAGES ARE COURTESY OF JERSEY TOURISM

FACT FILE

Jersey War Tunnels,  Les Charrières Malorey,  St Lawrence,  Jersey,  Channel Islands JE3 1FU.   Open seven days a week 1st March – 31st October 2014.  10.00 am – 6.00pm (last entry 4.30 pm) dults £11.50,  Children (7 – 15) – Must be accompanied by an adult £7.50

Adults £11.50,  Children (7 – 15) – Must be accompanied by an adult £7.50 Senior citizens £10.50,   Students (with valid ID card) £8.50 Jersey Tourism (www.jersey.com)

The Poetry is in the Pity: War Poets and Poetry

Reading some of Linda O’Neil’s poetry on her blog  http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/lyndaoneillpage.shtml) sent me back to my favourite war poets, Wilfrid Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Alun Lewis, Edward Thomas and many others, and to France where they fought.  I’m a regular visitor to France, sometimes to visit the World War I War cemeteries there, sometimes to cruise the canals, and sometimes I can combine the two.

Reading Linda’s lovely poem Embroidery, which I think we can call a homage to Owen, reminded me of the time I visited, not the vast fields of white crosses, but Owen’s grave in the little French cemetery at Ors in north eastern France near the site of the battle to cross the Sambre Oise canal.  He was killed there, just one week before the Armistice of 1918.

Today, his body lies, not in Poets’ Corner in St. Paul’s, but in a tranquil plot in the British war graves section of Ors’ village cemetery, a short walk from the place where he died.   Britain’s greatest war poet, Owen wrote poetry of a rare compassion and beauty, war poetry that did not hesitate to describe unseemly death and disablement in ways that had never been attempted before.  ‘My poetry is in the pity’ said Owen, and it is the pity and the compassion that we take from the poems.

My first visit to his grave was made nearly 20 years ago when, together with members of the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society, we took part in the dedication of a Memorial to the poet.   The military historians who accompanied our party breathed life into statistics and Battle Plan references that our maps high-lighted.  Ground was fought over and won and fought over again and lost, as we listened to the story of the attacks across fields we stood on, and marched up trails that were once dirt tracks.

On the Somme the villages seem caught in a time warp.  After the war most places were rebuilt exactly as they had been before 1914, and you pass through villages whose names echo with a terrible resonance down the years, Thiepval, Fricourt, Maricourt, Montauban – villages which stand today almost as they did then.  What has changed is the terrain.  In many places today the Somme is like a prairie: hedges have been uprooted to maximise planting, and the flat, rolling plains are unlike the former fields on which the battles were fought.  Despite these changes, and 100 years after the 1914-18 battles, the Somme still throws up the bones of long dead combatants, old bits of ordnance and the occasional live shell.  Mametz Wood is a chilling place, even on a fine day when the sun is shining.

The sun was shining as we gathered on the banks of the Sambre-Oise canal to listen to the story of the battle in which Owen was killed.  The geese from the nearby farm were loud in their scolding, and staring at us from the opposite bank were cows, not Germans.  It was all a far cry from November 4th, 1918, when the men of the 2nd Manchesters and the 15th and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers fought long and hard for control of these now peaceful waters.  Difficult to imagine on this sunny morning, the men of the Royal Engineers working feverishly to make and mend the bridges and pontoons that were carrying the assault troops across the canal: difficult to imagine the shouts of the men, the sounds of the gunfire, and the screams of the wounded.

The day lives in my memory chiefly because of the French welcome.   The whole town turned out to welcome us, or so it seemed, and for the dedication of the Memorial.  Representatives from the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society took their places alongside  M. Houson the Mayor of Ors, and dignitaries from other nearby towns.  Then down the street came the band, bussed in for the occasion from the neighbouring village of le Catillon.  That afternoon they had their most appreciative audience ever.

Certain songs have instant access to our emotions – one of them is Roses of Picardy.  As the opening bars of that sentimental old melody began, the chattering stopped and the crowd fell silent.  There were few there who were not moved to tears and the relief from the emotion of the moment was almost audible when the Mayor started his speech of welcome.

For some of us the pilgrimage ended as we laid our tributes on the grave of the poet and read the words on the pristine white slab that marks his burial place.  I remembered his last letter home to his mother …. There is no danger here, or if any, it will be over before you read these lines ..      Prophetic words.  The bells were ringing to announce the Armistice when the doorbell rang in the Owen household and Susan and Tom Owen got the telegram they’d been dreading.

Readers with an interest in Owen’s poetry who visit France, will have no bother finding Ors.  It is an easy spot to reach lying not far from Amiens (Michelin Touring Map No. 50.  200 Km. North of Paris, 40 Km. North-east of San Quentin and 25 Km. South-east of Cambrai).  Walk across the bridge that spans the canal and you will see the Memorial erected to Owen just nineteen years ago by the villagers, the Western Front Association and the Wilfrid Owen Society.  The Commonwealth graves are in a quiet spot at the side of the village cemetery, their pristine white slabs terribly upright in sharp contrast to the polished granite and marble of the French headstones.

The bond that grew between the men who fought in World War I was of a special kind, forged in the hell of the trenches and kept alive by the inability of those on the home front to comprehend the horror of that war.  Some may think that Westminster Abbey is the only fit place for a great English poet.  I believe Wilfrid Owen is happier to lie at Ors with the men whose life, and death, he shared.

Read Linda’s poem on http://www.poetrypf.co.uk/lyndaoneillpoems.shtml  and you’ll see why my memory slipped back to nearly 20 years ago.  Travel takes one to strange places and although I have visited the graves in the cemeteries on the River Kwai many times and been moved to tears more than once, those upright white slabs in France seem to resonate with the tragedy of all wars.  Is it the poetry the fallen left behind?  Is it the prose, not just from the English combatants, but Frenchman Henri Barbusse, German Erich Maria Remarque, and the Russian Pavel Antokolsky.

They have all left their mark on literature, and on lovers of poetry, but was still go on.