I’ve already mentioned our guide, Jeremy Banning’s expert knowledge – he didn’t simply know where the English, French and German trenches had stood but also produced maps and panoramas to get us to understand. So we’d be standing in the middle of a field and like a magician he’d unfurl a long photographic image showing us what it would have looked like in 1916. Mostly the photographs were taken from the German trenches looking out over No Man’s land and in one, horrifically you could see scattered black dots which were the corpses of men from the previous day’s fighting. The basic features of the landscape, the woods and the slopes have changed very little in the last hundred years apart from some of the towns expanding so it was easy to be transported back.
As we crossed and criss-crossed the farmland on minor roads we saw piles of roots at the corners of fields. Some were recognisably potatoes but what were the other gnarled white-ish things – were they turnips? “Sugar beet” Jeremy said when asked and later we passed a sugar processing plant. It is a long standing industry in the area and there was a sugar refinery, St Rohart’s factory on the Cambrai road near Vis-en-Artois was an objective for the troops to reach in 1917.
These fields yield a different harvest too. Farmers are still unearthing munitions. We were warned not to touch anything metal that looked intact as even after the passage of nearly a century they can still explode. The shells and grenades are marked with fluorescent paint and left by the roadside for the French authorities to dispose of safely.
The remains of the missing men are also still occasionally found. Jeremy told us of the considerable efforts of the Canadian authorities who succeeded in identifying one of their soldiers whose bones were found in 2002. This took some years and involved facial reconstruction, DNA matching with descendants before he was buried with full military honours. The Canadian government’s stance was that if you’ve given your life for the country then no effort is too great to find out who you are and give you a decent burial.
And to return to the piles of sugar beet. On our walk back from Cuckoo Passage cemetery we passed some left over beets where the rest of the pile had been taken away. I found myself picking up a small one, rather chopped about and damaged, which had probably not been worth taking for processing. I wrapped it in the paper napkin that had come with lunch and put it into a side pocket on my rucksack. Back at our digs at Chavasse Farm I did try to persuade myself that I had quite enough to carry onto Eurostar. I should leave it behind in France and no doubt there are rules forbidding this sort of thing. I was in fact asked by the customs officer at St Pancras if I’d gone to the battlefields to look for shrapnel and the like.
So back it came to Britain with me. I’ve planted it in a pot and with the warm, wet weather we’ve been having recently it’s started to grow again and has put up a flush of new green leaves. It is a completely and utterly daft thing to have brought back from the Arras battlefield but still…