Journey in the footsteps of the ‘Poilus’ (‘Tommies’)

The community of Notre Dame de Joie shares its discoveries

sur les pas des poilusA journey “in the footsteps of the Tommies”? Yes, in memory of the soldiers lodged and cared for at Kermaria a hundred years ago thanks to the audacious welcome of Mother marie de Sainte Blandine and the sisters.

Yes, a journey, and without doubt more than that : an experience. Without any doubt it will mark the hearts and memories of the 37 participants and of their coach driver. It allowed us to perceive in a very real way, through our eyes, our ears, our feet, what could have been the daily life of the soldiers of many nationalities engaged in the Great War.

We made the voyage as a community, and each one of us made impressive discoveries over the course of the four days lived on what was the front line, to the North and *east of France, not far from Belgium. Starting from Arras and Reims, where we lodged, we went to Artois, the Somme, on the ‘Chemin des Dames, to Verdun, Douaumont …

sur les pas des poilus

Some echoes of the things that struck us :

This visit was enjoyable and very rich in what we lived as a group and in the diversity of visits and meetings, with a well thought out programme and organisation. The well documented explications given by our archivist guide Emma, assisted by Thérèse, held our attention and facilitated an excellent group atmosphere.

Sur les pas des poilus ND de LoretteAnd, the cherry on the cake, the very warm welcome given to the group at Blécourt in the North then at Suippes in the Marne, by two families, descendants of the conscripts cared for at the auxiliary hospital at Kermaria, a hundred years ago. “This is the answer, a century later, to the invitation made to the sisters of Kermaria!”, said Emma. We should also note the emotion of Liliane, Yvonne, and Alice who had the joy of finding the tomb, the cemetery or the name of a member of the family or of a loved one.

Over the course of four days, it was a real “immersion” in the 14 – 18 war thanks to the many sites visited and to the commentaries we heard. We saw the trenches, the caverns, the forts, the vast panoramas of hills, plains and forests still marked today by the holes and craters made by the shelling, the numerous and immense cemeteries where one can see the tomb of a Christian soldier alongside that of a Je or a Muslim.

sur les pas des poilus douaumont

Places and memorials will rest in our memories : the necropolises of Notre Dame de Loretto and of Douaumont, ,the English cemetery of cabaret-Rouge and the neighbouring German cemetery of Maison Blanche, the historic Canadian site of Vimy where the centenary of the victory of Vimy will be celebrated in 1917, the memorial of Terre-Neuve at Beaumont-Hamel (with its caribou), tha t of the English at Thiepval … and of course the ossuary at Douaumont here the remains of more than 12 000 soldiers of all nationalities are gathered together, the “unknown soldiers” or those “known only to God” according to the inscriptions.

sur les pas des poilus wagon de l'Armistice et drapeau

At the end of this journey, we felt a great admiration and even greater gratitude for the allied countries and for all the men who come from all the continents to help our country, and other European countries, to fight for their liberty and their identity. They were from England, Canada, New Zealand, the African countries, the United States … A world war played out on a small territory to the East and North of France over more than four years, with its advances and retreats over only a few kilometres! With also, for the soldiers, an inhuman life in the trenches : in the cold, the mud, their feet in water, among the rats, the corpses. A war that left 9 to 10 million dead.

How can we express the horror and the non-sense of such a war, decided by a few men but with repercussions for the life of millions of other human beings ? How can speak at the same time of the magnificent solidarity of so many men who gave their lives so that others, who were for them far off “strangers”, should live in peace and liberty? That was yesterday, but it still happens today …

sur les pas des poilus départ
« How difficult it is to believe that peace is in my hands !
And not only in the hands of strategists and heads of state.
Each day, by my way of living with others,
Rather than by processions and demonstrations,
I opt for or against peace.
Lord, give me light to discover the true roots of peace,
Those that go right down into the heart of man reconciled with God!”
Cardinal Roger Etchegary

A big thank-you to the archives team, to Emma, Thérèse, and Anne for having, as a compliment to the exhibition, thought of and organised this journey. We will treasure the images, accounts and other souvenirs of it.

The community of Notre Dame de Joie, Kermaria

 

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