« In the steps of the Tommies » …

In April 2015,

the community of Notre Dame de Joie

gave us an account

of the discoveriesand reactions

of the participants of the first “pilgrimage”

in the steps of the Tommies.

Today

we hand over to those who,

in April or June,

wanted to tell us about the impact on them

of this extraordinary journey.

What struck them?

The multitude of military cemeteries, big and small : “I still have this image of the thousands of crosses and headstones erected here and there on these sites bathed in the blood of so many combatants, French, allied, or enemy”. “I still have the memory of theses immense necropolis … » « … the emotion at the immensity of the cemeteries we visited ».

Sur les pas des poilus...

At the same time, surprise and admiration at the perfect upkeep of all these places and monuments : “What struck me too, was the recognition of the cost of human life, by those from all the warring nations who wanted, and allowed, these monuments to the memory of their dead to be erected”. And also for the uninterrupted guard of honour that is assured by volunteers at the necropolis of Our Lady of Loreto.

What did they become aware of ?

 

  • The reality of this war :

Sur les pas des poilus... 03The First World War is no longer simply some lines in a history book …”

“Being there in these places of massacre with your feet, your eyes and your ears, that’s another thing completely!”

“All has become real for us now, and we realise the horror and the violence of the conflict”.

  • Its atrocity :

“I became aware of the weight of the pain, of the fear of all these combatants in their trenches, in the cold, the mud, the rain!”

“A century afterwards, I feel close to these thousands of young men who, crying before they died, called out for their mother or their companions”.

“A moment of strong emotion when visiting the fortresses and above all the “Au fort de Vaux”, where the guide made us feel the horror lived by our soldiers, before having to surrender it”.

“The fortress of Vaux impressed me more than the rest : as the guide explained it, I imagined the dramatic situation”.

“I discovered the reality of the landmines : I hadn’t been of this horror”.

“Reading the testimony of J. Outlet or that of Genevoix, you can imagine the soldiers advancing among the ravaged bodies of their comrades, among the smell of putrefaction and you say to yourself : How could they have carried on in the face of such barbarity? ”.

We can quote the written text of this Foutelet, a future patient of our hospital at Kermaria : “When I think that, in the sunken pathway, the dead were side by side! 300 from my regiment alone on a length of 80 to 100 meters ! Wounded men, incapable of escaping, had been there for 3 or 4 days, and held out their arms to us, as we passed, begging us for something to drink. … At Buval the parapets were constructed with the corpses of the “Boshes” and the French. As you passed, the stench of rotting flesh caught in your throat! That’s war for you !”

  • Its absurdity and scandalous nature :

The numbers impress and question : in France alone 1 and a half million dead ! At the second Battle of Artois 11,200 killed for a derisory and temporary gain of 6 km ! 102,500 for 20 km ! Can a government accept to sacrifice all of its youth in this way, and in doing so, the future generation and prospects of the country?

Several participants denounced the “folly of the chiefs” who demanded that harassed, dirty, starving soldiers clean up themselves and their uniform in honour of the arrival of a general ! “I had tears in my eyes; I don’t know how to express it”. “I became aware of the pure madness, of the asburd pigheadedness, of the folly, of the personal ambition of certain chiefs”.

Sur les pas des poilus... 04

  • Its cortege of human dramas :

“soldiers shot as an example to the others, their families dishonoured; the psychologically traumatised taken as shirkers and condemned”.

All of that provokes a profound emotion

The feelings expressed the most often are “pity”, “compassion” for the soldiers, and for their families, but also “admiration” and “recognition” of those who accepted to sacrifice their life for their country.

Sur les pas des poilus ...02The even stronger emotion for some of walking in the traces of a relative who had fallen on the field of battle, of seeing the place where he had been at the moment of death, of finding his name in a register or on a memorial, and above all of discovering his grave. “I felt the need to be alone for a moment on the “Chemin des Dames” … I found it hard to leave this place ; it was a moment of very strong communion with my uncle, and at the same time of feeling that in “death without burial”, he had been abandoned yet once more on this earth”. “At Our Lady of Loreto, I saw the name of my grand-father among those inscribed on the Ring of Remembrance and then in the cemetery, when I found his grave and that of his brother close by … I was plunged into the drama lived out in this place”.

This emotion gave way to recollection, prayer and meditation. At the German cemetery, among the thousands of crosses and headstones, “a cherry tree in full blossom with so many white flowers, the promise of red fruit. Death, LIFE ! I closed my eyes to listen to the silence in this place after so many cries and so much noise …a prayer to the God of justice and peace rose up from the depth of my being”

Other aspects of the journey :

Many insist on the interest of such a “Congregational journey” and on the meeting with the Hocquet and Millécamps families : “I had the good fortune to be there, with other sisters, and to establish a link between these places and the welcome experienced by those who came to visit us”. To sum up, thanks to all the preparations : an “in-depth” visit, competently prepared, judicious commentaries, well-chosen visits … excellent accommodation, and so many discoveries ! All lived in a simple and warm ambiance. In short ! a model journey ! »

Sur les pas des poilus... 01

And now?

“I have the rekindled conviction that the cost of life is inestimable”. “After such a journey, I will look at the monuments and the commemoration of those who died for our country with a new eye and a new heart and I will participate with a concern for peace among all peoples”. “This journey has given me a new desire to participate in the construction of peace in my daily life”. “You don’t come back as you set out”. « We will remain marked for ever » …

The latest news of the exhibition

It has been definitively closed to the public since the 12th October. The boards and the photos are still in place but the display cases have been emptied of their objects.

A last get together was held on the 19th October to thank all of the volunteers who had worked with us. An account of the whole experience was first presented verbally, followed by an audio-visual retrospective of the last three years’ actions, and finally a very cordial buffet reception was enjoyed by all. The volunteers themselves expressed their happiness at having participated in the adventure.

 

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