War History is for Women Too
January – in Northern France for a change. The week temperatures dropped way down, the British Guild of Travel Writers went to Nord Pas-de-Calais. Sights of the Second World War; that sounded like a trip for me. It will be all men, old duffers who know about the war. Great, I thought and I was right. Except the old duffer who knew about the war was me. But the sights of this region are not the Normandy Landing beaches, nor the sombre war graves of World War I, both places that signal ultimate victory. The sights of Nord Pas des Calais -– the Forbidden Zone during the Occupation – represent defeat, an ambivalent heritage to render for tourists. It is necessary to understand the history and then use your imagination. It was an emotional, learning experience for us all -even the guides, one of whom said he had grown up in St Omer and walked past the German bunker every day on his way to school. He had never known what it was. We started at La Coupole, a huge domed bunker constructed to launch V1 and V2 rockets on London. There we were interviewed for the local TV news. The museum is excellent with detailed descriptions, computer graphics and plenty of authentic artefacts from Resistance armbands to an entire gazogene motorcar. I watched a film on daily life in the region during the Occupation while the boys checked out the rockets. In bitter morning cold we visited the killing field of Esqelbecq, where a hundred British soldiers defending the escape route to Dunkirk in 1940, were brutally massacred by German S.S troops. There is now a belvedere mound from where you can view the scene; the reconstructed barn where the soldiers were trapped, bombed with grenades and shot, the pond where one fell and survived to tell the tale. It is now a place of pilgrimage with many moving tributes. We visited the Chapel of Light in Bourbourg, a 13th century Gothic church burned by a German plane in 1940. It has been lovingly reconstructed, with a chapel designed by artist Antony Caro- nice they chose a Brit- who has created a calm meditative space with symbolic sculptures of iron and clay bordering the apse. Dunkerque is the toughest sell for the French- no Dunkirk spirit for them, and the tourist literature in French has a subtly different tone, asserting that the town was bombed to smithereens during the British evacuation. German propaganda made much of the fact that the French were initially prevented from getting onto the boats. In truth of the 340,000 men rescued almost 140,000 of them were French. This was stressed by M. Dayan, museum president, who showed us round the Memorial du Souvenir, the museum in the Vauban bastion dedicated to Operation Dynamo. It is currently being refurbished, the weapons sent off to ensure they are de-activated- though there were still a few guns lying around for our brave boys to heft. The photo they have chosen to embody the spirit of the museum shows British and French soldiers aboard together. Still of the visitors 80% are English. We saw the cemetery- graves for lads of 20, 21, 22 – and thought of our own children. The beaches themselves remain the most powerful memory- think minus 8 degrees and a brave Scot in his kilt. You can still see the half submerged skeleton of one of those little boats. And after all that Dunkerque was the very last town in France to be liberated in May 1945. The town itself is surprisingly impressive, the harbour full of boats, the wonderfully smelly cheese shop (we were given free beer after our enthusiastic purchases) and the proud pirate, Jean Bart, symbol of the city, whose statue remained undamaged throughout the bombing. I like a town with a pirate at its heart. Over dinner on the last night we discussed the difficulty of promoting these wartime sights. “It is mostly families who come,” said our guides. “So what we need,” someone offered, “is something to entertain the women and children while the men do war……they could go and look at lace in Calais?” War for the men, and lace for the women? There was a pregnant silence…. and then they got it. War museums are for women too.