The Battlefields of NorthernFrance
BernardReid (1886-1916)
My novel Grace and the Fusilier follows the fate of Irish soldiers in World War I, a project sparked by the death in the trenches of a relative of mine, Bernard Reid.  To give you an idea of the man here is an extract from a letter he sent to his mother on January 20th 1916:

"Soon we are glad to move off again. As we do we pass busy figures showing darkly in the night carrying outthe war's stealthy business, and an occasional cry from a sentinel meetsus as we pass on.  Along a trench, in which you feel safe after the experience of [a] bombardment, we stumbled rather than walked along foran interminable distance, till with some consciousness of a new starting of things and some strange curiosity, partly devoted to the weary figures passing out, we arrived at the trench proper.  In spite of our fatigue, we move with our eyes and senses all curious for what life here is like; what way we are to spend the two days here.  The sleeping figures of the men we pass, huddled on fire steps or under improvised shelters, a waterproof sheet covering them from cold and rain, provoke one's mind; their weariness and their powers of contentment."
My cousin, as his letter testifies, was a sensitive and creative man. He was a friend of Hilaire Belloc and George Moore, correspondence from whom is in the family archive, attended the fledglingUniversity College Dublin, already numbering James Joyce among its alumni, and was president of the University Literary Society.  Following graduation he was editor of an influential literary and political review.  In 1912 he travelled to the west of Ireland (directly following the exampleof Yeats and Synge) and to the continent a number of times (his family having an intimate knowledge of and relationship with France).

As a committed and active Irish Nationalist  my cousin's decision to become a British officer was the most difficult of  his life, a decision that seems paradoxical today and needs some historical context to be properly understood.  From his writing it appears that he fought first for Belgium - a cultured, Catholic democracy, and model for a post-colonial Ireland - and then for Ireland itself, in so far as serving in the British forces would serve her ends.
Bernard Reid died in action on June 28th, 1916.

Visiting Vermelles

While living in Paris we went to visit Bernard Reid's grave in the Military Cemetery at Vermelles, not far from where he died.  (If  you wish to discover the whereabouts of a particular war grave in France you can call the Commonwealth War Graves Commission there at (03) 21-71-03-24. You give them the name; they give you the exact location of the grave and cemetery.)

We travelled north on the TGV, trusting to public transport to take us to Vermelles, where Bernard was buried.  The landscape soon becomes flat and unremarkable, broken only by towering slagheaps dating from  Zola's time and down which  adventurous locals ski during the winter. Needless to say the place abounds in war memorials and graveyards.

Arriving in Béthune we quickly learned that there is virtually no public transport in Northern France and scant Government interest in the well-being of the citizens there. As in England the policy of abandoning both mines and heavy industry continues to bring painfully high levels of unemployment. Unlike England however there is the added anguish of two vicious wars having being fought out upon the territory, many towns and villages having been razed and rebuilt two or three times over.

Such  painful experiences has produced a provincial populace of unparalleled generosity, some of whom went miles out of their way to ferry us about the place. Eventually, having made the mistake of getting off the bus at Noyelles-Les-Vermelles rather than Vermelles- you can understand that mistake, can't you? - we were driven to the correct place, the first relatives to have visited in some decades. (Here are detailed directions for those who need them.)

Vermelles, to quote the literature of  theWar Graves Commission, is a village and commune in the the minefield of the Pas-de-Calais, midway between Béthune and Lens.  Enclosed by low rubble walls the cemetery is on the South-Western outskirts of the village. I have rarely stepped in a more peaceful place: it is planted with mountain ash, Irish yews, limes and other trees, and stands in flat country, among cottages and farm buildings. One can see from it the Bouvigny Ridge and Noyelles church.

Vermelles was in German hands from the middle of October to the beginning of December, 1914, when it was recaptured by the French. The cemetery was begun in August, 1915, though a few graves were slightly earlier. During the Battle of Loos the nearby Chateau wasused as a dressing station. Among the 2,124 graves are the remains of British, Irish, Canadian, French, and even German soldiers. There are also three soldiers from Bermuda and 194 unnamed graves.


After leaving the cemetery we visited the Canadian war memorial at Vimy, some ten kilometres northeast of Arras. A monumental figure, cloaked and forlorn, gazes out from a ridge which over three and a half thousand Canadians lost  their lives in recapturing. Canada lost sixty thousand men in World War One.

Around the memorial, like so many other regions in this part of Europe, lie numerous unexploded mines and the landscape, still deformed by fighting, is dotted with signs warning visitors to keep to the paths.  Nearby is a carefully preserved network of trenches (a picture of which is above) and tunnels.

From Vimy we walked and hitched our way back to the TGV station at Arras, falling successfully  upon the extreme generosity of the locals once more.  Within hours we were back at our flat in the Seventh, down the street from the Assemblée Nationale and in a district of Paris as remote from  war and its horrors as it is from slag heaps, unemployment, and the resounding quiet of the North.