A Journey from Brexit to the Somme
This article was contributed by reader-member Nigelle de Visme.
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When I woke up in Toulouse on the morning of June 24 2016, I found I was no longer European, but English. I felt that someone had stolen my birthright. Brexit felt like an exile from Europe, but as a consequence led me on a journey through the past, confronting the horrors of the Somme.
A friend, a Benedictine nun in the Haute Garonne, had taken a great interest in my name – Nigelle de Visme. I knew almost nothing about my name; born in London and brought up in Australia from the age of 11 without my father, my French ancestry had long remained a mystery. I am now 70.
Uncovering French roots
Soon batches of information flew into my inbox from the Sister S. that revealed a village of my namesake – le Village de Vismes – in Picardie.
In 1045, Theobold de Vismes, a chevalier to William the Conqueror, had married a Norwegian princess by the name of Radegonde; the name and the village go back beyond Charlemagne.
I learned that Vismes is an ancient Catholic name, but during the persecutions in the 16th century certain members of the family escaped to become Huguenot and abandoned the final ‘s’. It became a silent code to define one’s religious allegiance.
On the night that I returned to the UK from Toulouse I switched on BBC4 to see a documentary of the war poets of the Somme, poems I had loved in my teens. In my shock at no longer being European, the centennial significance of the battle of the Somme had passed me by. My friend Petunia visited me the following day. She feels exactly about Brexit as I do.
Petunia has taught French for forty years and, as we sat commiserating over good French coffee, we hatched a plan. We would hop into my 25 year old (and fairly well-battered) Nissan Micra and cross the channel to Vismes where I would inquire about political asylum. A few days later, picnic hamper packed, we were poised for an adventure.
Setting sail for France
I was a bit apprehensive, frankly, about driving the car so far so I took it to my mechanic, who patted her bonnet and said in a broad Somerset accent: “arr, she’d take ‘ee to New Zealand.” This tacit blessing of the old car’s reliability, despite it not having had a service for eight years, encouraged my determination.
Thus prepared, Petunia and I drove off to Newhaven to catch the ferry to Dieppe on 14 July. Curiously, neither of us Francophiles had registered the significance of the date that we had chosen to embark on our little pilgrimage.
We had booked a chambre d’hôte a few kilometres out of Dieppe for our first night in France but by the time we had disembarked the ferry it was pitch-black. We knew that Les Champarts, un havre de paix, was somewhere in the middle of a field to the left of a forest, and no, of course my car doesn’t have a SatNav…
Lost in the French countryside
Petunia phoned for directions. Reach Glicourt, we were told, and follow the chambres d’hôtes sign across the fields. But Glicourt didn’t feature on any signpost or on my maps. At a tiny roundabout I stopped, helpless. I had no idea where to go on this unlit road on this blackest of nights and so far we had not seen another car. Suddenly, headlights behind us. I fairly flew out of my car, flagged down the approaching vehicle and a young couple, seeing the English number plate in their beam, asked me in perfect English if we were lost! Imagine that!
They knew the village of Glicourt, and directed us there. We located the chambres d’hotes sign which took us through fields to the ‘haven of peace’. In dim light we made our way quietly upstairs.
The following morning we woke to bright sunshine. At breakfast we feasted on our hostess’s home-made conserves, the host’s home-baked brioche and baguette, cheeses from the local farm, fresh apple compote and knew all was well with the world. Except that it wasn’t. We had sailed and landed on 14 July. News at breakfast stunned us – the attacks in Nice.
We left on a sombre note, drove past fields dazzling us with the brightness of poppies illuminated in the morning light. They were the same colour as my car. Their brilliance demanded we stop frequently to admire their simple brave glory in field after field of flax, wheat, barley, grass.
Petunia picked a posy; we kept it on the dashboard in a picnic cup of water next to my faded icon of the Virgin Mary throughout the pilgrimage, a mobile altar of sorts.
Crossing over the Somme, a powerful metaphor
In due time we came to Vismes, a pretty hamlet of a few hundred people, none of whom still carried the name de Visme or de Vismes. We met the mayor who came from his potato fields to meet us. He told us of a recent reunion of de Vismes who had come from all over France and who doubled the population of the village! He smiled and gave me the coordinator’s address.
Petunia asked if there were any de Visme graves in the village cemetery and Monsieur Plé said non, there weren’t, but there were the graves of five English soldiers buried there who were shot down in 1916.
To-ing and fro-ing we found a night’s accommodation here and a night’s accommodation there and each place gave us a story, an encounter, some poignant, some fondly remembered.
Poppies filled the fields wherever we went and my valiant little red Micra acquired her name, Poppy.
It was when we came to Abbeville that we crossed a bridge both physical and metaphorical; we had crossed the river Somme. Coming into the main square we stood in awe at the Collegiate Church of Abbeville, the lacy beauty of its pearl white stone façade took our breath away. That façade was all that remained of the entire city of Abbeville.
We had planned to visit the Cathedral of Amiens. A short train ride was an easier option than driving; it was a fortuitous choice. As we stepped out onto the vast railway concourse we stood momentarily bemused at the huge word ‘THANKS’ all along the left wall. To the right was the word ‘MERCI’.
We descended the steps to gaze up at the letters, each of which was separated by an enormous sepia photograph of war: trenches, soldiers, horses, bombed villages, tanks. No one walking on that concourse spoke. Separately we each studied the photos, the meaning, the intention, the reminder – this was the Somme.
I looked down at my feet. There were long strips of coloured photo images of blue sky, cotton-wool clouds – and falling poppies.
Petunia turned towards me; tears on our faces, we had slipped back 100 years.
Further connections to France
The interior of the Cathedral of Amiens had been sandbagged during the war years, most of it miraculously saved. Countless ANZACS adopted the famous Weeping Angel as their spiritual point d’appui, against the whole useless horror of war and the tragedy of battles like the infamous Somme. That horror gave rise to the vision of a united Europe and now, 100 years later, our own people had destroyed the vision of that unity by voting for Brexit.
Some days later, we returned to the tiny village cemetery of Vismes to honour the five soldiers who had never left it. Villagers have been tending those graves for 100 years; the headstones gleamed in the sun, a poppy set by each:
M2/032195 Private J. Munro, Royal Army Service Corps 19 November 1916
37695 Private J. Taylor, Lancashire Fusiliers 6 November 1916
1975 C Sergeant Major W.T. Kerns, M.M. Lancashire Fusiliers 4 November
28165 Lance Corporal H. Smethurst, Lancashire Fusiliers 4 November 1916
37140 Private W.J. Pye, Lancashire Fusiliers 4 November 1916
I took photos in order to identify the young men aged between 22 and the oldest, 27. But who is there now to tell the families that their loved ones are remembered in le Village de Vismes?
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
Where poppies blow…
We will remember them.
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All images courtesy of Nigelle de Visme.