Our Man In Paris: All change on the Western Front


As a young, or youngish, man, one July in the late 1970s, I cycled through the battlefields of the Somme. I was astonished by the beauty of the rolling, green countryside in which the battle was fought. In my imagination, the 1914-18 war had occurred on a vast, featureless plain.

As a young, or youngish, man, one July in the late 1970s, I cycled through the battlefields of the Somme. I was astonished by the beauty of the rolling, green countryside in which the battle was fought. In my imagination, the 1914-18 war had occurred on a vast, featureless plain.

I was also surprised by the remains of the old trench lines - then 60 years old - that snaked through the shining fields of wheat and barley, and between the smaller fields of shining, white graves. In some of those cemeteries, every grave carried the same date - today's date, 1 July, the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916, the most calamitous single day in British military history.

Another quarter of a century later, the countryside immediately to the east of the small town of Albert in the département of the Somme is as pretty as ever. The fields of wheat and barley are still there. So are the little fields of white graves, beautifully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Most, but not all, of the traces of the old trench lines have been erased by the use of heavier agricultural machinery, and by the passage of another quarter of a century.

Popular interest in the Great War has not been erased. More Britons now visit the battlefields in France and Belgium than ever before. Popular memory of the war - how it was fought, by whom, and why - is necessarily fading, as the last few centenarian survivors die, and even their children become scarcer.

It is to address this conundrum - increased interest in the Great War, but fading memories of what the war was about - that a very important event will take place next Monday. A trench will be dug on the Somme once again, to prepare the way for an educational and visitor centre, the first of its kind to be built on any British battlefield of the 1914-18 war.

The centre will be constructed in the village of Thiepval, close to the great Portland-stone-and-brick arch designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and dedicated to "The Missing of the Somme". Originally, the plan to build an educational centre here was controversial. Traditionalists, including some officials at the Ministry of Defence, believed that the 1914-18 battlefields and cemeteries should be left undeveloped to speak for themselves. A visitor centre, it was argued, would turn the Somme into a kind of theme park.

These objections, and any number of other bureaucratic and financing problems, have gradually been overcome by the determination of a small group of people, led by a retired businessman from Sussex, Sir Frank Sanderson. Sir Frank has raised £520,000 towards the cost of the centre from charitable donations in the UK, including one donation of £72,000, representing £1 for each of the "missing" soldiers whose names are carved on the Thiepval arch.

The idea has been energetically supported by the British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the Western Front Association, the former British ambassador to France, Sir Michael Jay (now Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office) and his successor, Sir John Holmes.

However (the Daily Mail and The Sun please note, in these French-bashing times), much political support and cash for the £1.25m project has also come from the Somme département council, from the French government, and from the European Union.

The centre, which will be sunk into the ground to preserve the sight lines of the Lutyens memorial, will contain hi-tech equipment and displays to explain the battle from the British, French and German viewpoints. The aim is to be factual, enlightening and moving, neither jingoistic nor simplistically anti-war. More information can be found at www. thiepval.org.uk.

If all goes well, the centre will be opened next year, which is, appropriately, the centenary of the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. Sir Frank is still trying to raise a final £80,000 towards the cost of equipping the centre. Donations can be sent to: The Thiepval Project, Trust Department, Charities Aid Foundation, Kings Hill, West Malling, Kent ME19 4TA (tel: 01732 529305).

The Pam Ayres of politics strikes again

In the same way that both of the presidents Bush are celebrated for their "Bushisms", so the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is cherished for his "Raffarinisms", or "Raffarinades".

Bushisms consist of accidental garbling of the language. Raffarinisms are deliberately coined aphorisms of stunning banality, which are meant (presumably) to reinforce the prime minister's image as a plain-spoken man of the provinces.

The first golden treasury of Raffarinisms has just been published by Michel Lafon (Raffarinades, by André Bercoff and Eric Giacometti, €10). It contains some old favourites: "The road is straight but the gradient is steep"; "The destiny of the young is to be the adults of tomorrow".

It also includes a couple of gems new to me: "As long as the ship has not hit the iceberg, we carry on sailing"; and (proof that Raffarin is truly a provincial poet in the mould of Pam Ayres or William McGonagall): "Man sings best when he is perched in his own family tree."

Erotica in the pink

France's first cable-television channel for gays, Pink TV, will start broadcasting in September. The French television watchdog, after prolonged negotiations, has given its approval for a range of daytime programmes, including old American children's TV series such as The Waltons, which have iconic status with gays. Erotic movies will be allowed, but only after midnight, and only if they are, in the majority, French- or European-made. It's good to see that France's determination to defend European culture extends to gay erotica. But why the English title, "Pink TV"? Shouldn't it be "TV Rose"?

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: how to spell BBQ and other linguistic irregularities

Guy Keleny

South Africa's race problem is less between black and white than between poor blacks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa

John Carlin
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own