[nr. Vimy]

The front line of the First World War in France ran from the Belgian border, near Armentieres, in a narrow strip all the way to the Swiss border. While fighting and destruction occurred all the way along this narrow zone, only a few miles wide yet over 300 miles long, the history of each year of the war seems marked out by particular conflicts. 1914 was the year that the war settled down to trench warfare, 1915 saw the first real attempts to break the stalemate, for the British at Neuve Chapelle and Loos. 1916 was the fiercest yet with the Battles of Verdun and the Somme, 1917 brought Arras, Chemin des Dames, and Cambrai, and while 1918 brought the final breakthrough and victory for the allies it also brought the year of greatest death and destruction. Looking at the landscape now, while there are scars and cemeteries full of young soldiers, it is now mostly a fertile and rich farmland with rebuilt towns and villages. The exception is Verdun where the land was so utterly devastated and polluted that the French government forbade resettlement of the old villages and fenced the area off for nature to slowly recover. This remains a dangerous landscape with old partially collapsed trench lines and many thousands of unexploded shells still in the ground. After a century there has been a little redevelopment at the edges of the zone and it is possible to drive around it on cleared roads but, to me, it still seemed to have a grim atmosphere, and yet it is near some of the most beautiful landscape in northern France.