WWI Centenary in France – The Battle of Amiens
An Unexpected and Profound Experience of Commemoration
Note: This may seem like an unusual blog post for a solo traveller but it’s an example of the possibilities that can occur when you make a plan and have a purpose to your travels. My purpose was to be at my Great Great Uncle Jørgen’s grave on the exact day, 100 years after he died and this purpose brought me to a series of centenary commemorations to recognize the last 100 days of WWI in which Canada played a pivotal role. Here is my story.
The plan was to travel to the Rosières Communal Cemetery Extension in France to spend a quiet moment on August 9, 2018 at the graveside of my Great Great Uncle Jørgen exactly 100 years after he was killed in WWI.
Within hours of arriving in Paris, I received an official invitation to attend a centenary commemoration in Harbonnières, France and wound up feeling like an honoured guest among the international dignitaries at this gathering of gratitude and remembrance.
My story really begins in 1992, I was visiting my Great Aunt Ella at the family farm in Enebakk, Norway. Ella showed me an old banana box with letters and pictures from our family in North America. The return address on some of the letters was the town Paynton, Saskatchewan. Once I returned back home to Calgary, I went to the library to look up the Groseth name in the phone books (that’s when phone books were a thing) from that area in Saskatchewan. I was hooked on family history research from that moment on and the search began.
My return trip to France in August, 2018 began because my cousins who still live at the family farm in Norway gifted me Jørgen’s death plaque along with King George’s condolence letter to Jørgen’s parents. Jørgen was on my mind once again and knowing that it was the 100th anniversary of his death this year, I knew that I had to go to France.
I arrived in Paris and while waiting for my accommodation to be available, I was at a café enjoying breakfast and being back in Paris. A surprise arrived in my e-mail, an invitation to a commemoration in the town Harbonnières, this was an event for several villages in the area of Rosières and it started that night and then again in the morning with a full day of events. Now Harbonnières is a village located north east of Paris, I could take a train to Amiens and then I needed travel another 30kms without the benefit of public transit and language was also going to be an issue. I studied French for six weeks before travelling but it wasn’t enough to manage this adventure. I couldn’t go that night but I was definitely going to be there in the morning, I just had to figure out the logistics.
Thankfully my Airbnb host Val was so helpful in figuring out the train schedule and booking a taxi to take me from Amiens to Harbonnières in time for the day’s events. My taxi driver was incredible, he was waiting for me when I arrived in Amiens at 8:30am and we were on our way.
By the time we figured out my plans for Saturday, I decided that I better buy something more suitable to wear, the only clothes that I brought were for holiday activities, not a commemoration. After many stores, looking for something suitable, I found a dark blue blazer and blouse. I already had dark blue capris and the not so suitable black flip flops so I would have to live with what I brought, and at least the flip flops were black.
August 4th, 2018 – Commemoration in Harbonnières, France
There was a full day of commemoration planned starting with a church service at 9am, a short bus ride to the Heath Cemetery at 10am with the ceremony starting at 10:30am, after the ceremony the buses returned us to the edge of town to follow a military parade to the war monument in the centre of town and afterwards a drink, lunch and then a concert by the community choir. It was a very full and memorable day.
I arrived shortly after 9am when most people were in the church. My first order of business was to find someone who could speak English and help me find M. Thiery, the gentleman who sent me the invitation to the commemoration. This was not an easy task. Without success I went to the church to listen for a while, it would have been very nice to understand the words but you could feel the mood and somber words of the service.
Back outside, I really needed some assistance and I almost thought that this was too much for me to manage. One more try, a young family with kids in their early teens, I thought they had to be able to speak English and thank goodness they did and they took care of my translation needs for the rest of the day.
From the church in the centre to the cemetery on the outskirts of Harbonnières, the official ceremony began. M. Thiery was at the microphone, I was in the middle of the 200-300 guests, M. Thiery’s first words were, “Où est Mme Nora Ring?” or “Where is Ms. Nora Ring?” That was a surprise, all of a sudden I was brought to the front to stand with the Mayor and other dignitaries for the rest of the commemoration program.
M. Thiery stood beside me when he was finished his time at the microphone, this was the first time that we met, and we shook hands. After a few moments M. Thiery asks quietly, “Direz-vous quelques mots?” or “Will you say a few words?” My answer was “No”. I am not a public speaker but “no” was not an acceptable answer. At the appropriate time, I was invited to the microphone along with a gentleman from England to read a beautiful poem, “The Valour”, during this reading doves were released as a tribute to the soldiers buried in this cemetery. I gave my unprepared speech about why I was in France and about my Great Great Uncle Jørgen. As much as I don’t do public speaking the story of Jørgen is a story that I am passionate about and so my words came together very nicely.
After the ceremony, our Canadian representative, Mr. Jean Desrosiers, Director, European Operations at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial came up to me and I think he was wondering about who I was and how I came to be speaking at this event.
Mr. Desrosiers asked if I knew about the significance of Canada’s last 100 days and if I was attending or would like to attend the British organized commemoration in Amiens on August 8th. I was very interested in attending but it required security clearance and a physical invitation. I sent my info to Jean and waited, the next night I received confirmation that I was able to attend this event. Now I started researching about the last 100 days of WWI and as it turns out, I really knew nothing about WWI. The Battle of Amiens started on August 8th, 1918 and was a successful battle for the Allied forces and was the beginning of the end of WWI.
Commemoration in Amiens, France
On August 8, 1918 the 100 day offensive began. On August 8th, 2018, 100 years later representatives from the Allied forces, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France and the United States gathered to commemorate this significant moment in history.
Amiens is 120 km north of Paris. The Amiens cathedral is the tallest complete cathedral in France and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was built between 1220 and 1270. This is an impressive architectural wonder both outside with all the sculptural details and inside there is a magnificence of space and light.
The security at this commemoration was very tight and as I walked towards the cathedral on the left there was a military honour guard, a gallery of public onlookers on the right along with jumbo TV’s to show the day’s events live on BBC. It felt like I was attending a royal wedding. There I was at the stairs in front of the cathedral where I proceeded up the stairs, to the towering doors of this magnificent cathedral. I was in awe, feeling a little out of place, I was still wearing my flip flops, but completely honoured to be a witness to this historic event.
There was room for 2,000 people and there I was in row 11, there were maybe ten of us “regular” Canadians who had relatives that had died in WWI. I just took it all in and enjoyed my time observing the space and wondering who the people around were. I was in among the dignitaries once again and the true heroes, decorated veterans from all of the Allied countries. Everyone was at their places with the final entrance being Prince William.
There were speeches from Prince William, England’s Prime Minister Theresa May and many others. There were a series of readings which were profound, touching readings of letters written by officers, soldiers from different countries, different languages and even from German soldiers. The German soldiers thought differently than the leaders at their headquarters in Berlin, because they saw the real horrors of what was happening out in the field. The sharing of this moment with the enemy at the time and now an ally, this was a moment of reconciliation.
Between the readings there was beautiful choir music and ceremony.
Towards the end of the event, our group of Canadians were to meet our representatives, Seamus O’Regan, Minister of Veteran Affairs, Ms. Isabelle Hudon, Canada’s Ambassador to France and a few veterans too.
I never imagined the experience walking down the long centre aisle in the Amiens Cathedral in front of 2,000 people, but there I was, a very proud Canadian at this incredible event.
We waited at the back of the cathedral for the commemoration to finish and you could hear and see a bit of the events going on outside the cathedral. Prince William was the first to leave but he also stopped to say hello to the attendees before he exited. He was not far from me and if I really wanted to, I could have gotten a bit closer. Today was about remembrance and nothing else.
It seemed like a while before we could exit the cathedral, lots of heroes around me and eventually I made it to the stairs outside of the cathedral to watch the end of the military event outside. It was really amazing, that once you were in security, there seemed to be no more security.
This was a day to remember but the best and most meaningful ceremony was yet to come.
August 8th, 2018 – Le Quesnel, France
There is a Canadian memorial in Le Quesnel, France to remember Canada’s significant role in the 100 day offensive. The Allied forces used the element of surprise to attack early on August 8th and they had a secret weapon which were the Canadians. Canada had incredible success in the battles that were fought and they continued that success as part of the key strategy at the battle of Amien.
In the morning, Canada had their own commemoration at the memorial in Le Quesnel. Under the beautiful blue sky and sunshine, the ceremony proceeded with flags, speeches, anthems, the laying of wreaths and the wonderful moment of the children of the area participating with the placing of flowers too.
Afterwards, there was a reception where I met Seamus O’Regan, Canada’s Minister of Veteran Affairs, before this day I didn’t know who he was but now I do. Our conversation was about our respective Great Great Uncles who fought and died in WWI. Seamus’ uncle is buried in the Beaumont-Hamel cemetery where the beautiful memorial for the commemoration of the Dominion of Newfoundland resides. It was a very nice conversation which I appreciated.
I made a second visit to the Le Quesnel memorial in the evening. My B&B was about 2.5 km away from the memorial and I really wanted to take a walk in rural France and contemplate this incredible day of commemoration. The memorial was peaceful, surrounded by beautiful evening light and it was only me. The wreaths and bouquets of flowers were still on the memorial. I honestly don’t have the words to describe how it felt to be on this piece of Canadian land with a brutal history and knowing that our soldiers were instrumental in ending WWI.
The sun was setting and it was time to return to Hangest-en-Santerre to my B&B, the most emotional commemoration was yet to come.
August 9th, 2018 – Rosières-en-Santerre, France
The day had finally arrived August 9th, 2018, it was the 100th anniversary of Jørgen’s death. M. et Mme Thiery who originally sent me the invitation to attend the commemoration at Harbonnières picked me up at my B&B to take me to the Communal Extension Cemetery to visit Jørgen’s grave.
It was pouring rain for the first time in months, I was soaked even before I reached their car and once in we were on our way to Rosières. Our first stop was the florist, to buy a beautiful bouquet of red roses and then to the cemetery. As we arrived at the cemetery, the rain continued to pour but regardless we had a purpose today.
I was looking around and I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of activity around this small cemetery, there were cars and people arriving and I turned to M. Thiery and asked what was going on and somehow even with the language barrier, the message was clear, this group of residents were there for me and Jørgen. Well, let’s just say that I had so many emotions and it was hard to keep the tears back.
What happened next was a heartfelt ceremony to recognize the ultimate sacrifice by Jørgen Groseth given 100 years prior. The ceremony included flags, the Canadian and French anthems, speeches, silence and laying of flowers by both myself and M. Thiery. I was in tears and once again, I shared a few words about being very honoured to be here on this day and a few words about Jørgen too.
I laid the roses and a picture of Jørgen at his headstone. Having his picture there really brought him to life for a moment. I couldn’t have dreamed of a more beautiful tribute for one of so many soldiers. Afterwards, we went to city hall for champagne. I’m learning that this is a French thing to do.
At city hall, there was a lady who spoke English and I asked her to introduce me to everyone who came on this day. As I met each person that came to this commemoration, I realized that having this ceremony with me there was very meaningful to them too. This was an extraordinary and memorable experience and one I’ll never forget.
Remembrance Day 2018 – Return to France
While I was in Rosières, M. Thiery had asked me how Jorgen came to be buried in Rosières cemetery, I had no idea but I was also very curious about the answer to that question. Since returning from France and these commemorations, I have learned so much more about WWI and have found additional information from the online war diaries and the war death register. The register documents Jørgen’s death by a single machine gun bullet and original burial near the town of Warvillers. The movement of the allies forward was so quick that the dead were buried quickly and in many cases exhumed at a later date and buried at communal cemeteries. This was the case for Jørgen, the war register has an exact location of his original burial which can be found on a trench map from this area.
I am returning to Rosières-en-Santerre to participate in their Remembrance Day ceremony with the laying of wreaths. I am very honoured to have this incredible experience and I am accepting the responsibility to always remember and share Jørgen’s story.
Lest we forget.