Our group had assembled over the previous two days, but Thursday 12th was our first get together and had a few welcome drinks the night before and a Pizza expedition to the nearby village of Roissy en France. Friday morning we were locked and loaded and right on schedule as we rolled out of the gates of the Novotel Roissy Convention hotel with Driver Pjilippe at the helm for Day 1 and Lee riding shotgun. He was to takeover from Day 2 onwards.
Weather overcast and temperatures mild.
Barely a breath of air to turn the most sensitive of the many wind turbines along the Autoroute north.
This part of France has had a long hot summer and stunted corn crops tell a self-evident story, and like last year the sight of headers trailing a dust plume is more reminiscent of Australian than northern France.
First stop the melancholy Forest of Compiegne where the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918, and then 22 years later, the surrender of France to yet another invading German Army.
Next stop Arras. Although not a site with particular Australian significance it is home to two fantastic sites that provide excellent context for understanding the impact on France of two of the three invasions they suffered between 1870 and 1940.
First stop the Wellington Quarries - gateway to the "Underground War" fought by both sides during the Great War. Chalk geology in northern France lent itself to tunnelling operations on a scale that have to be seen to be believed. Arras and nearby Vimy Ridge are the best places to see it, although more "sou terrains" are being opened up including one in Bouzincourt on the Somme.
With the ground under the city of Arras riddled with chalk and limestone quarries since the 1600s, the British High Command ordered the New Zealand Tunnelling Companies to join them up. In so doing they created an underground city connected by 20 kilometres of tunnels - an absolute labyrinth which became a haven for 24,000 British and Commonwealth troops in the lead up to the Arras Offensive of early 1917. Now visitors descend nearly 30 metres underground to make their way an amazing complex of tunnels and chambers.
All of us contemplated what the soldiers must have thought as they made their way up the "Stairway to Hell" of the exit tunnels on the morning of the 9th April into the maw of the German defences.
The other site in Arras that is an absolute must see is the Vauban (French military engineer and architect) designed "Citadel". Until recently a French military barracks, the scale and quality of brickwork in this amazing structure is astounding. In a section of the former mat on the far side of the fortress is one of the most melancholy sites in France; Le Mur des Fusilees, or "The Wall of the Shot". With 218 plaques lining the sloped red brick sides of what was once the moat, each marks a French Resistance member executed by the Nazi occupiers between 1940 and late 1944.
We then headed for home for the next four nights, the beautiful provincial town of Peronne. After dinner and reflections on our big day out, time to turn in in anticipation of tomorrow - "The Somme 1916".