Posted by: sommecourt | 29/11/2010

Behind The Lines

Just come back from an interesting week in France looking at locations behind the battlefield area; places where there were headquarters, hospitals, training centres, railheads and supply depots. None of these areas ever saw any fighting as such, although they were bombarded from the air.

On our first day we visited the site of Field Marshall Haig’s Headquarters at Montreuil. With its Vauban walls, the town was alive with HQ staff 95 years ago, but all that remains is the somewhat forlorn statue of Haig himself in the main square. Destroyed in the last war, the replacement is vandalised and looks old and tired; a sad reflection on a commander that today is still misunderstood, and often misrepresented. But I fear it will take more than bronze polish to change the average opinion of Haig.

Two sites that defined the week were the huge cemeteries at Etaples and St Sever in Rouen. Both these locations have over 11,000 burials making them the biggest British war cemeteries in France, and almost as large as the biggest in the world: Tyne Cot. The difference with these vast Silent Cities is that the majority of the burials are known, and as such they give us a better insight into the sort of men who fought in the Great War and the myriad of units that operated behind the lines. At Rouen we found a Dame who was a member of Lady Egerton’s coffee stall for example; formed by Lady Egerton in 1914 it operated on Rouen station dispensing tea and buns to the troops.

But for me a visit to St Sever was the end of a long personal pilgrimage following in the footsteps of Army Chaplain Theodore Hardy VC DSO MC by finally paying my respects at his grave. Hardy was an incredible and self-effacing individual who represented all that was right in a man of God; he never wavered, never let his boys down and apologised to the stretcher bearers when he was finally wounded and evacuated from the battlefield. He always felt uncomfortable with the decorations bestowed upon him, and felt quite embarrassed but proud when the King pinned the VC on his chest at Frohen chateau. Hardy was one of those men who would have helped define the post-war world, but sadly it was not to be.

A very different sort of battlefield tour but a fascinating insight into another angle on the Great War.



  1. Nice piece Paul. I agree with you that these behind the lines are fascinating and need to be covered as a separate entity and with time. Spent a good bit of time at St Omer in October and it is a chronology of the war in terms of dates of death and the lay out of the cemetery. Shame about the knocking down of the HQ at Cassel, but I suppose that’s progress, of a fashion. Good picture record as well.

  2. Thanks Mark – yes we stayed in St Omer and went down to Longuenesse and the aerodrome. Fascinating stuff. Also looked up where ‘Little Bobs’ died in the town and saw where the British had their HQ according to Rosie.

    Yes it is a shame about II Army HQ – wonder what they will do with the site as it has huge cellars!?

  3. Hello Paul – Interesting piece. This is a theme I try to include when visiting the areas I usually explore: the Vosges. Until one has a grasp of what was in place to permit the front line events to happen, and to pick up the pieces afterwards, one is only ticking sites. I have read some completely banal ideas of what happened in the Vosges written when people failed to consider where the Germans were coming from, geographically, and the location of the frontier before the war. The work and skills involved in creating an infrastructure is awe-inspiring.

  4. Thanks Gwyn – an interesting area. Have you ever thought of doing a blog or site dedicated to the Vosges? It’s so barely covered in English.

    • Yes, I have. I’ve been collecting material for it over the past 18 months or so: old maps, postcards showing life before the war, the pre-war frontier, scenes during the war, post-war scenes, revanche & propaganda material, guides for visiting the battlefields after the war… Lots! Plus, of course, my own photos including some then&now pictures of my favourite village. I’m not a military historian, but then nor are many British visitors to the Western Front, so it will be my take on things for a generalist, and hopefully helpful to some.

  5. I don’t think anyone has to be a ‘military historian’ to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of something. There are many, many sites/projects on the net which show that clearly.

    Sincerely hope you will do something with all you’ve collected together – keep me posted if and when you do.

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