The drive from Amiens north along the D929 is a pleasant one. Picardy is still predominantly rural with two thirds of the population living in what are described as rural areas or small communes.
The fields are large and expansive, creating beautiful horizons. The various pastel colours of cereal crops such as barley, rye, wheat are interspersed with the deep verdant hues of peas and sugar beet. The blood red of the iconic poppy can be seen along the roadsides and throughout the crop fields . Near the farmhouses you will see occasional apple orchards and plots of rhubarb and potatoes. This is also an area where you are as likely to be served a beer, a glass of cidre or apple brandy as a Pinot Noir. The landscape is also populated by small stands of forests with beautiful mature Oak. The mind can be forgiven for being confused by the sensual images laid before it; it knows that not far away over that horizon, stretched out across a thirty mile belt of this pristine countryside lies the scene of one of the Worlds greatest human abattoirs. The Somme, are there any words which more encapsulate the horror, folly and devastation of War? The Somme, are there any two words which even a century later can conjure up images of slaughter and futility, heroism and sacrifice?
The early months of the start of the Great War 1914-18 contained a phase known as ‘The Race for the Sea’. The title is a misnomer. Neither the German Army nor the Allies were actually racing for the Sea. They were simply trying to outflank each other through the Picardy countryside and consequently instead of moving forward the front kept moving west to north-west in a serious of bloody encounters. Eventually the Generals found that there was simply no more ground to outflank the enemy. The armies had run out of land, the front line had reached the North Sea. It became apparent that a decisive victory would not be forthcoming in the short term and so the German High Command settled on Ermattungsstrategie (strategy of exhaustion). The rest as they say is history and a miserable, grotesque one at that, yet it is this history that has me flying up the D929 savouring the vistas of Picardie.
As I drive across the rolling plain I soon catch sight of the golden top of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières. This signals my approach to the quiet town of Albert, located in the heart of the Ancre valley and about halfway between Amiens and Bapaume. As one gets closer you realise that the golden top of the Basilica is actually a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus. It is known simply as The Golden Virgin. The original gilded statue so impressed the Pope of the time that he reputedly referred to the Basilica as the Lourdes of the North. It is here where the French and Britush line held and halted the German advance in November, 1914. Albert suffered terribly from the ensuing bombardment and from its proximity to the front line for the next four years. Early in 1915 the golden statue was hit by a German shell. It wasn’t a direct hit and the statue remained defiantly in place, albeit in a very lopsided position.
The shelling wasn’t entirely malicious by the German gunners. The tower would have provided an excellent observation point for French Artillery spotters. As the tedium of trench warfare developed the sight of the Virgin Mary hanging on to the top of the tower assumed mythical status. Both sets of troops saw the horizontal leaning shape as an omen for the outcome of the war. It was generally accepted by them that the survival of the Statue was no fluke, but proof of a divine intervention in their bloody proceedings. The Allies for some reason seemed to think that whoever finally knocked down the statue would lose the war. Some thought that when it eventually fell it would signal the end of the war. The British soldiers called the statue simply ‘the leaning virgin’ but the Australians who began arriving in the build-up for the Somme offensive in the summer of 1916 called it ‘Fanny Durack’. Miss Sarah Durack was a famous Olympic swimming Champion and world record holder. The Ozzies thought the statue looked like her preparing to dive into a swimming pool. The Duracks incidentally originated in Scarriff, Co. Clare and left for Australia shortly after the Famine.
The statue was by now a familiar sight to thousands of soldiers who passed through Albert on the way to the front. Many of them would not see the leaning it on the return journey, for tens of thousands there would be no return journey from the Somme battlefields and they lie unidentified in mass graves or beneath the chalky soils where they fell in the ground up mud and were consumed by the Earth. Throughout all that turbulent summer of 1916 the Virgin, now well below the horizontal, still held resolutely on to her child despite the madness all around her.
In the Spring Offensive of 1918 the Germans re-took Albert. The new line of fire of the British Artillery included the ruined but still standing basilica steeple. The resulting British shelling finally brought down the Leaning Virgin of Albert in April. The final demise of the statue did not have an immediate effect on the outcome of the war as predicted but hostilities did end by the end of the year.
The Basilica and its Tower have been fully restored to their former glory. Much of the town’s commerce is now based on Great War Tourism. The gilded statue of the Virgin holding her infant son mirrors how Albert holds on to its war legacy. In the summer you are likely to meet English, Irish, Scots, Welsh, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans. The restored Virgin mother and son once again dominates the skyline of the town and the Ancre valley. If only the millions of lives destroyed nearby could have been rebuilt so successfully.