The Via Francigena may have originated as a religious pilgrimage dating back to the 900s (if not earlier). But here, today, as Gail and I walk through the rolling farmland of northern France, we are reminded over and over again that the line we follow is as much informed by the Great War as it is by religion.
Yes, there are the small villages dominated by tall-spired churches. But even these carry the weight of war.
In Sapignies we are surprised by the unique design of Saint-Pierre parish church. Its slender red brick tower is embedded with starkly modern stone crosses. Below, two highly stylized stone caryatids support the massive tower. The church is, unmistakably, a fine example of the Art Deco style popularized in the twenties and thirties, soon after the war was over. Implying, of course, that an older church, perhaps going back a century or two or three, once occupied this site and was destroyed during the war, just a few years earlier.
Here, in northern France, Art Deco transcends architectural style. It invokes a sense of loss, remembrance and rebirth from those four tragic years. As we continue along the Western Front, marvelling at Art Deco architecture in Arras, Bethune and many small villages and towns, we are ever-reminded that the style is code for “war was here first.”
Not more than a hundred metres beyond, lies Deutsche Kriegsgräberstätte Sapignies, a German cemetery from the war. The rows upon rows of iron crosses bear up to four names each. Alongside lie headstones for Jewish soldiers who fought for the German cause.
Before that, our route passes alongside three Commonwealth graveyards: Beaurains, Sunken Road and Gomiécourt South. We look for Canadian boys who gave their lives. Those who “Died for King and Country” as some markers read. Or “Think what a son was he, and he was that.” Or “There is a link that death cannot sever. Love and remembrance last forever.”
They knit into the landscape, these crisp brick-walled sanctuaries of white markers set in vast farmlands of ploughed red earth. We hear from locals that bones and explosives still occasionally rise to the surface.
It rains for the first time since leaving London. It’s a hard rain and we are thoroughly soaked as we approach Bapaume, our destination for the night.
A good meal is in order.