By John Ford
During a visit of great warmth, hospitality and deepening fraternity, it was a great honour to place a wreath at the new Commonwealth War Cemetery in Fromelles on behalf of The Lee.
Standing at the cenotaph, looking across what was the battlefield to the trees beyond, it was hard not to feel the thread connecting the history of that place to our adopted village.
French ceremonies have a refreshing informality about them but as we moved from the Commonwealth graves to the local memorial to the ‘morts pour la France’ we were struck by the dignity and reverence of the attendants; the maroon and sky blue berets of the ‘anciens combattants’, the honour of bearing the ‘tricouleur’ (Marc Andre for the last 30 years before being passed to his son); and the sashes of the deputy Maires. However for many local people the importance was just being there, not simply being dressed for the occasion.
Everywhere there is the involvement of children, reaching both sombre, and eventual comic effect, when the school bell was rung continually at the eleventh hour for eleven minutes by a lengthy queue of eager eight year olds in ear mufflers. The buttoned-up representatives of Buckinghamshire were a foot way, their ears also ringing: “Deux minutes encore Monsieur!”
On the Saturday, a trip to an exhibition rugby match to celebrate the opening of the new stade, a long way from Pau and Toulon. Michael Dubus wore his Saracens memorial shirt which was greeted with both admiration and curiosity. Sadly he was one of the few not asked to play.
For others an additional trip to the original Pheasant’s Wood, where nothing ever grew properly, and the mass grave was found just over 15 years ago. The only straight lines in the rough and tumble landscape. The bunkers still remain.
The original museum also remains, above the Mairie, a unique collection of folk memories in tin helmets, unused shells and recovered shrapnel.
Very many thanks to The Lee party who made the journey and who were such great ambassadors: Liz Ford, Sarah and Michael Dubus, Judith and Chris Syer. We were delighted to add Simon Wilkinson, Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire and territorial army veteran (he of the bowler or Chapeau Melon in local parlance) to add both gravitas and elegance to the occasion. Most of all our heartfelt thanks to The Friends of The Lee: Jean-Gabriel Masson, Les Lagaches, Les Delacroix, Baptiste and Sandrine.