The song “It’s raining men,”first sung by the Weather Girls in 1979 and Geri Heliwell (of the Spice Girls fame) did a remake video in 2001 (check Youtube), came to mind as the US/Allied Army circa 1944 rolled into town and camped beside our boat for a couple of days.
We were in a small French town called Cambrai, when the World War II re-enactors rolled into town on their period armed personnel carriers and other vehicles, including jeeps, mess lorries and motor bikes.
All the soldiers wore full battle dress (again circa 1944) to stage a bit of a battle using blank ordinance, as part of the 70th D Day and Allied invasion anniversary celebrations.
The other reality I joined, when the troops rolled in, was that of the set of “Saving Private Ryan”. (We only watched it a month ago so the visuals were still strong.) We were suddenly in a Hollywood war movie that had a good ending.
The 180 men came mainly from the US, and the UK, there were also some Dutch, French, Czech, Russians and one Canuck. They had been on road for 10 days fighting the odd battle here and there with Germans (and the Axis forces) who were also World War II re-enactors. They had been living in the same way the troops did in 1944; same food (K rations and mess tent food), same toilet facilities (they missed hot showers the most), same clothing, cameras, and almost no plastic etc.
The vehicles were all privately owned and brought out for such occasions (it must have been interesting to see a armed car on the ferry from Dover), and the guns and uniforms belonged to each ’soldier’. They behaved like an army, with a chain of command, using army language and signs, yet all seemed to be having the time of their lives – without any danger.
We met our young Canuck – Scott as we were flying the Maple leaf and his armed vehicle parked beside our boat. His day job was a hydro-linesman for Ontario Hydro (or whatever the corporation is called these days) and he has been having fun with the re-enactments for a couple of years. He told us that they had been in situations that felt like a real war experience – spending nights in ‘foxholes’ guarding the camp. For this young man (around 20 I think) it was an incredible education, as well as an opportunity to play with historical artifacts.
There were quite a number of under 30 year olds and many others who were much older. It obviously gave them all a sense of what their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers had gone through 70 years ago. It was also an education for the townspeople – many of whom heard the stories of the Allies rolling through the city in 1944, but this gave them a chance to relive the memories of previous generations
Scott was quite sweet – I asked him if he missed anything from Canada – and he said Tim Hortons coffee and a caramel donut. I thought I would give him a sense of home, so I gave him an unopened can of Tim Horton’s coffee that my son had brought to me last year. (The coffee in France is really quite good so I didn’t think I would get to drink the Tim Horton’s this season).
Scott was just thrilled – on reflection we could have made a Tim Hortons advert with all the gushy patriotism that was flowing. Then I remembered that this fast food chain has recently been bought by Burger King. (maybe).
Many of the ‘soldiers’ were returning home as we left Cambrai, but some were on their way to the Ardennes to visit other battle sites and hopefully remember the dead of the `killing fields’ of World War I.
It has been a bit of a testosterone jag over the couple of weeks between the soldiers and the engineering works.
To back track a bit to leaving Brussels and joining the main canals going south to Wallonia and France. Belgium is a highly industrialized country – with large complexes making goodness knows what (concrete, steel, building materials etc) and uses its canals to move these heavy goods. Unlike the Netherlands, Belgium has hills, so the canals now have locks and lifts that take boats up and down. Heading south along the main canal we were awestruck and gobsmacked at the boats lifts we encountered.
Martin, of course was just thrilled that we and Skookum went up and down like the big barges. Our first lift was on the Canal Brussels to Charleroi at a place called Ronquieres. This lift was two large bathtubs (caisson) on rails pulled up by cables a distance of about 1432 meters (4700ft).
Only one side of the lift was working, so after a wait, the caisson moved us up about 68 meters in 22 minutes – then the gate got stuck so it took another 45 minutes to move on down the higher canal.
We were caught in a downpour and a long way from a marina so we pulled into an industrial lay-by for boats for the night and next morning moved down the Canal du Centre to the second boatlift to take us down. Gobsmacked was Martin’s description of how he felt when we saw this amazing piece of engineering. It was started in 1982 and completed in 2002 when it replaced four smaller lifts and two locks.
This boatlift moved us down in a caisson, 73.15 meters in about 15 minutes. The Strepy-Thieu boatlift is currently the largest vertical lift in the world.
The cables and pullies were a sight of great beauty – to Martin who marveled at the engineering expertise that had built this lift.
Once we were on the lower level we stopped at the old Thieu lifts – now a UNESCO World heritage site. These four lifts brought boats up and down on the same displacement principle (Archimedes is highly relevant in the canal world).
These lifts were built after 1879 when the Belgian canal system was in full development. They were completed in 1888 and in operation for almost one hundred years. The increased size of shipping and the canals meant the lifts were no longer adequate for commercial use but still open and in operation for recreational boaters.
We had a look around but did not have time to go through these lifts. I was ready for some city life.
Our canal journey took us to Mons in the south of Belgium. This is the site of the first battle of World War I on August 23/24 1914.
My understanding is that after the Duke was shot in Sarejevo, France declared war on Germany – Britain and Belgium were officially neutral. The Germans requested passage through Belgium to attack France – Belgium refused so the Germans marched into Belgium. Britain had a treaty with Belgium and sent out an Expeditionary Force to support the Belgium army and that’s how the whole bloody mess started. The first battle was at Mons and the last man to be killed in World War I in 1918 was a Canadian called George Price who also died at Mons, Talk about bookends to the worst battlefield war the world had ever known.
Mons is a restored city offering battlefield tours and cemetery visits in a double-decker bus, as well a lovely town square with lots of cafes and shops. Commemorative plaques are all over the city and surrounding countryside – as I said the killing fields are well remembered by the people on whose land this slaughter took place.
When we cross the border unceremoniously into France a few things happened – we got a remote to open and close the locks, and the weather got better. We had to show our boat ownership papers on the border, but it was a while before we had to pay our VNF tariff. The Voies Navigables de France (VNF) is the national organization that takes care of the water ways (canals, some rivers and lakes) in France. It costs us about €137 for the month of September. You need to show your license to use the canals all the time you are in France. We had to pay €40 to use the Belgian canals for three months. (Martin thought the trip on the boat lift made worth it), but they have fewer waterways. Crossing over to France didn’t really hit me until we reached the small city of Valenciennes where were bought phones and groceries. Going into the supermarket set my heart pitter patter because there was so much lovely fresh French food and drink ………….. more about that net blog.
We ended up in Cambrai a day or so later where we met the army. Our two days in Cambrai were quite entertaining but we realized that we have a deadline and a race to get to our destination in Sillery (just outside Reims in 18 days). We set off after filling the larder, putting €200 in the diesel tank and a fresh tank of water down the Canal du St Quentin (96kms and 47 locks) last Saturday. We were told by the VNF, when we were about on our way (7 locks and 12 kms later), that we had to get to the tunnel where we would be towed through by an electric train barge asap. We had two hours to do 8 locks and 20 kms to get to the 6.2 km tunnel through the hills to catch the last tow at 5:00pm. Each lock took 8 -10 mins and we could only drive at 10kms so despite our major efforts we missed the last tow barge and had to wait on the side of canal until Monday to go through – but more about that story next time.