Summer 2019:

Visiting Oignies, 

and exploring the region's wartime heritage.

By Peter Bloomfield

In addition to the official twinning visits, we have now made two personal visits to our brilliant twinning host, Véronique Bernard, who lives in Oignies.  As well as providing an opportunity to meet with friends and shop for essentials (beer, wine and cheese), being there on a Tuesday allowed us to visit the Oignies market and get some locally grown fruit and veg, including smoked garlic.

Le marché de Oignies, et l’Hotel de Ville au fond

We have also taken the opportunity to visit First World War I sites. These visits were especially poignant given last year’s 100th anniversary of the end of the war.

Last year we visited the Vimy Ridge Canadian memorial. A really stunning piece of architecture in white marble surrounded by the remains of shell holes dotted across the landscape. The numerous signs telling visitors to only walk on the paths was a stark reminder of the huge amount of unexploded ordinance that survives to this day.

Le Mémorial Canadien à Vimy.

This year we visited the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Experience near Arras. This is the Commission’s workshop in France which has been opened up to visitors. Large glass walls allow you to watch the machines carving new and replacement grave stones, people working on the numerous lawn mowers they use to keep their cemeteries tidy, metal and wood-working workshops to repair benches and gates and displays explaining the scale of the unique work the Commission does. On a human level there are also stories of employees caught up in World War II, and in the small café, the large map on the wall shows how many graves are looked after across the world.

There is information about the Experience on the CWGC website: www.cwgc.org/visit-us/visitor-centres/cwgc-experience.

War Graves Commission workshops

The CWGC website also provides much information on the cemeteries in northern France and on the graves of British soldiers in the Oignies cemetery in particular at: 

www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/33246/oignies-communal-cemetery/. I had not appreciated that there were two soldiers buried in the cemetery from World War I before checking the web-site.

The stone carving workshops

Arras is also worth a trip. The town was shelled by the Germans in World War I and was re-built afterwards. We climbed the tower of the town hall, and visited the tunnels beneath. These had been used for centuries for quarrying and storing goods, but during World War I they were used by British and French troops for shelter and to move soldiers and munitions up to the front line which was very close by.

Les maisons arrasiennes

L’Hotel de Ville d'Arras