11-Jan-2009 -- On a chilly January afternoon in the North of France, Henry - a friend of mine who works with me at the British Consulate General in Lille - joined me for an afternoon's Confluence hunting in the Somme. Part of my job in France is to support the War Graves Commission in their important work to manage and care for the graves of the countless thousands of Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Somme during World War I. However, having only taken up post a few weeks ago, this was actually my first chance to visit the area personally.
"The Somme" has become synonymous with the appalling loss of life during WWI, and more specifically with the idea of military madness and the sacrifice of thousands of men to win just metres of territory. Field Marshall Haig is widely criticised for his role (and often lampooned - notably in the British TV series Blackadder goes Forth) in this carnage, although his orders were in fact entirely in accordance with how militaries at that time thought wars should and could be won. To condemn Haig is perhaps merely to condemn universally accepted strategies that, with hindsight, were out-of-date and wholly ineffective against a modern mechanised enemy, the like of which had never previously been met in battle by the old imperial power. Regardless, the statistics speak volumes. Some 20,000 British soldiers lost their lives on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (1 July 1916), with triple that number being injured. The final casualty count by November 1916, combining all sides' losses, was well over one million men. The territorial gains for each side were effectively nil. Madness indeed.
Ninety years later, the Somme is home to peaceful farmhouses, and huge rolling wheat fields, punctuated by (often tiny) cemeteries remembering the dead of both sides. It's a fascinating place, although it is difficult for one to begin to conceive of the carnage and hardship that existed during the three years of trench warfare. It is in the middle of all that that one can find 50N 3E.
The nearest village is Nurlu, not far from the A1 motorway, and some experimentation on back roads takes you first onto a narrow asphalt strip and then a rough farm track through a field, all the way up to around 250 m from the Confluence. During our visit both of these roads, and the field itself, were carpeted by a several-inch-thick layer of snow. In places, the track had up to a foot (30 cm) of snow, although the frozen soil underneath meant that getting traction in the Landy was not a problem. The wheat had, of course, been harvested long ago, and the walk to the point was trivial in comparison to that of previous visitors who had had to hack their way through the crop.
No-one was around, although gunshots interrupted our conversation periodically. These came from the nearby woods, and belonged to locals out hunting - although hunting what in this weather, I cannot imagine. A red and white radio antenna (perhaps a mobile phone mast) is located only around 100 m from the point, and can be clearly seen to the North. This wasn't described by other visitors, nor is it visible in their photographs, so I suppose that it is a new feature of the landscape. It is interesting that it has been located so close to a Confluence Point, although I assume this is just coincidence. To the South lie the woods in which the hunters were operating. In all directions lay the huge snowy, frozen field, and it was difficult to imagine that anything would ever grow here. In fact, I saw from this visit, more than any other that I have made, the value of revisiting points, especially at different times of year. The degree to which landscapes change with the seasons is remarkably illustrated by this Confluence.
On the way back to Lille we stopped at one of the many WWI cemeteries in the area. The Rocouigny-Fouancourt Road British Cemetery is a mainly British military cemetery, but French civilians and German soldiers, along with soldiers from Australia and New Zealand, are buried at the same site. It lies just 3 km from 50N 3E - but there may well be other cemeteries that are even closer to the point.
This was, in fact, my 40th Confluence visit, and a very worthwhile one it was, too.