|Château de Marzilly (side view!)
|Glimpse of façade profile from the walled-grounds....
Cited as one of the oldest villages in France, Hermonville came to prominence in the Middle Ages but was renowned far later for its rather impressive collection of seven châteaux! Most of these imposing edifices were to fall in the Great War years, despite having survived the collapse of the Napoleonic empire, and the arrival in the village of thousands of Prussians in 1814. It was here in Hermonville that a military base was established at the start of wartime activities, a century later, in 1914. One of the poilus – a French infantryman – Gabriel Guérin remarked;
«Au château de Toussicourt (à Hermonville). On pourra au-moins dire qu'on mène une vie de palace! J'avais jamais vu autant de châteaux de ma vie».
A training camp was subsequently set up for special missions of military intelligence and the strategic sabotage of enemy logistics; Hermonville in effect became a ‘nid d’espionnage’. While the latest ordnance offered possibilities of power and devastation of unprecedented, hellish proportions, most of the hard graft was nevertheless carried out on the ground by Man and beast alike. Soldiers died fighting to preserve mere patches of land that were soon regained by enemy forces. Again, infantryman Guérin remarked on the cruel irony of the footman’s fate, this time when endeavouring to save the village of Loivre, some 7kms from Hermonville, in mid September 1914:
«On joue ‘à toi, à moi’ autour du canal. Les copains tombent et on ne gagne rien. Pas même du terrain.»
Going through Loivre or Hermonville today, little initially indicates the turmoil and trauma previously visited on these villages. Sweeping vineyards have long since cloaked the troubled soil and traces of the past, this other country, far removed from the alluring, reassuring landscape of wine trails and routes touristiques of the modern-day Champagne region. Other villages have simply disappeared; struck down by warfare all those years ago, never to rise again. Their names, when recalled, merely evoke the circumstances of their destruction and no longer refer to living entities, merely to their obliteration. Yet the vestiges of the Hermonville châteaux, that emerge from the undergrowth, the enigmatic ruins that mark the surrounding landscape, and the rows and rows of neatly-aligned crosses in the war memorial grounds testify to a life before, during and after this pivotal episode in history.
The names of the majority of the actors in this theatrical play of savagery and insanity are unknown or unfamiliar to us now. Yet the words and faces of these individuals reach out across the years, still speaking out. Gabriel Guérin died almost one hundred years to the day – in August 1918 – at the age of 26, but his account of the war years lives on, in a strange, timeless manner. His great feats as an aviation ace seem almost irrelevant now, yet his own thoughts and reflections ring out through time, making us question and re-assess our lives and times too. In this strange, continual process of change and regeneration from loss, life and even History seem to evolve, moving in time and space, yet bearing the ties to the past.
|Hôtel Le Vergeur - Reims
|Bibliothèque Holden - Reims
|Bibliothèque Holden - Reims
The tombstone of Jonathan Holden and his son, another Isaac, is to be found in the cemetery just along my current street. The earthly remains of Isaac, however, did not stay on French soil but were exhumed and taken back to Bradford before the turn of the century. Oddly, during my cursory research into the Holdens, both French and English records claim that Jonathan died in France or England respectively. Perhaps it is not really relevant - either way the tombstone here is slowly being leached of its engraved letters, fading away yet not forgotten, I trust.
I am looking forward to returning to Hermonville, tracking down the Château de Toussicourt, exploring the Château de Marzilly and discovering more places outside the city. For the moment I can still find things that catch my attention within Reims; all these criss-crossing paths laid out around us, linking past and present, the far and the near, like so many threads...