Wednesday, 5 August 2009

off the beaten track - hilaire le grand, a Russian detour:

night time, st hilaire le grande or thereabouts, and the skies burst their banks, rain bouncing off the dark, uneven camber of the old n6 so furiously that our only option is to take shelter by an unused railway track, occasional flashes of lightning our only guide. a bucolic storm ensues, a torrent rarely seen in the city.

taking to the road again after a night squished in the car dozing dismally, the roar of the deluge an impossible lullaby, we are met with the unlikely glint of what appears to be the dome of an archaic orthodox church, miniscule but pristine, a chapel really, a gold Faberge egg shining in the pale morning light. yesterdays mysterious road diversions have it seems not only led us deeper and deeper into unmarked ‘yellow’ roads, cutting through dense woods whose velvety blackness the forked flashes had barely illuminated, but into another time and place altogether, an unscheduled detour into nineteenth century imperial russia.

blinking groggily at this little pre-soviet island (whose dates intriguingly overlap between the end of one empire and the birth of another) on the d21 to mourmelon le grand – only a few miles from rheims but a whole century away – we amble towards the apparition to investigate. sure enough the mirage doesn’t evaporate as we approach, it simply reveals 3 lines of plain gold font which reads,

aux soldats russes, morts au champ d'honneur, en france, 1916-1918

to the side of the chapel behind a wrought iron fence and laid out on an immaculate lawn are row upon row of neat white crosses with in its centre a cenotaph dedicated to the memory of a russian expeditionary force that fought in several decisive battles between 1916 –18. beyond, two ossuaries bear the remains of over 1000 compatriots who died in these now silent fields so far from home, never identified, the inconnu. we gaze for a while at the names on the crosses painfully outnumbered by those still unknown, unnamed, but commemorated with equal care and compassion in this corner of northern france, like so many other young men in so many other flanders fields.

the scale of these fields and their endless graves, the frequency of their occurrence and military precision creating a sobering optical illusion, makes for a disquieting experience the first time one takes to the roads here. the facts of the ‘great’ war are so well known, so much the dry stuff of the school syllabus or sunday night documentary that it is a shock to find the simple white crosses so affecting, so heart-rending; a jolt to remember that many grandfathers fought in these trenches, many grandmothers lost brothers, lovers and sons, an entire generation laid out in stark rows on eternal parade.

but what of this field? what brings an orthodox chapel and its retinue of monks here, to this tiny corner of france? what is the tale behind the discreet brass sign bearing the words russe ermitage orthodox, the turquoise of its domes nestled behind shady pine trees, an anachronism, an exile of revolution?

a small signpost beyond the hermitage walls offers this scrap of information

the cimitière militaire russe de saint-hilaire le grand contains the graves of over 1000 russian officers and men. in 1937 a chapel, 16th century in design, was built to commemorate all of the russians who died on the Western Front, tended to this day by the monks of the adjacent orthodox hermitage.

further enquiry reveals that the russian expeditionary force was sent to france by the then russian empire, initially made up of 2 battalions, the first russian special brigade which landed in marseille in april 1916, and the 2nd special brigade which served alongside other allies in northern greece. the first brigade served with distinction until the outbreak of the revolution in 1917, when the entire force was disbanded, interred in alien camps or returned home. however some stayed and formed the legion russe (or Russian Legion) joining up with the elite french moroccan infantry division. the combined units then took part in the fighting around amiens in march 1918, with severe losses to the moroccan division and the russian legion, its captain even being decorated with the medal of the legion of honour. in may, the moroccan division took part in the fierce fighting on the road from soissons to paris, with losses accounting for nearly 85% of the russian legion's forces, but despite this continued to preserve a significant russian presence in the west and, indeed, in the great war itself, right up until the armistice, attracting volunteers to the very end. after the german withdrawal to the border the moroccan division, including our russian regiment, advanced upon moyeuvre but the operation was halted by the signing of the armistice treaty in november 1918. after armistice the entire russian regiment was recalled and demobilised, and while some chose to remain in france, others returned to revolutionary russia. among the latter was rodion malinovsky, the future soviet minister of defence.

this stirring and rather romantic account can be easily found online, for those requiring more detail. or wiki gives a more dispassionate outline of events.

as we drive off and out of the little copse, absorbed, a little sombre, leaving the fallen russians far from home in the care of their monastic sentinel, life resumes its usual rhythms, a hare lolloping exuberantly in the bright morning sun, whilst nearby a fox exposed momentarily from its early morning ablutions misses a sure chance. and in the meadow beyond, a lone falcon perches atop a hay bale, contemplating breakfast.

and before we know it we too are breakfasting on buttery brioche and bitter café noir in a roadside café once more en route to rheims, our sunrise detour a flight of fancy, a mere whimsy in the morning mists….

No comments: