The tiny French town of Erquinghem-Lys, close to Armentieres, is brimming with World War One memories, recorded by local historian Michel Lannoo, now in his sixties, while chatting with British visitors to its two Commonwealth cemeteries.
Helping him has been Jack Thorpe, whose Grimsby-born father, himself a British soldier stayed on in France at the end of World War Two for ‘reasons of the heart’. Between them, they have discovered that the tradition of paying homage to the Unknown Soldier could well have started here – as could Ch’ti, a unique form of patois spoken by locals and in the trenches.
This is said to have originated when a linguist of French origin, living in London with his family, enlisted in the French army during the Great War. Unable to understand his Northern comrades, despite having perfect French, he compiled a glossary of Ch’ti terms. This was later published in Britain.
Also buried amid the stories surrounding the Churchyard Military Cemetery and the Suffolk Military Cemetery at La Rolanderie Farm is how a courageous young stretcher-bearer, Arthur Poulter, calmly rescued around 40 of his brothers-in-arms for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Another tells of how the epitaph “A soldier of the Great War/ Known unto God” starkly carved on crosses caught the eye of Rev David Railton, a chaplain based in Erquinghem-Lys, as he walked through the church cemetery on his way from the infirmary in the Parc Deliot to the priest’s house. He vowed to do his utmost to honour the memory of these victims of war once the fighting was over.
The concept came to fruition when in 1920, as part of British commemorations to honour those who fell during the Great War, one of six bodies exhumed from major battle areas on Western Front was taken via Dover on HMS Verdun to Westminster Abbey. Among those paying their respect during the interment in what became the tomb of the Unknown Warrior was Arthur Poulter. It is now one of the most visited war graves in the world. In France La Tombe du Soldat Inconnu was placed in the Arc de Triomphe. The idea of a symbolic Tomb of the Unknown Soldier then spread to other countries.
Michel’s interest in Erquinghem-Lys, began when, microphone in hand, he asked his parents to describe life in the small riverside town, with its population of just 4,400. His hobby quickly began a passion. So much so, the former computer expert now has his own website on the town’s history (www. Erquinghem-Lys.com) Nowadays Brits arriving on Armistice Day November 11 are not only greeted with pipers playing their own National Anthem but quickly get to know Michel and Jack. More stories start to flow, with medals, notebooks, paintings and a host of other wartime items also being handed over for safekeeping at the Musée d’Ercan, l'église 59193. This opened on June 5, 2005.
Run by Erquinghem-Lys et son Histoire association, it now houses some 140 mementoes donated by British families with relatives buried locally. Its three galleries contain documents, reminiscences, weapons, uniforms, photos and other assorted items retracing the major periods in the town’s history to the present day. Entry to the museum, which opens on Sundays or by arrangement, is free.
Michel is one of the Nord’s 40 Greeters – volunteers passionate about the locality they live in – who offer free of charge tailor-made tours on a variety of topics, from history and architecture to local flora and fauna. (see: www.northernfrancegreeters.com ) The Greeters system originated in New York in 1922 and now operates worldwide.
The role-played by Erquinghem-Lys stemmed from the winter of 1914 when after the so-called war of movement and the “race to the sea”, the front remained stable until the spring of 1918. Situated a few kilometres from the front, the town became a forward base occupied by troops from the Commonwealth. The Germans were established a few kilometres away in the area around Bois Grenier.
In April 1918, the Germans mounted their Georgette offensive, their final attempt to reach the North Sea. The front gave way and the town was occupied from April to August, until the German advance was repelled. The town fell victim to fighting and was razed to the ground; nothing more than a metre high was left standing.