Last week we spent the night in Soissons. We were trying out the hotel we might stay in for the family visit to Billy’s grave in 2014. It felt incredibly strange to be there looking out of our hotel room across the roofs to the hills that rise on the other side of the Aisne.
The town was extraordinarily quiet – it was that time between Christmas and New Year when nothing seems to happen – everyone is waiting for the main event I suppose – in this case the arrival of 2013.
But I found I was wondering how unbelievably different it must have felt to be there in the dying days of summer in 1914. There was no wind and the air was stiflingly hot. Soisson must have been a cauldron of fear as the Soissonaise looked at the tattered remains of the BEF gathering in the streets and boulevards of the town, and then looked up at the wooded hills that form the northern bank of the Aisne. They must have wondered just how long it would be before the flood of German soldiers began pouring out of them.
Billy arrived in Soissons at around noon on 30th August. The Grenadiers had been marching for days in the dust and intense heat. The men had apparently been grumbling about their sore feet and the endless marching in ‘the wrong direction’ but the 2nd Battalion was immensely proud that not one man had fallen out. The Grenadiers were then ordered to retrace their footsteps back across the Aisne to the village of Pasley, which lies 2 miles north of Soissons, where they dug in and spent what remained of the night watching out for the approaching Germans. There was some hope that perhaps the BEF might make a stand at the Aisne and that the Retreat would be over.
But the 31st just brought yet more orders to continue the Retreat, and so Billy would have returned to Soissons and then headed on south west towards Villars- Cotteret where the Grenadiers would have to face one of their toughest challenges so far.
It was market day when we were in Soissons last week. As we wandered amongst the stalls and inspected the wonderful displays of vegetables, bread, cheeses, etc., it was almost impossible to believe life there could ever have been so very different. When Billy was in Soissons, it was so early in the war, the town would have looked in parts, much as it does today – but later of course, being on the front line a good deal of it was reduced to rubble – it is really extraordinary how mankind does rebuild after such terrible events – but when we looked carefully at the buildings, the bullet holes, and shrapnel scars were easy enough to spot!
I imagine that by the time Billy reached Soissons his world must have shrunk to encompass little more than his own and his men’s survival. Home, Gladys, the boys, and his whole previous existence must have seemed like they belonged to someone else in another life.