I had been shovelling a large crater with a lot of upcast of clay and chalk, with Johnny. He was exceptionally strong, low height but square thick-set shoulders and worked so hard and fast, that he was nick-named the ‘mini-digger’. It was a very warm day, but we continued our work at a steady pace, and chatting all the while, in spite of the hard slog and what could have been a boring job. We were excavating part of a front-line trench system of the ‘Western Front’, dug between 1915 and 1918. I had always wanted to see the Western Front, where my grandfather Jerry had spent some time; he would never speak about it, not even to his wife Anastasia, my granny. He served in France in 1916, probably to replace causalities.  His unit had landed in France in 1914, and was destroyed early in the War, loosing several hundred men, including many as prisoners. Later in 1914, the unit returned to action.  While my grandfather was in France, his unit served extensively on the Somme, in 1916 and 1918, and in 1917, in Belgium and at Passchendaele. I now realise why he didn’t want to discuss the War and one cannot imagine what he and his colleagues witnessed and the experiences that they went through. He never kept his British War and Victory Medals. During the last days of his battalion’s defensive fight, they had been virtually destroyed, being deluged with poison gas and shellfire.  They eventually had to be withdrawn.

One summer, having finished my Master’s in Mathematics, I decided to go to the Western Front areas myself, originally thinking I would just visit the cemeteries, as a tourist, but then landed myself a position on this archaeological dig. Being a volunteer on an archaeological excavation was one sure way of seeing another aspect of the Great War. A fellow student, back in Dublin, told me about this short term dig, where they desperately needed volunteers, to determine if burials were at this location; a major road would be realigned in this area in the new year. The location was several kilometres from the nearest town. It was quiet apart from the buzz of early morning traffic. An unusually high number of road accidents, most ending in fatalities, had taken place, on the road and so it was necessary to carry out major engineering works. Locals had said that the road was jinxed because it had been built on the burials of the war dead; some had even indicated that they had seen ghosts there, in particular at night time, and always running across the road in front of traffic.  It was important to determine if bodies from the Great War were present, prior to the road works. Previously a mass burial of soldiers was uncovered not far from the dig; both Allied and German soldiers were represented. These were missing casualties of the War. By the time this excavation would be complete, both digging and the analysis afterwards, two of the casualties would be securely identified.

At one end of the archaeological excavation, a team had exposed several sets of human skeletal remains. An articulated skeletonised hand was the first human remains to be identified.  Nearby leather braces over a shirt and body parts, had also been excavated. Alongside this man, a leather sole from a left boot was unearthed as well as a cloth helmet cover, and a sardine tin, peeled open with a key still in it.  These bodies may have been in a grave or in a trench; it was too difficult to determine, as so much of the ground had been cratered by exploding mines.

The landscape here was flat and little enough tree cover; one copse of trees on the hill slope served as some shelter from the wind. We were digging at the bottom of a low grassy knoll, and all we could see for miles were small drumlin-like hillocks surrounding us. It was as if we were in a large flat bowl.  One old farmhouse was two fields away. Occasionally we would see the match stick figures of an elderly couple, who lived there. They were a good time piece, as they had routine times for leaving the house, going for walks, tending their animals etc. They had been living in this area since the Great War; she was born in that house and he was the son of a nearby farmer.  Both remembered the War, as children, and had some very sad memories. They had eleven children themselves, all of them living abroad. Along with other local people, they visited the dig on one occasion. Some tours were also organised on the dig, to give the local community an update on the findings.

The day had turned out very warm, though cloudy. It was nearly lunch break and I was very tired after my first week on site.  Johnny had been telling me about the excavation in Belgium, which he had worked on at the beginning of the summer. As he had finished his degree in Anatomy and Physiology, he had decided to take a break, prior to making a decision on his future. And, so his entrance into the world of archaeology, recommended to him by one of the professors, in the Institute in Amsterdam. The site which he had worked on was a World War I burial place, which took several weeks to dig.  A small number of individuals were identified. After that he became very interested in finding more missing soldiers from World War I, and knew that his expertise in human anatomy would be useful for this good cause, so he continued with the Western Front excavation crew and ended up here at this dig.

The site director Alberto Jordain, a very handsome blonde Italian, strutted over to us and asked how we were getting on. ‘Heavy going, Alberto, all upcast, just a few fragments of shell cases, perhaps empty or spent’, Johnny said casually, ‘Can you send someone over to fill in the finds sheets, please?’ ‘okey dokey’ Alberto sang, as he pranced off in another direction to take some photographs. As usual, Alberto reeked of the sweetest aftershave, which left its foul odour hanging over the crater area where we were digging. ‘I wish he wouldn’t do that’, I said. ‘Do what? Johnny asked. ‘Wear so much of that ghastly aftershave on site’, I answered. ‘Ha, he’s trying to start a romance with the other new boy, on the block!!!’ Johnny laughed, ‘Stephen Bamsey from Somerset. He luvs his accento!’ wickedly mocking Alberto’s accent, ‘He luvs da boy from da privito school. His buddy Paolo, will not be impressed, one iota; better watch out today for the moods. We are in for an explosion!’ and at that my heart jumped, as he smacked his hands together, making a thud-like sound. We both giggled, and continued shovelling. It was my turn to empty the wheelbarrow. The palms of my hands had got very sore from digging and from holding the handles of the wheelbarrow, in spite of wearing gloves. I was informed that they would soon toughen up.

Paolo arrived at our side, ‘We have found some possible body parts near that copse of trees.  Johnny, would you care to assist with uncovering these? And, yourself, also, pointing in my direction. ‘Our time is limited and what you are uncovering here seems to be a large crater, caused by exploding mines. In fact, the trenches are almost completely obliterated throughout the site, by numerous craters. During the War, the place was obviously blitzed.  We can return here in a few days time, but it’s far more important to examine the body parts. Come on, gather your tools and follow me’, he said, all of the time, working away, putting the shell cases into special boxes, already labelled.  Paolo was so efficient, and was a very experienced archaeologist.  His brown hair was bleached by the sun; he had spent the time previous to this dig working with his partner, Alberto. They were a team for many years. By now Johnny knew both of them quite well.

Later the following day, there were two teams digging definite human remains. I and Johnny had exposed one body, which really wasn’t a body at all, but part of one. It was very sad, my first time dealing with dead people, though still skeletons, but very upsetting. I had always thought that full skeletons would be found, but how that could have happened, when there was so much warfare going on and people were blown to smithereens! This young man was someone’s son, brother, husband, and at that, we were the first to know where he was, since the war. Except, he was probably, going to be another ‘unknown soldier’. It would be so good if his family knew that he was buried here. The lower part of his body was now being drawn and photographed by Paolo, who was also site photographer and draughtsman. Johnny and I took measurements for him, with hand tapes. He also always explained to us what he was doing, and so showed us how to draw to scale, and how to photograph both burials and other archaeological findings. Paolo was indeed a very good teacher. An articulated hand also lay nearby, but it may have belonged to another individual; this was often the case with body parts that were now skeletonised, and couldn’t be associated with another body part.  Paolo assisted us later in removing, and cataloguing these skeletal remains. There was a lot to be done, and though interesting and learning a lot, it took another good part of a day. Johnny carefully showed me how to excavate these remains. He emphasised the importance of this work. At a later date, they would be brought to specialists, who examine human remains on a regular basis.  Now I could understand, why he moved us here, rather than continue digging the cratered areas. These enormous craters were indicative of the fighting between the two sides, both mining and counter-mining; some of the craters had been backfilled after the war but others were left open. These areas which were not dug on this excavation would remain for future generations to examine. In other words they would be conserved, and their location recorded. During that week, four other sets of human remains were uncovered by the team.

Also working on site were students of Alberto, who always seemed to be in good humour, making jokes and keeping Alberto’s spirits high. Their melodic chit chat could be heard from one end of the site to the other. Alberto was under pressure with time and was a great worrier underneath that witty, yet pompous exterior. An English couple from Leicester, Terry and Andy, both studying Archaeology and English, were carefully boxing and labelling the finds and body parts and arranging for their transfer to various authorities and specialists. Andy said that Terry had proposed to her a few days before they left England, but no ring yet. She had said yes to his proposal which he had made in true traditional style, on his knee and in her parents’ sitting room; they were gobsmacked. Andy and Terry were very quiet spoken and polite, always heads down doing their work, and working together. Not like I and Johnny (or the Italian students), chattering away nonstop, but still working solidly and getting the work done!  Then there was Katya, a librarian from Germany; she had been looking for excavation experience, and her interest in the Western Front came from her grandmother, who often talked about her own father, whose body had never been recovered from the battlefield, somewhere in 1914 at the Somme. He had been married a year when he went missing. His baby daughter, Katya’s grannie, was born about the same time that he went missing. When Katya first arrived on site, I could see that Johnnie took a fancy to her immediately.

Dave, from Aberdeen, Scotland and the surveyor, kept to himself, he was quiet but at night time, regularly ended up in the local bar, le Rai d’Or, with one too many. He would take a different person each day to do surveying; not his idea, but Alberto’s, who always believed in sharing knowledge and gaining practical experience. Then there were two other supervisors, who worked on World War I projects with Alberto; there was nothing they didn’t know about the subject; after years of studies and digs. Both had been to the Institute in London for several degrees, and had a host of papers written on the subject.

Then there was Stephen Bamsey from Frome in Somerset, the lovely, pleasant and tall blonde Stephen, who was studying English at Oxford, and hoped to be a journalist. He was liked by everyone and he was the site joker. He was writing about his digging experience for a University newsletter. His Mom wanted him to be a school teacher like herself and his dad; it was Stephen whom Alberto fancied, but he was hated by Paolo, as Alberto never hid his desires. Alberto used Steve to make Paolo jealous. Though Steve laughed at the whole cartoon as he called it, there was almost a skirmish one night at the local bar, La Crystal. Steve had his eyes on someone else, as Johnny had observed, but he wouldn’t reveal this to nosey old me! He said that I would find out soon enough.

As the first two weeks finished, then the third commenced and came to an end, we continued our work, and almost all of the bodies were unearthed, and processed.  During this, my fourth week, there was a major panic, early one morning when a badly corroded grenade with the pin still in it, was exposed by Steve; we all laughed, and wouldn’t believe him. He had caught us out, with his jokes, so many times in the past few days. He rang Alberto, who was meeting a sponsor in the nearest town, and it was only then that we believed him. Everyone exited the site, while Alberto rang the relevant people. We headed for the nearby town, in the site mini-van. The Explosive Ordnance Disposal team had been on site before the excavation started, long before I arrived, to determine if dangerous unexploded munitions were anywhere. That day, the EOD arrived on site within a short time, and evaluated the grenade, making it safe. The EOD team removed the grenade to a secure location where it would be destroyed. In all it took from 11am until 3.30pm to make the site safe.

We had been told to take the rest of the day off, but would make an earlier start next morning. Most of us went to a little cafe (Café Des Délices), except for Dave, who went to le Rai d’OR.  I am very fond of French food, so this cafe serves wonderful delights such as our favourites at the time millefeuille au cafe with coffee flavoured ice cream, and banana créme brûlée à la vanille Bourbon. It also had an immense choice of wines.

We also bought some groceries for our meal that evening; it was my turn to cook.  On the way back to our cottage, a few of us decided to walk along the disused railway line. We continued chatting, Johnny about his future in medicine, and Andy and Terry about their studies, and I discussed the ingredients for that night’s meal of ‘rissoles de pois’. I had found an old cookery book in the cottage and so I had a new recipe, which I would serve with a mix of vegetables and garlic. As we continued walking along the old line, Paolo continued to make sly remarks to Stephen about Alberto. Stephen had no knowledge of Alberto’s desires and only joked and laughed at Paolo, thinking that Paolo’s English was terrible. As this ‘conversation’ continued, Paolo got increasingly annoyed, and by the time we got to the cottage, he was so angry that he did not come inside but lighting his cigarette, he paced up and down outside in the pretty flower garden, like a caged-in cheetah.

Our landlady, called with some new potatoes, eggplants, chard and spinach for us, as well as some poppy flowers, to brighten up what really was a simple, but attractive cottage. She sat with us for a while and even joined us for dinner. She had also made ‘Le Far Breton’ for us. Nadine was originally from Brittany.  This sweet dish was a baked rum and raisin batter pudding. Delicious! Paolo didn’t join us for dinner that evening. We could hear him shouting at his cell phone, telling someone to stay in the bar, presumably Alberto, who had indicated that he would join Dave and the others there when the site had been sorted for the day.   Dave would linger in the bar, longer than anywhere else. The bar owner often brought him home, after he had closed the premises.  However that evening, Alberto had stayed for several drinks. He had several arguments with Paolo, that day, and he was in no mood to continue these back at the cottage. It had been stressful at work too.  The bar owner also drove Alberto back to the cottage.

There were three little cottages that the team had rented; I was in the first one, with two others, then four more, including Rod, in the second, while Andy and Terry shared with Alberto and Paolo in the third. Johnny, Dave, Stephen stayed at a small hotel in the town. It was late that night when Alberto and Dave came back to the cottages. Once again we could hear heated shouting outside between the boys, with Dave, as drunk as a skunk, trying to pacify the two, but very much in the way. We were playing cards inside, trying as best we could to mind our own business. We heard a car outside and Alberto’s voice saying good night. After a few shrieks from Paolo and what may have been the sound of knocking on a door, and a few doors slamming, the night quietened and everyone went to their respective cottage. As usual Stephen joked about the bickering, as he made his way back to the village in the minivan, bringing Johnny with him. There were a few muffled noises, along with a car door banging, and the car driving away later in the early morning, and then quietness again.

The following morning everyone worked on site, without any reference to the previous night. Alberto left the site at tea break, bringing the minivan, and saying he was himself transporting the finds, and human remains to the laboratory in the city. He would be away for the day. It was a very quiet day, and work seemed more difficult than usual. Stephen tried to crack some jokes, but that didn’t work. Towards the end of the day, we asked Andy and Terry if they knew where Paolo had been all day. Andy indicated that Paolo had left the cottage, well before breakfast, apparently in a huff according to Alberto. This time, we all knew (except Stephen was oblivious to this fact) that Alberto fancied Stephen, and this was more than likely the cause of the most recent quarrels.  Earlier this year, Alberto had a little tryst with one of the young archaeologists during the dig in Belgium, which of course, resulted in the wrath of Paolo when he found out, towards the end of the dig. Lucky the young impressionable archaeologist had left the site to go on holidays with his parents, back in England. Alberto and Paolo had been a couple for about 15 years. Alberto had assumed that the very attractive Stephen was gay, but hiding the fact. The rest of us presumed that Alberto took Stephen’s jokes too seriously. Alberto was not thinking clearly when there was another ‘Adonis’ around. We believed Stephen was such a messer and not in the least homosexual.

The weeks went by, and the work continued; Paolo’s return home to Venice was mentioned by Alberto, but no more was said, as his mood was not the best, and none of us wanted another verbal explosion. Terry and Andy said that it was very uncomfortable staying in the cottage with him. So when they had enough of him, they subsequently left, a few weeks earlier than anticipated. They got some work on the site of an Iron Age hill fort in southern England, before the autumn and college reopened. Paolo’s students carried out the draughtsmanship and photography, as well as supervising and advising the volunteers.  During the final week, most of us on site would talk about our next venture, as well as the shenanigans between the various people on the dig. The backfilling of the site at the end of the excavation is apparently an onerous task, so we were all thrilled when we were told that we would get two days paid holiday leave for those last two days. A machine was going to do the heavy work.

A small number of us stayed around for that weekend, taking advantage of the peacefulness of the cottages, with the rest of the gang gone home, or on to the next job. That weekend was wonderful.  It was like the ending of one phase of life and the beginning of the next. Many changes would take place from that time and many things would stay the same, in particular some friendships. I spent the evenings reading in the garden under a walnut tree, and just enjoying the setting. The scents from the flowers and shrubs were heavenly, and one beauty was the cabbage rose, which had been produced in the 16th century. Its essence was popular in the perfumery industry. France has so many native flowers. In the garden, there were many lilies. I also called to the landlady’s house and brought some stuffed brioche, the first of many which I would bake.

Alberto appeared a few times over the weekend, not saying much. He said the backfilling was taking longer than he had envisaged, and had to be on site himself at all times, even at the weekend.  One of Paolo’s students complained that too much money was being spent on the backfilling and that the team could have carried out the work in a few days, with much less cost.  The other Italian students agreed and suggested that Alberto was not thinking straight since Paolo had left. They both knew Paolo very well and were surprised that he had made no contact with either of them, no postcard, text, nada! When they mentioned his name to Alberto, he simply hurled abuse at them, and called Paolo a traitor, and anything else that he could think of. Paolo’s students usually had a great rapport with Alberto, but not since Paolo left.

Johnny and Katya, the librarian, had become very close, and they had left together. I would keep in touch with both of them. Some of the team went ahead of Alberto to survey another Great War site, which they would hope to dig in the near future. This dig was one of the first of many that I would become involved with, over the years. I had become a financial advisor to an international computer company. Ten years later I was still in touch with Johnny and Katya, whom I visited outside Toronto on a number of occasions, on route to a few conferences. By then, both had university jobs, got married, and were due their third baby on my most recent visit. Though Johnny had wanted to go on further digs, he never did, becoming a lecturer in Anatomy, which left him very busy, what with teaching, research etc.  Katya also got a library job in the same university. They often talked about that summer on the excavation and their first meeting, also the camaraderie, the work, the sadness of finding battle victims, the training we had received, the beauty of the location, the landlady (whom they had kept in touch until a year ago when she had died unexpectedly from bacterial meningitis), and of course, Alberto and Paolo and their stormy relationship.

Similarly I had met up with some of Paolo’s students in Milan and Venice, when I holidayed there on a number of occasions. The curious situation was that Paolo had never contacted them again. Alberto had told them he was moving from the Western Front work, and was changing his team; they were surplus to his requirements.  He would explore World War I sites in Turkey with a local team for the next few years; he had got a lucrative contract. Katya and Johnny had kept in touch with others from the dig. One archaeologist had told Katya that during that summer, Stephen had in fact had some relationship with Alberto, and so it was the cause of the arguments and presumably the end of the relationship with Paolo! Stephen was such a messer, and all the time pretending that he knew nothing! I was astonished. Stephen had after all his efforts at becoming a journalist, ended up as a teacher outside Brighton. He had married his childhood sweet heart, a couple of years after the excavation. However he had left her, three years and one child later, when he began a relationship with one of the fathers of one of his pupils. He had recently gone back to journalism, and had moved to Birmingham. Johnny had kept contact with Stephen, and had given me this update. As for the others on the dig, we lost contact. We wondered where Terry and Andy had got to.

Almost ten years later, that first excavation is brought to my mind again. I read a small paragraph, in the international section of my daily newspaper: ‘Road works reveal past secret: a fault in a road extension exposes a male skeleton. Possibly, that of an archaeologist, last seen, on a nearby dig, a decade ago. One man, believed to be from Italy, is helping the police with their investigations’.

© 2012-2020 Catryn Power All Rights Reserved

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