Lille and Arras :
of Rugby and War

Mark Bibby Jackson travels to Arras and Lille, France to learn about preparations for the 2023 Rugby World Cup and visit memorials to those who died in the battlefields of the First World War.

Initially it might appear that Lille was an unusual choice as one of the host venues for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Football, perhaps, as in 2021 the local team won Ligue 1 for the fourth time, and the city boasts a modern and impressive stadium, but rugby surely not. But the relationship between rugby and this part of northern France is one steeped in a tragic history.

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Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery

It is at the Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery that I bump into Stephen Galloway, a Glaswegian on holiday in France with his family. He is looking for the grave of his great grandad, William McCoid, a lance corporal in the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who fell in the ‘Great War’. “Moving,” explains Galloway of the experience. “Nobody in the family knew him.” Galloway’s grandmother was born on the same day that her father died.

Galloway’s great grandfather is one of 2,650 Commonwealth burials at the cemetery, 10 of which are unidentified. The cemetery, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, with sculpture by Sir William Reid Dick, is tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is a moving place.

Some of the fallen were rugby players.

Lieutenant John George Will, known as The Flying Scot, played seven tests with Scotland. Will was a pilot, and it is thought he was shot down by Lothar von Richthofen, brother of the Red Baron. South African Sergeant Septimus Heyns

Ledger played four tests. He was killed on Friday 13 April 1917, during the Battle of Arras.

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The Battle of Arras

It is estimated there were 150,000 Allied casualties, and an equal number on the German side, in the battle waged from 9 April to 16 May 1917. Another rugby player, this time league, Jack Harrison who played for Hull FC and won the Victoria Cross posthumously went missing during the battle. He scored 52 tries in the 1912-13 season, a club record that still stands, helping the club win its first Challenge Cup. Harrison was seen to fall in the field having blown up a German battery in the battle.

“You would like to think when he was dashing across that battleground… his rugby skills would have come into play,” says Bill Dalton, Hull FC historian, as reported in the BBC. Stories like this helped create a narrative that rugby was a noble sport, and that many a player fell an honourable death in the war.

“England international Jack King wrote in his last letter home before being killed in August 1916 that ‘so long as I don’t disgrace the old Rugby game, I don’t think I mind’,” writes Tony Collins in English Rugby Union and The First World War, quoting the Yorkshire Rugby Football Union commemoration book.

The reality was that 27 English internationals – out of 160 who fought – died in the war with another dying afterwards from his wounds. Just like the other soldiers buried at Faubourg d’Amiens, they were casualties of a pointless war, but this did not change the patriotic narrative. By the end of the war Rugby Union had replaced Football as the main sport played in English Public Schools.

In 1917, the Somme Cup was contested between teams from Allied divisions, the Trench All Blacks, drawn from the New Zealand Division, conquered all before them – an omen perhaps for the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Wellington Quarry

The story of the Battle of Arras is told at the Wellington Quarry, a few miles outside of Arras.

I join a tour that starts in the small museum above the tunnels built by a team of 450 professionals miners who travelled from New Zealand to Arras, arriving in March 1916. Photographs of the survivors line the walls leading down towards the museum.

After that we descend 20 metres into the quarry, through an extraction shaft dating back to the Middle Ages. Fortunately, the tunnels are quite spacious, so I do not feel claustrophobic as I feared, and the temperature is a constant 17C. The tour is well presented with interesting films from the era shown on the walls, although I would not recommend taking small children, as it lasted more than an hour. There are touching stories of soldiers writing letters to loved ones before the battle. Some died, some were wounded, some survived.

Arras was aimed as a distraction by the British, so the French could strike further south and drive back the German forces in the Chenin des Dames. It was a dismal failure.

Arras : a City Rebuilt

Situated some two kilometres from the German Front Line, the town of Arras, like Mechelen on the Belgian side of Flanders, was seriously damaged during the First World War. It’s estimated that some 80% of the town was destroyed during the fighting. It was rebuilt between 1920 and 1935.

The Grand Square was reconstructed on the same footprint as before. Next to it is the Square of Heroes (Place des Heros) with its Town Hall and medieval Belfry, which offers great views of Arras, and only has 40 steps to ascend.

Arras was a rich trading city in the middle ages. It has distinctive narrow, long houses built from local limestone. White stone indicates the building survived the First World War, yellow marks a restoration. You can see bullet holes on some of the older buildings.

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Beer of Arras

There are also plenty of bars and restaurants to sit outside and do some people watching over a beer or coffee.

The previous evening we had sat outside chez Marcel, a craft beer bar with a great array of beers and equally impressive cheeses. Something of a celebrity in these parts, Marcel, opened the bar in December 2017. On our visit there were 10 craft beers to choose from, I opted for a stout with hazelnut and chocolate notes. It was excellent, as was the mature gouda cheese that accompanied it. This was the first time I have enjoyed gouda – a cheese previously I have found to be grossly over-rated.

After Chez Marcel, I dined outdoors at Le Silex on the Grand Place, watching the world pass by, as well as an entertaining bout of road rage on the streets, while eating some excellent tuna.

The food in Arras on my brief stay was excellent, the following day after my visit to the Wellington Quarry, I enjoyed a brilliant courgette gazpacho at l’Œuf ou la poule, a delightful little bistro close to the twin squares.

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Beer Tour of Lille

Arras is less than an hour’s train ride to Lille. The walk from Lille Flandres to my hotel Mercure Lille Centre Grand Place took me along the magnificent Rue Faidherbe.

Lille is known as the Capital of Beer in France. At least it is according to Aurélie, my guide at L’échapée bière, who took me on a tour of the city and its best craft beer. In the middle ages there were five breweries in the city, she informs me.

I had visited Lille once before on return from a visit to Kortrijk, so I was already familiar with the beauty of the city. However, Aurélie was able to fill in some of the gaps for me.

One of the interesting aspects to Lille is the mix of architectural styles. For instance the Stock Exchange (Bourse) is traditional Flemish, built in the 17th century, with a second-hand book market inside it. There is also a statue to Louis Pasteur, who was at Lille when he discovered the role of yeast in making beer.

The Bourse is regarded by many as the most beautiful building in Lille. This contrasts with the Brutalist exterior to the Cathedral, and the French Flemish architectural style of buildings such as the Moulin D’Or, a restaurant opposite the Opera House.

The impressive Opera House was designed by architect Louis Marie Cordonnier in the Belle Époque style, and completed in 1914 as the Germans invaded, after the original 1785 opera house was destroyed by a fire in 1903. The same architect designed the adjoining Chamber of Commerce although it was designed in the neo-Flemish style and completed in 1921. Looking at the pair of architectural gems it is hard to imagine the same architect was responsible for both.

Aurélie’s tour continued past the theatre which dates back to 1770, and La Voix Du Nord, a beautiful 1930s Art Deco with a Flemish façade – perhaps my favourite building in Lille – and on to the site of the Burgundy Palace built in the 15th century. All that remains is the old guard room which now houses the tourist office.

After so much walking I was pleased to settle down to some beers, first at Celestin brewery, which had an intimate tasting room in the heart of Lille along with some excellent beers and then to La Capsule, an excellent craft beer place where between the two of us, Aurélie and I seemed to polish off the impressive range of beers, including a sour beer that I actually found palatable.

The rest of the evening went by in a very mellow haze, but I do recall visiting Le Vieux de la Vieille for some Le Welsh, a Lille take on a Welsh rarebit, which would definitely go down well on a cold winter’s night, but was perhaps a bit heavy for a warm summer’s day.

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Lille Stadium

The following day I arose relatively fresh for my visit to Stade Pierre Mauroy, where some of the games for the Rugby World Cup 2023 will be held, including France v Uruguay (14 September), England v Chile (23 September), Scotland v Romania (30 September), and England v Samoa (7 October).

Built in 2017, this is a very modern stadium, with retractable roof should the weather turn foul, and can hold around 45,000 to 50,000 spectators. The city has a very calm atmosphere, and those looking to catch a match at the World Cup could do far worse that heading here.

Museum of the Battle of Fromelles

No Australian will need any introduction to The Battle of Fromelles. Some 5,533 soldiers were killed, wounded, went missing, or were taken prisoner here between 19 and 20 July 2016, most of whom were Australian. It marks the most darkest day in the country’s history.

As I am driven some 40 minutes from Lille through country fields and small villages, it is impossible to believe that so many people lost their lives here. Not for the first time on my trip Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong springs to mind.

In 2008 mass graves were discovered in the nearby woods, and a year later 250 bodies excavated, mainly Australian, their bones buried in Fromelles Cemetery next to the museum. DNA analysis has identified 166 of them. Like at Arras, some of those who fell were rugby players, including Major Tom Elliott from Royal College Duntroon.

The museum opened in 2014 and receives 12,000 visitors each year of which 40% are Australian. It tells the story of many of the soldiers who died in the battle. One of whom is Simon Fraser, whose statue called The Cobbers, stands a few kilometres along the road from the museum in the Fromelles Memorial Park.

It is here that my trip to Northern France concludes, contemplating the folly of man, and pondering how many more lives will be lost in the futile wars for long forgotten fields.

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Mark Bibby Jackson

The Climate-Friendly Travel Writer

Group Editor – Travel Begins at 40 / London Begins at 40 / Cambodia Begins at 40

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Travel Expert – TNT Magazine, Charitable Traveller, eXist

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Member of British Guild of Travel Writers / International Travel Writers Alliance