My Visit to ‘Ocean Villas’
For my first post, I want to share with you my first experience of a real trench during a tour of the Western Front two summers ago. The trip was the result of a research grant through my institution, Queen’s University, and it was the first time that I made any real contact with the remnants of the First World War, which I had been studying for the past four years. We crossed from Dover to Calais, and spent the first two days of the tour driving around the Somme river valley. We were stationed in Albert, a town made famous by the partially toppled golden virgin atop its Basilica. Legend during the First World War had it that the War would end when the statue fell; the statue did not fall until the Spring Offensive of 1918, with the War ending shortly thereafter.
Near to Albert is the town of Auchonvillers, which the British Tommies called ‘Ocean Villas.’ It was here, at the Ocean Villas Guest House, that our party sat down to afternoon tea, and I saw my first real trench. It was a rather unconventional location for the first viewing of a space so integral to my research, but, as it turns out, a poignant one. Having discovered a trench in her backyard, the guest house’s proprietess, Avril Williams, offers her guests the unique experience of walking in a First World War trench, maintained by volunteers to resemble its original state as closely as possible. If I was, at first, rather taken aback by the idea of taking my tea in a Great War trench, Avril made an observation that moved me to consider the space as an artefact of living memory: this trench, she told us, is part of the vast network of underground communications trenches built beneath the French towns of the Front; as we walk through the towns, shop at their markets, and bask in the (often excruciatingly) hot French sun, we are walking on history. The War, I realized, as I walked through the trench, is not the past for these communities. It is their living history; it is a part of their everyday lives, and a constant reminder of the immense losses that the War inflicted on soldiers and civilians alike.
Please visit greatwar.co.uk for more information on the trench at ‘Ocean Villas.’
Irene Mangoutas is a Doctoral Candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Queen’s University in Kingston, ON. Her dissertation, titled ‘Après la guerre’: Alternate Spaces of the Great War in Modernist and Contemporary Memory-Texts, addresses nostalgia, memory, and commemorative practices in interwar and contemporary British fiction and film about the First World War. She also specializes in neo-Victorian literature, film, visual art, and culture; the ‘long nineteenth-century’; the intersection(s) between warfare and fantasy; and children’s literature. Her departmental page is available here, and you can follow her on twitter @irenemangoutas.