The Battlefields of The Somme
The Battlefields of The Somme are one of the most significant and historic reminders of The Great War. Situated within a couple of hours drive of Calais it covers the regions of Nord Pas de Calais and Picardie. Therefore, both are easily accessible for a short trip from the UK.
In addition, Belgium is also in close proximity. So the two countries can be combined, allowing for a visit to most sights in just one trip.
This region and the war history within it, is both incredibly moving and interesting. Furthermore, the mud bath that was the The Battlefields of The Somme and The Great War is completely heart-wrenching.
It goes without saying, that the enormity of the events throughout the Great War are still as prolific today.
“The War to End All Wars” from 1914 to 1918 has certainly left the scars on the landscape. Today, we feel it bears a real connection both emotionally and factually to all those that visit.
Vimy Ridge – The battlefields of the Somme
A good place to begin our tour is the small town of Vimy and the site of the Canadian battlefield at Vimy Ridge, located 5 miles North of Arras.
It’s here that the huge Canadian cemetery and incredible War Memorial are located. Along with a visitor centre, underground tunnels and well preserved trenches, there is no better place to see the reality of trench warfare.
The first thing we noticed on approaching the site, is the shell-marked landscapes. A vast expanse of deep hollows and mounds dominates the ground. Where shells once landed, greenery and wildlife now heal what had been an empty mass of death and destruction.
Preserved Trenches – The Battlefields of The Somme
A parking area at the site of the trenches allows for easy access. Soon we are heading into the surreal well-preserved land of trench warfare. Visitors get a real feel of what the trenches were like. We walk down into the trenches that curve through the earth, now clean underfoot, paths link the snake-like structures.
How different this would have been during the war, living amongst the thick mud, huge vermin and immense terror.
We soon near ‘no man’s land’, in the distance we see the lines between allied forces and the enemy. With it comes a realisation of just how close the enemy line and trench actually is to the allies.
So much so that on a still night, the soldiers would hear the voices of the German army. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that there is only a 45 meter gap beyond to separate them.
The Grange Tunnel – The Battlefields of The Somme
One tunnel still remaining partially intact is the Grange Tunnel. A guided tour with a Canadian tour guide, took us through the incredible underground network. Soon, we were below the ground, under the earth in the original deep and dark, yet fascinating routes.
These tunnels were actually mined, many using the skills of British miners who had enlisted and were subsequently stationed here. Miners otherwise, brought here to undertake the task of digging these secret networks below French soil.
The Vimy Memorial – The battlefields of the Somme
Further along the hill top, about a 15 minute walk away from the trench area is The Vimy Memorial. Another large car park is available here. Beginning the walk across the green parkland towards the largest Canadian Memorial outside of Canada is unforgettable.
Engraved are the names of the 11,241 Canadian’s who died but have no known grave. Like all the memorials here, the scale of those who gave their lives, but have no grave is chilling.
Unveiled in 1936 after 11 years construction, this 60-metre high structure towers above the Douai plain. Somehow there’s a sense of togetherness between the land and the heaven’s above.
In the distance lies the Douai Plain and two unique landmarks that we often pass on the A26 motorway. These pyramid shaped Slag heaps look like a miniature version of themselves from our hill-top setting.
National Military Cemetery of Notre Dame
As we walked the memorial site at Vimy Ridge, in the distance we noticed a neighbouring hillside with a chapel. This we later found to be the National Military Cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette.
Here lies the final resting place of 39,985 French soldiers killed during the First World War. In the chapel of rest the body of an unknown soldier lies as a reminder to those fallen. Alongside lies one French soldier from every conflict since the Great War itself.
In a moving tribute, a volunteer force guards the tomb. Whilst upstairs, a small room contains information for the visitor to read.
The German Cemetery – The battlefields of the Somme
The one thing that stands out as we travelled across the French countryside, is the sobering number of War graveyards.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission look after numerous cemetery sites throughout the region. All are immaculate and often symmetrical in arrangement. Providing the upmost respect to those who gave their lives.
Our route back to a quiet parking spot where we’d spent the previous night, took us passed the German Cemetery at Fricourt.
In contrast to the white stone slabs of the allied war cemetery graves, the German cemetery has black crosses.
Here, 17,027 crosses mark the resting place of those German soldiers who fell.
The Last Standing Abbey – The Battlefields of The Somme
For miles around we could see the remains of what was once an Abbey, destroyed during shelling by the Germans. Now this stands alone, providing a haunting reminder of the devastation.
We followed the road towards its jagged remains. Before long, staring out across the landscapes of the battlefields of the Somme was the facade of the last standing Abbey.
How strange, this stone structure has survived the passage of time. After 100 years, its now an almost eerie image of the conflict, yet standing like an art form for us to admire.
Our Search For a Lost Relative, Josiah
Several years earlier, after the death of Nigel’s Grandma, we had found a postcard amongst her belongings. Dated from 1928, the card had a black and white image of a Cemetery. On the card was writing by a relative who’d visited the Somme a few years after the end of the war.
They described how they’d visited a cemetery at Bucquoy Road and here they’d found the grave of Josiah.
Intrigued by this, we’d brought the postcard with us and set about our search. We weren’t terribly sure who Josiah actually was. But as Nigel’s Gran had been born in 1900, into an all-girl family, we presumed that Josiah would probably be a cousin.
We set about the search for Josiah and his grave. Amongst the towns, landscape and fields surrounding the battlefields of The Somme are countless war graves. Some cemetery’s are tiny, holding just a few graves. Whilst other’s contain hundred’s or even thousands of immaculate tomb stones and manicured lawns.
Searching the database
After the postcard was sent in 1928, there would have been major changes to the surrounding area. Possibly, even some of the cemetery’s may have been altered too.
Our search began on Serre Road, in Bucquoy, but we found nothing, despite looking through any cemetery we found. After a few hours searching, we realised this was going to be harder than we thought.
Our breakthrough came thanks to a visit to the British Memorial site at Thiepval. Here, at the visitor centre, an excellent resource facility allows visitors to search all data base records of cemetery’s and the names of those killed in action.
Within no time at all, we found Josiah’s name along with the details of where his grave was to be found.
We finally find him
Heading off in the direction of Arras, on what is now the main road of the D919, the cemetery came into view.
Looking down in my hand at the 1928 picture postcard, there was no mistaking, this was indeed the cemetery. It was as if the picture had just be taken.
The anticipation as we climbed out of the van was profound. Each Commonwealth war graves cemetery has a permanent box containing cemetery information.
Inside we found a list of all those laid to rest along with the grave number. This makes it easier for those searching and is meticulously detailed.
After double checking the list, we moved tentatively towards the first row, running parallel with the main road. Incredibly, there in front of us in the very front row was the grave of Josiah.
One of thousands of lives lost
Although we didn’t know this young man and don’t even know anything about him to this day. The sentiments and emotional attachment towards him and his bravery were extremely powerful.
How we wondered what his life had been like on this soil as part of the Royal Army Medical Corps. What horrors he must have faced, trying to rescue and save the lives of those around him.
If only we could tell his story, find out a little more about him. But then, Josiah is just one of thousands lost to the battlefields of the Somme. Ultimately, all were men in their prime, someone’s husband, a son, a brother or a friend.
Of course, Josiah along with so many would never have imagined their future relatives coming here. So grateful we were to pay our respects to him and all those that fell, 100 years later.
The Thiepval Memorial – The Battlefields of The Somme
In 2016 we were fortunate to receive tickets to the Centenary event at The Thiepval Memorial. Marking 100 years since the start of the battle of the Somme, we felt privileged to be part of this remarkable televised event.
In attendance were members of the Royal Family including The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Cornwall. As well as dignitaries and politicians from across the world and members of the public.
After entering our names into the UK ballot for tickets several months earlier, we were extremely proud to be able to be a part of the heart-warming memorial service.
72,000 names but no known grave
This wasn’t our first visit to Thiepval. Yet no matter how many times you see this distinctive memorial, the magnitude of loss, sorrow and devastation cuts right through you. Not least because this memorial bears the names of over 72,000 men, lost to the battlefields of the Somme between July 1916 and March 1918. 90% died in the first 5 months of the battle, all have no known grave.
Desgined by Sir Edwin Lutyens, Thiepval brings the true impact of the horrors of the first world war alive. Each British and South African solider whose name is carved into the Portland Stone of the memorial is a reminder of their ultimate sacrifice. Standing at over 45 meters tall, Thiepval can be seen for miles around.
As we walk through the vast space beneath the arched construction, we read the names of the missing as we stop for reflection. So many lives destroyed in such a short space of time, if there’s one place you should visit to get any idea of scale of loss, this is it.
Thiepval is the largest memorial to the missing in the world. In addition Commonwealth graves are laid within the grounds, where we quietly walk to pay our respects to those who never came home.
Everything around the Somme area is within relatively close distance. There are so many landmarks left from the war that any trip here often has us stopping between the bigger sights.
At Pozieres, a few miles North of Albert, we find the Pozieres Memorial. Here we find a memorial to the 14,000 British and 300 South African forces who died in the Summer of 1918 but who have no known grave. Once again, the sheer scale of lives lost is hard to imagine, so many names at each site, so many families torn apart forever.
It’s here that Australian forces casualties also have their final resting place. The neatly marked graves a testament to those from the opposite side of the world who fought in these fields. Each cemetery is both moving and educational. The passage of time makes the surroundings more beautiful, but the true horror of what went on across this landscape is never far away.
Lochnagar Crater – The Battlefields of the Somme
One of the most unimaginable images that reminds us just how destructive this war was, undoubtedly is the first time you see the Lochnagar Crater.
This gigantic hollow is located just outside the village of La Boiselle and was named Lochnager by the Royal Engineers. They soon began to dig down 90ft into the earth, while tunnelling a further 300 yards towards the German front line. Finally, placing 27lbs of explosive into two separate chambers, situated over 60ft apart.
At two minutes to half past seven in the morning, on the 1st July 1916, the British detonated these massive mines. As a result, the explosion was so powerful, it was heard in London, whilst the earth was catapulted an incredible 4000 ft into the air. Unbelievably, this was just one of 19 mines ignited on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
We follow the neatly laid out path around the crater, giving an excellent viewpoint down into the 30ft hollow. In contrast, the green fields surrounding the 100ft wide crater bring a solitude to any visit. As we stand looking down into the depths hollowed out by war, we remember those that lost their lives, as well as so many left traumatised by this hell of war.
The Welsh Memorial
Coming from Wales, our route takes us through the French countryside to Mametz and the location of the Welsh Memorial.
It’s here that we find the emblem of Wales, the Welsh Dragon. Proudly standing towards the skies in memory of the 4000 British soldiers who perished here in just one week of July in 1916.
Newfoundland Memorial Beaumont Hamel
The largest site of trench warfare is found here at Beaumont Hamel. Home to the Newfoundland Memorial and where the Canadian forces, the Newfoundland Regiment were positioned on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
Our visit takes us through a visitor centre, Canadian guides are on hand to answer any questions. Soon, we take the marked path surrounding the battlefield, where the view opens out across the scarred landscape of war.
The land is a mass of bumps and hollows, ultimately signs of shell damage and destruction are everywhere.
The Newfoundland Memorial Statue
On the first day of battle, out of 801 officers, The Newfoundland Regiment had 710 lost or wounded. This staggering number was the worst officer casualty figures of the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
On a hill above the battlefield stands a memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment. Cast in bronze, this poignant Caribou, the emblem of the regiment sits proudly above the scars of war, looking out across the battlefield.
It’s a beautiful statue and the views across towards Thiepval makes us realise just how close everything is here.
Albert – The Battlefields of The Somme
Albert is one of the main town’s to see when visiting the Battlefields of the Somme. After stocking up on supplies here at the good selection of shops, next we ventured to the excellent Museum of the Somme.
A good place for a wet-weather day, the museum takes you through an underground 13th century tunnel. Indeed, the setting below ground through dimly lit passages, transports us back into the story of the war.
Along the narrow brick built tunnels, interesting artefacts of the war are on display. It’s a truly fascinating insight into the life of the soldier.
Delville Wood South Africa Memorial
There are so many memorial sites around the Battlefields of the Somme, above all these are dignified, yet moving in their presence. For us, it felt important to try and get to each site, no more so than the vast expanse of Delville Wood.
The first thing we notice is that this is very much now an area covered by trees. In comparison, during 1916 this whole area looked very different. In contrast to today’s thick foliage and pristine memorial grounds to the fallen, this area was once destroyed by war.
Over 10,000 South Africans lost their lives during the fighting. Many of those who died still lie where they fell. For the most part, the grounds here are left untouched, therefore remaining as they would have been during the Great War. The exception is the trees, together with the grassy pathways that were re-planted.
We later walk these grassy open spaces, which were once access routes, all given street names in the process. It’s strange walking on Bond Street and Regent Street, even though a time of past sorrow, somehow there now appears a feeling of peace.
In Flanders Fields
A short distance across the border from France and we enter Belgium. For us, our journey continues in to Flanders Fields and the mud bath of the First World War sites of Belgium. Poperinge was the gateway to the front line and an important rail hub for supplies.
Poperinge – Talbot House Museum
At Poperinge we visit the Talbot House Museum, where soldiers would congregate on their way to the front. We rook a walk through the rooms, all representing how they would have looked during the war. It gives a more light-hearted approach to what would have been a breath of normality for those soldiers passing through.
However, when the Great War is concerned, tragedy is never far away. Soon we learn about the courtyard at the town hall, and how it bears unimaginable horrors. The true extent of the injustice of war is nowhere more prevalent, because it was here that executions of deserters took place.
These men, often suffering from debilitating Shell Shock were tied to an execution pole and shot at dawn. Consequently, these are heartbreaking tales, but worst of all, some were just boys. Due to the fascination of war, many lied about their age, tragically paying the ultimate price.
In the heart of WWI historic sights is Ypres and home to the Menin Gate. It’s here that each night the “Last Post” is sounded by Buglers, all volunteers of the local fire brigade. It’s certainly one of the most emotional and poignant experiences, further more, one we won’t forget.
Remarkably, since 1929 at 8pm every evening, this commerative ceremony has remembered all those who fell during the first world war. Above all, it brings such a special connection with the past, which is so haunting to witness.
The only time it didn’t take place is during four years of the second world war.
Ypres and its surrounding countryside and townships are full of World War I historic sights. We drove to the battlefields of Hill 60 and 62, or Sanctuary Hill Museum as its known. Located just a few miles from Ypres, this is one of the few places left where you can see an original trench system.
Afterwards, we drove the short distance to the Hooge Crater Museum. This incredible museum houses the most intriguing collection of relics from the war, providing a real insight into life on the battlefield.
The Yorkshire Trench
The Yorkshire trench and dugout is actually in the middle of an industrial estate, found by chance in 1992. Further excavations between 1998 and 2000 revealed the full extent of the British trench and tunnels here.
Incredibly, following a further archaeologic dig, came the discovery of the bodies of 155 soldiers who’d fallen here. Unfortunately, only one of which was able to be identified, a true testament to the horrors of war.
More war sites surround this area, including Essex Farm, a cemetery and bunker which had been the location of a field hospital. It’s here that John McCrae is buried, a surgeon from Canada, he wrote the iconic poem “In Flanders Fields”.
From here we drove the same route that the soldiers had taken to Passchendaele.
The scale of destruction from the muddy hell of the battle at Passchendaele can be seen at Tyne Cot Cemetery.
Here we find the graves of nearly 12,000 commonwealth war dead, these rows of white stones dominating the landscape.
Glistening walls surround the cemetery bearing the names of 35,000 British men who were never found. Once again, only their names remain, each carved into the stone as a memorial to lives lost. Of course, with it comes the acknowledgment of their ultimate sacrifice.
Having visited so many of the historic sights, no doubt, all are a heroic testament to those that fought. However, Tyne Cot is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world, therefore, the loss seems ever more unbelievable to see.
The area around Passchendaele and all of Flanders is scattered with the remnants of a war. Although ending 100 years ago, the scars of devastation are however, still vivid and distinctively real.
We always say that people should visit these sights, if only to realise how fortunate we are today. Especially so as we can pay our respects to our ancestors, who went through the hell of these conflicts, which are beyond our imagination.