With 2014 seeing the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, there are many good reasons to visit the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. Yet there are so many locations to choose from. all of which mark a particular phase of the war. From our experience the following are some must sees:-
- Mons in Belgium – the site of the first battle fought by the British Army in 1914, and also the site of the last British soldier to be killed on 11 November 1918. The British government has made Mons a key part of commemorations of the First World War and has announced the official inclusion of the St Symphorien military cemetery in the programme to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War. A tour of the cemetery will be one of three prestigious events organised on the day the centenary commemorations begin, on 4 August 2014. (see www.visitmons.be) Mons is just over the Franco-Belgian border about 40 km east of Valenciennes (59 Nord, Nord-Pas-de-Calais)
- Ypres in Belgium and Flanders is so closely associated with the war in everyone’s memory – virtually levelled in the conflict the impressive Cloth Hall (Halles aux Draps) and the Market Square are well worth a visit. Within the Cloth Hall is In Flanders Fields Museum which faces the visitor with the consequences of the Great War. It confronts young and old with life and death in the Ypres front region. As does the nightly ceremony at the Menin Gate in the City when the Last Post is played at 8.00pm. The Menin Gate was built to commemorate the 54.896 soldiers who went missing and whose bodies were never found.
- Tyne Cot Just 10km or so north east of Ypres is Tyne Cot cemetery near Passchendaele. Here nearly 12,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers are buried – an unforgettable and awesome sight.
- Thiepval is an imposing memorial in the middle of the French countryside southwest of Bapaume (62 Pas-de-Calais, Nord-Pas-de-Calais) Thiepval was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (who also designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, London) as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme sector before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave. It is not a thing of beauty but very impressive.
NB There is to be a joint ceremony to mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 2016 at Thiepval. The Battle of the Somme was one of the bloodiest in World War I, leaving more than one million dead, wounded or missing between July and November 1916 – see www.somme-battlefields.com
- Beaumont Hamel is the site of the battle and memorial to the Newfoundland soldiers who fought in the Battle of the Somme. It is worth a visit as you get a feel for the landscape of the battle and the bravery of these Canadians. Beaumont-Hamel is about 10km north of the town of Albert (80 Somme, Picardie)
- Vimy The Canadian National memorial, but worth visiting to see the beauty and elegance of this memorial which sits on the Vimy Ridge with a commanding view overlooking the Allied Lines in 1917. It commemorates another epic battle . There is also a visitor centre and nearby are some restored trench networks. Vimy is southwest of Lens (62 Pas-de-Calais, Nord-Pas-de-Calais) and can be seen (carefully) from the A26 Autoroute (des Anglais) between Calais and Arras
- Villers-Bretonneux is the site of an Australian battle and memorial in the valley of the Somme to the east of Amiens (80 Somme, Picardie and serves as the Australian National Memorial. The site includes a tower designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens – from the top of which you get a magnificent view over the now peaceful countryside. It was unfortunately damaged by shell fire in the Second World War and you can still see the bullet holes! Australian visitors get a particularly warm welcome in the local Le Melbourne Bar in the small village.
This is just a small and personal selection and doubtless omits many sites which may have particular meaning for others. I think it is important that we recognise and remember the people and events of not so long ago and not so far away- and hopefully learn the lessons from the sacrifice of so many. A visit to any of the memorial sites does much to bring home to true scale of the conflict and those who perished. Lille is a good central location to stay with good transport links to most of the battlefields, whilst providing a good number of diversions to lighten the mood – shopping in the old town, restaurants, art galleries etc. Hotels in Lille