The centenary of the end of World War I is drawing many to the battlefields of northern France to learn about the conflict and remember those who fought. While touring the battlefields is a sombre experience, it’s also a chance to appreciate the modern day scenery of the areas where the fighting took place.
World War 1 cemetery near Arras
Some of the most famous and terrible battles took place in the Somme region of Picardy, and there are many memorials, museums and cemeteries to visit there. Of particular interest to British visitors is Mametz and the Bois Francais area, just east of Albert. It was here that Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon served in early 1916 and many of the places are referred to in their memoirs. The Citadel and Point 110 Old Military cemeteries here are the resting places of men from the Tunnelling Companies and the Manchester Regiment among others. The headstones are a poignant reminder of the youth of many of the soldiers. Just beyond is the Bois Francais, a small wooded ridge where the opposing front lines were extremely close together. Shell holes are still visible off the track.
One of the most interesting museums is the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert, which occupies a space that was used as an air raid shelter in World War II. Here visitors can see scenes of the trenches, original uniforms, equipment and weaponry.
Memorial de Verdun French museum
After the war, Verdun was declared a ‘Zone Rouge’, meaning that it was so devastated and so riddled with munitions that the villages were not rebuilt. Consequently there are a lot of features to be seen, including the remains of villages such as Ornes and Louvemont, a memorial to Muslim soldiers and the haunting Ossuary, which holds the skeletons of some 130,000 soldiers.
Camp Marguerre is an intriguing site located in Spincourt Forest, established in 1915 by the Germans to study the use and improvement of concrete. It’s a small village with a shelter zone, living quarters and a concrete plant. The commandant’s house still bears traces of wall decorations and the officers’ quarters has some external engravings that suggest the inhabitants were there for some time.
Fort Douaumont is also one of the primary points of interest, with commanding views of the surrounding landscape. Its interior is highly atmospheric – chilly, stark corridors where sounds echo along the walls lead to various rooms where relics and reconstructions of living quarters are displayed.
Away from the battlefields is Amiens, a vital British logistics centre during the Great War that was captured and recaptured throughout the period. It was the site of the opening phase of the Hundred Days Offensive, which ultimately led to the end of the war. It’s now a lively city with a thriving music scene and some striking architecture, including that of the cathedral, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Quatier Saint-Leu d’Amiens is an enchanting district with art galleries, boutiques and bookshops to explore along its narrow streets.
Find out more about The Battle of the Somme: 141 days of horror on BBC iWonder
Our sister company Belle France is offering an exclusive walking tour in collaboration with the Western Front Way Charity along a newly formed 'via sacra' from the Swiss border in the south of France to the Northern coast to remember those who have fallen in past wars and those who are suffering in conflicts around the globe. You can find out more about the Western Front Way Walk 2018 here.