Following the Remembrance Trail of The Western Front
To travel is to enjoy the sites and spontaneous experiences of the present moment, yet for me it also plays a key role in understanding how the past has shaped them.
This year couldn’t be more poignant for this, since it marks The Great War Centennial – 100 years since France became the battlefield of one of the bloodiest wars in history during August 1914 to November 1918 that saw the deaths of over 10 million men from five continents.
In the northernmost regions of The Western Front I can retrace the steps of what I learnt in historical text since I was a child - a short journey from the UK to follow the history of the British Army during the Great War.
A rich and varied natural landscape of entirely rebuilt small towns surrounded by a blanket of rolling green, the area is not without a strong remembrance trail. Here, follow the marks of the front line where our forefathers hid in trenches and faced the most hostile of fire - from north of Paris at the borders of Belgium and Flanders fields, south towards Champagne and Lorraine.
Begin at The Somme
In between the trenches dug into the hilly landscape of Le Hamel and the destroyed former Medieval town of Ypres further north, is the site of the most well known and biggest of all the battles of the First World War – The Somme. Memorials stand in the surrounding towns and villages of Albert and Thiepval - places of German occupation, defence and heavy casualty – but one place to visit is the Historial of the Great War Museum in Péronne, built within an old medieval castle and displaying over 1500 objects.
The 1st July marks the 99th anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, where various ceremonies and commemorations will be taking place.
Remembering Strategic Arras
It’s not just the British and the French who are remembered. Every country has dedicated areas that honour the sacrifice of their men, including Germany, America and Canada, alongside Australia and New Zealand.
Above the Douai Plain stands the beautifully sculpted, 27m high whites pylons of the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada, honoring the more than 60,000 Canadians who lost their lives winning the Battle of Vimy Ridge that sparred the town of Arras from hostile fire. Some of the military tunnels and trenches have also been preserved so visitors can try to understand the conditions these soldiers faced.
The town of Arras became known as the starting place for a huge tactical offense that took place in April 1917, after the town burned to the ground by German artillery by the end of 1914 and the French and British commands decided on a common action to break through the German lines in an attack on the Chemin des Dames Road in Aisne. Here, the British Army dug two vast networks of tunnels through the old chalk quarries to the Front - the names given to the tunnels such as Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool bringing wartime memories even closer to home.
Today the Rendezvous at Wellington Quarry is open to the public and visitors can discover how the Allied soldiers prepared for the Battle of Arras and how they occupied their time while waiting to go into combat, which on 9th April 1917 saw 24,000 men to surge out of their underground hiding places and surprise the German lines.
New Memorials in Nord-Pas de Calais
New memorials are being erected as time passes and we continue to remember. The International Memorial to fallen soldiers during WWI in Nord-Pas de Calais is set to be one the largest in the world, paying homage to the 590,000 soldiers, friends and enemies of the past, who lost their lives on the battlefields there between 1914 and 1918.
Also in Nord-Pas de Calais will be a new venue with seven themed spaces, providing details on the events of the Great War in four languages. The "Lens 14-18" international remembrance centre opens on May 9th in Souchez and marks an important addition to the Remembrance Trails, where visitors can follow the route of soldiers from all nationalities who died in the region.
A very fitting tribute for the Centennial.
Enjoying the Present
While the region’s towns were rebuilt from the 1930’s from the ashes of complete annihilation, leaving places of battle and sacrifice as living memory via cemeteries and commemorative monuments, you can enjoy the mountainous plains and dense forests of the Vosges, a walk in the rocky outdoors haven of Aisne or a sparking white wine tour through the rolling hills of the famous Champagne region.
Soils of a tragic past that have given life to a present and future France we can all enjoy.