Remembrance and Commemoration in Tranquil Northeastern France
As the 100th anniversary of the Great War is upon us, many are traveling to pay homage to the sacrifices made by our ancestors for peace and freedom. This anniversary is particularly poignant to me, as it was WWI that first brought me to live in France, working as a guide at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, the site of a decisive victory along the Western Front in April 1917. However, the years leading up to this victory were marked by intense battles, the memory of which, and of those of the fallen, today lives on at dozens of commemorative sites dotting the now tranquil terrain of Northeastern France. If you’re planning a visit the area, the city of Reims provides a good base, which also allows you to discover two other elements of the region’s heritage: its famous bubbly and gothic cathedral.
A useful start to your touring could be the Somme 1916 Museum, located in Albert. It was a British garrison town during the Battle of the Somme and one of the war’s worst with 350,000 British, another 270,000 Allied casualties and the quasi-obliteration of the town. Rebuilt post-war, with the threats of yet another war on the horizon in the late 1930s, the town expanded on existing medieval tunnels to create shelters and later reinvented as this museum. On display are artefacts, archival photos and reconstructed scenes of daily life in the trenches. Don’t leave without seeing the new Gallery of Heroes, representing the lives of nine outstanding soldiers.
On the outskirts of Albert is one of the main British WWI commemorative sites, the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. Unveiled in August 1932, the brick and stone archway is engraved with the names of over 72,000 members of the British and South African forces who died in the Somme sector and have no known grave. In the shadow of the memorial is a small cemetery containing equal numbers of Commonwealth and French graves.
On a much smaller scale, but equally moving, is the nearby Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. At the outbreak of WWI the Canadian province of Newfoundland was still a separate dominion, thus its regiment was integrated into the British army. The battle was devastating for them with 684 casualties of the 798 ranks deployed into the trenches. The recently built visitors’ centre gives more information on the battle and the regiment, but it’s by touring the park’s rolling landscape, created by bombs and explosion craters, that you can really feel the consequences of the battle.
If you have time to push on a little further, you’ll reach Verdun. Though fighting took place here during the whole four years of the war, the battle of Verdun, lasting most of 1916, led to nearly 300,000 French and German soldiers missing, their remains resting in the poignant Douaumont Ossuary. In late 2015 you may also be able to visit the Memorial of Verdun, currently undergoing vast centennial renovations to expand on its exhibits presenting both the French and German points of view.
Once you make your way to Reims, you’ll come to a fairly modern city, as it and its heritage suffered extensive damage in WWI - one of the destructive prices of war. However, the fabulous cathedral has since regained its splendour, celebrated in the evening show "Dream of Colours" with lights projected on its facade, harking back to medieval times when churches were painted. You can reflect on this and the themes of reconstruction, commemoration and peace over a glass of Reim’s finest champagne in one of the cafés lining the square.