Remembrance Tourism in Nord Pas de Calais
I start to look out for poppy sellers at the end of October each year. Like so many English people I proudly mark Remembrance Day - genuinely glad to display my gratitude and respect, a century on, to the millions of soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the First World War so that future generations of Europeans could live in freedom.
Also like many Brits, I use that hard won freedom to travel, yet I spent years thinking that the Nord Pas de Calais region of France was surely too close to, and too easily accessible from England to be worth lingering in. Instead, I’d disembark a ferry in Calais or Boulogne and speed off somewhere more obscure.
But travel teaches you to challenge your preconceptions and look in the most unexpected as well as the most obvious places for inspiration. I learned that right on our doorstep, an easy 35-minute journey from Dover via the Eurotunnel lies the Côte d’Opale, offering plenty to delight - from Michelin-starred restaurants to world class beaches, as well as a lifetime’s worth of impactful history.
So beyond the symbolic donning of the poppy this year, it is worth considering making the short journey to discover the fascinating sites and moving stories that lie along the Remembrance Trails of Northern France.
There are four main trails, each with multiple monuments and memorials, which define the events of the war and that helped shape the landscape of our closest neighbour - including the easiest to reach from Blighty, the trail of the Allies Base on the Channel Coast.
I may have studied the poem Dulce Et Decorum Est at school, as well as other works by war poet Wilfred Owen, who is buried at Ors Communal Cemetery, close to Cambrai, but that’s as far as my own history with the great men of the Great War extends.
However if you think your own ancestors may have fought, you can call on a network of specially trained tourism professionals to help you re-trace their footsteps in the region.
For anyone with French ancestry, the obvious place to start would be the French National War Cemetery at Notre-Dame de
Lorette. The largest site of French war graves in the country – some 20,000 graves marking 42,000 soldier burials – it commemorates those who lost their lives on this so-called ‘hill of 100,000 deaths’.
But no matter your ancestry, you can’t fail to be moved by the newly unveiled Ring of Remembrance which, for the first time ever, lists all 579,606 of the war dead from this area, in strict alphabetical order, regardless or rank or nationality.
Some were once enemies, others once comrades, but now all are remembered equally by a unified Europe. Yet one section of the 328-metre ring of concrete appears balanced on its hilly setting, perhaps as a metaphor for the delicate nature of peace.
If you prefer to learn in a hands-on fashion rather than in a metaphorical sense, a visit to the Earth and Steel, Archaeology of the Great War exhibition in the Arras Casino will bring the front lines to life by introducing you to the realities of bruised helmets, shards of shrapnel and weathered gas masks.
Or head to the nearby Wellington Quarries – the only surviving accessible example of two vast concealed underground tunnel networks which were designed in 1917 to give Allied troops a place from which to emerge for battle at Arras, thereby allowing the all-important element of surprise.
Each tunnel dug was named after the city which the soldiers had once called home - including Glasgow, Manchester and Liverpool; perhaps the most poignant reminder for us that we make the journey from our own British cities by choice to explore and learn, a freedom which these soldiers won for us, but were not able to enjoy for themselves.