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Visiting the Somme Battlefields - The Remembrance Trail of the Great War


Happy 2021 everyone! And welcome back to our travel blog. Luckily, we were able to celebrate Christmas and New Year's in Thomas' parents and, as we miss traveling so much (fingers crossed this year it will be better), we looked for local interesting places to visit while still complying with the safety measures to avoid the virus' spread. We found an option that, though not so cheerful, is undeniably fascinating... 

 

I already mentioned this in previous posts, but for those of you who are new to our blog, Thomas comes from the North part of France, more precisely from a department called Somme. This region, due to its proximity with the the UK and the English Channel, has always been turbulent: from vikings invasion to WWII, this territory has always been a strategic area to control. There was a specific conflict which left the deepest marks on this region: World War I. Somme was the site of a series of battles (the most significant one being the Battle of the Somme) that left bitter imprints on the region though with a great historical importance, especially for those passionate about WWI history.

 

The Remembrance Trail is an itinerary built to link the important landmarks of the Somme Battlefields. It goes from the town of Albert to Péronne and honors the memory of all the brave men from all over the world, who gave their life on the "war to end all wars".





HISTORY

The First World War started in August 1914 with a fast German Offensive. The German Army invaded Luxembourg, Belgium and northern France on an attempt to encircle the French Army, trapping it on the German border and rapidly neutralising the French forces on the west to focus on the eastern threat from Russia. However, when the German Army was almost reaching Paris, the French and British troops were able to bring it to a halt at the First Battle of the Marne in September 1914, forcing a German retreat which defined the next 3 years of war.

 

With the retreat, the Germans started establishing a static front system to hold its grounds while the French and British army decided to go on with a counter-offensive manoeuvre: quickly extend the war trench system from the French-Swiss border to the North Sea. This frantic strategy of opposing armies to hold their ground by building military trenches on their fronts was known as the Race for the Sea and formed, between September and October 1914, an uninterrupted line of entrenched positions for both armies. From this point on, the trench warfare begins with each side starting battles to gain terrain from one another and advance its lines.

Caribou Monument in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Caribou Monument in Beaumont-Hamel
Serre Road Cemetery No 2 (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Serre Road Cemetery No 2

The deadliest of these battles was the Battle of the Somme. After nearly losing an important fort in Verdun to the Germans, the French army was focused on defending it so it was left mainly to British forces to start an attack elsewhere to relieve the pressure on the French army holding the city. On July 1916, they went ahead with previous plans of a massive attack around the 40-km front of the Somme river in a series of battles involving a total of 3 million soldiers, part of which was formed by their colonial troops. After more than 4 months of campaign and advancing only 15 km on German ground, the death toll on both sides reached 1.2 million, with the British Army heaviest loss of men recorded for a single day: more than 57.000 casualties.

 

1917 was the decisive year for the Allies forces. With the invention of the mass tank attacks by the British and the troops reinforcement brought by the United States declaring war on Germany, the German forces were under a heavy attack and its resources started depleting rapidly. Even the armistice signed with Russia in March 1918 was not enough to hold the German lines on the Western front. The German troops started retreating and surrendering after the Hundred Days Offensive held by the Allies which led to the signature of an armistice on 11 November 1918, later known as the Armistice Day.

Trenches in the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Trenches in the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

HOW TO GET TO THE SITES?

The Somme Battlefields are located 150 km north of Paris and 100 km south of Lille and are best visited by car as it is not easy to reach them by public transportation. That's why we highly recommend you to rent a car and follow the Remembrance Trail for a whole day. However, if you do not have a vehicle, it is still possible to visit these sites by train. Please note that bus connections are difficult and that not so many of them run in this rural area of the Somme region.

 

The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial is located about 35 km north of Amiens and 10 km north of Albert:

  • From Amiens: train to Amiens and then taxi ride to the site. Taxi fare to the site: approximately 100 EUR return.
  • From Albert: train to Albert and then taxi ride to the site. Taxi fare to the site: approximately 50 EUR return.

The Thiepval Memorial is located about 35 km north of Amiens and 8 km north of Albert:

  • From Amiens: train to Amiens and then taxi ride to the site. Taxi fare to the site: approximately 100 EUR return.
  • From Albert: train to Albert and then taxi ride to the site. Taxi fare to the site: approximately 50 EUR return.

We highly advise you to reach the city of Albert by train as it has cheaper options to reach the Somme Battlefields. You could also spend one night in this little town and take the opportunity to visit the incredible underground Somme 1916 Museum of Albert.

Thiepval Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Thiepval Memorial

THE REMEMBRANCE TRAIL

1. Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial

Prepare yourself to visit Canada without taking a plane. Back during the war, Newfoundland was a British Empire dominion and, when the UK declared war on Germany, regiments from all the Commonwealth were brought to fight the war too as British units. After a hasty training and a brief experience in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey, the Newfoundland Regiment was sent to the Western front to help with the "Big Push" planned by the Allies for 1916.

 

On July 1st, in Beaumont-Hamel, the Allies troops began their advance across the No Man's Land hoping to gain German territory and force a retreat in what was considered the opening of the Battle of the Somme. However, due to Germans having intel on the coming attack and the Allied bombardment failing to properly damage German defences, the Allies troops advancing on broad daylight were an easy target to German gunfire and this first attack was a slaughter to Allies army. The Newfoundland Regiment was practically wiped out on this day: from the 800 men, only 68 were able to present themselves on the following day.

 

For their bravery and sacrifice, the people of Newfoundland purchased a terrain of the battlefields site in 1921 and built the Newfoundland Beaumont-Hamel Memorial Park to honor the memory of their Newfoundlanders compatriots who lost their lives in the First World War. The park is the largest preserved area of Somme battlefield and one of the most fascinating WWI memorials in Europe.

 

Opening hours - 11 a.m. - 7 p.m. | Admission - free of charge (guided visits with Canadians volunteers possible) |

The trenches and the Caribou monument
The trenches and the Caribou monument
Caribou Monument in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Caribou Monument
Trenches in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Rafael in one of the many trenches

The Newfoundland Memorial is one of the few still well preserved scenarios of WWI where we can still witness some typical battlefields of this war. The main highlights are:

  • Caribou Monument and the Newfoundland Regiment Memorial: this is the most touching homage to the Newfoundlanders who fell during the Battle of the Somme. The bronze caribou statue was chosen because it was the regiment's emblem and it stands defiantly at the top of a 15-meter Newfoundland granite monolith and surrounded by native Newfoundland plants. From the top, there is a vantage point to observe the battlefield where many of the honored soldiers fell. At the base of the monolith, there are three bronze panels listing all the Newfoundlanders missing.
  • Preserved trenches and the battlefields: it is still possible to  clearly see and even walk through the Allies war trenches and have an idea of how the trench warfare was. The trenches were actually built out in as a zigzagging path so if a bomb was to fall in the trench, the explosion could be contained and not cause big damages. There is also a marked path taking us across the No Man's Land (and ending on the German front on the Y Ravine) where we can spot all the metal structure which used to support the barbed wire for the defense of the trenches.
  • Danger Tree: the battlefield here was downhill, exposing the Allies troops to the German gunfire as they were running down trying to gain terrain. Midway down the No Mans' Land, there was a tree where many of the Newfoundlanders found their end on the disastrous battle on July 1st 1916. This tree is thought to still be standing to this day and is known as the Danger Tree.
  • War Cemeteries and other memorials: besides the Caribou Monument, there are four other memorials and cemeteries dedicated to the memory of the men who died in this battleground, many of them buried as unknown soldiers.
No Man's Land and the Danger Tree in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
No Man's Land and the Danger Tree
Hunter's Cemetery in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Hunter's Cemetery
Trenches in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Other trenches
Y Ravine Cemetery in Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Y Ravine Cemetery

2. Ulster Tower

One of the first memorials to be built in the Western front, this 20-meter tower honors the men of 36th Division which came from Ulster, a province in the North of Ireland. It is a replica of Helen's Tower which stands in the grounds of Clandeboye Estate (Northern Ireland), the training site of many of the soldiers of this division before going to war.  The 36th Division was responsible for capturing an important German strongpoint on the first day of the Battle of the Somme but was not able to fully hold position due to a German counter attack and ended up suffering more than 5000 casualties only on that day.

 

Around the grounds and inside the tower itself, there are some interesting war-related memorabilia retrieved from the battlefield worth checking. The trees flanking the path to the tower were planted by survivors of the 36th Division.

 

Opening hours - 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. (closed on Mondays) | Admission - free of charge

Ulster Tower in Thiepval (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Ulster Tower

3. Thiepval Memorial

This is definitely the most impressive war memorial of the region. Thiepval is a town which was taken by the Germans in 1914 and transformed since then into a stronghold in the Somme front with multiple machine guns and a heavy defense system protecting their trenches. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, British forces aimed to defy those defenses in order to relieve the pressure the French army was suffering on the Verdun front.

 

However, they did not expect it to be as difficult as it was and July 1st ended up to be the bloodiest battle day with almost 60.000 casualties for the British army on a single day. The plan to take the German post on one day ended up lasting more than two and a half months as the Allies only succeeded to occupy the area in September 1916 and the Battle of the Somme officially ended only in the following November.

Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)
The impressive Thiepval Memorial
Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)
All four pillars are covered with names

The Thiepval Memorial, also know as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, is composed of a massive arched structure with 16 thick pillars depicting panels with the names of more than 72,000 men of the United Kingdom and South African regiments who died in the Somme area and have no know grave: the missing, 90% of them have fallen during the Battle of the Somme. This is the biggest and maybe the most touching of the Memorials of the Missing and visiting it is definitely a moving experience while beholding the battlefields laying below it, the place of so many deaths.

 

In front of the Memorial, lays a joint British-French Cemetery with 300 burials for each army in recognition of the joint efforts of these two nations in the Western front (looking down on the cemetery the French graves are on the left while the Commonwealth ones on the right). The cemetery was made after the Memorial had been constructed on the very own hill that was the site of the death of many of these soldiers who were trying to reach the German outpost located at the top, where the Memorial majestically stands nowadays.

 

There is a Visitor Center with more information about the war, Thiepval and the missing soldiers immortalised by the Memorial. The displays, audio-visual presentation and photographies help us to picture how the site looked during the battles and to understand a bit of the history of the battles on the Western front.

Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)
The Unknowns’ Cemetery
Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)
Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval Museum (WWI Somme Battlefields)

4. Lochnagar Crater

This is one of the most shocking sites of the First World War giving the dimensions of how it wiped down the landscape of the Western front area. This is the largest man-made mine crater of the Western Front, measuring 91 meters in diameter and 21 meters deep; it is also the only mine crater still accessible to visitors. The British Army's 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers laid a mine underneath a German strongpoint known as Schwaben Höhe which exploded two minutes before Zero Hour of the launch of the British offensive on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. The bodies of German soldiers probably still lay on this area.

 

The terrain where the crater is located was bought and turned into a private-owned memorial for all the people whose lives were affected by the Great War. It is possible to walk around the crater on a pathway installed on its edge and read about the history of this dramatic site on the plaques available. Be careful to stay on the path since there is still danger of explosion of unknown artifacts.

Lochanagar Crater (La Boisselle)
Lochanagar Crater

5. Somme 1916 Museum of Albert

If visiting the battlefields and memorials above was not enough for you to feel immersed in the history of World War I, this museum in the city of Albert will certainly do the trick! Albert was a stronghold for the Allies behind their frontlines of the Somme region and, as such, it was a strategic point for the Germans to try to capture which they briefly did. As a result, the city suffered multiples attacks while dominated by both armies and was almost completely destroyed. This is famously depicted by an iconic picture of the statue of the Golden Virgin hanging from the top of the local basilica. 

 

The Somme 1916 Museum will take you on a real experience of how life was on the trenches. It is built in tunnels 10 meters underground which actually date from the XIII century but were used as air-raid shelters for the Second World War. The exhibit recreates and gives a very good idea of how the daily lives of soldiers were in the trenches of the Somme battlefields with images, videos, sound effects and many real memorabilia of World War I. If you have the chance, do not miss it as it is one of the best museum experiences we've ever had!

 

Opening hours - 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. | Admission - 7.50 EUR


OUR VERDICT

For those passionate about the history of the First World War or who have ancestors who fought on the war and would like to learn more about it, the Somme is a region rich in history of the Western front battles. Although it is a somber and sad subject, the Remembrance Trail stands as a homage to those who fell on this battle and as a memory to alert us about the horrors of wars.

The Stone of Remembrance adorned with poppy flowers in Thiepval Memorial (WWI, Somme Battlefields)
The Stone of Remembrance adorned with poppy flower - A powerful symbol of remembrance

And now it's your turn to let us know what you think about the Remembrance Trail in the Somme. Have you every visited one of the sites? We look forward to reading your comments in the section below.


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Tags: France