Ah France, how long it is since I have seen you. March, wasn’t it? Far too long to be parted from your fine wine and cheese. However, my jaunt across the channel this time couldn’t have been further from my romantic birthday trip to Paris. Whereas my last trip was full of pretty artwork and enchanting bookshops, this trip took me 100 years back in time to the worn torn trenches of WWI. Despite the radiant sunshine for the entirety of the trip, the mood as we walked through the silent headstones, righted fallen poppies, and stood amongst the cabbage patches underneath which a generation was unknowingly buried, was sombre. But it was also a fantastic, educational and worthwhile visit. Almost every family in Britain carries a scar of the Great War, having lost fathers, brothers, sons and friends, and for that reason 100 years on many will be making the pilgrimage across the channel to pay homage to those who died in what was one of the most horrific wars of history.
Given it is 2017 our trip primarily focused on the battles of 1917, specifically Cambrai, Bullecourt and Arras, though we did also visit many of the important sites of the Somme 1916 offensives too. For the history nerds who are reading this, it will seem a given, but for those who are less familiar I will quickly explain why we did so, and why I would recommend you do the same.
With over one million casualties the Somme is perhaps one of the most horrific battles of the war – it’s certainly the most known. Hollywood loves nothing more than to romanticise the horrors men as young as 14 faced, teachers real of the figures of human sacrifice from the first push to hammer home to children the true loss of the war, and the amount of memorials France has to the Somme alone turns the heart cold. However, the Somme also led to the largest capture of enemy territory since the start of the war two years previously, penetrating 6 miles further into France. Importantly for 1917, it set up the new front line and the battles of Arras, Cambrai and Bullecourt which were further allied victories.
These are just a few of the reasons the first day of our tour focused on the Somme. It gave a background to what the soldiers had seen only six months previously, had survived, only to go into what we would see in the following days. No battlefield tour is complete without a visit to Thiepval Memorial. As you round the gravelled path, the looming arched structure surrounded by poppies is rather beautiful. It is only when you get closer and realise every side is covered in names, does the real loss of the Somme hit you. Around 72,000 names are etched into the marble, to commemorate the lost. These are just the men whose bodies were never found, never returned to their native lands. There are further graves at the foot of the memorial of the unknown, bodies that were found but were so beyond recognition no name could be put to them. French and British, side by side, row upon row. You could spend hours here trawling through the names. What really struck me was the amount of families who were eradicated. Brothers often signed up together, or whole towns of friends, and in battles like the Somme it left households and villages without their entire male population. Efforts to split brothers and friends up came into play in order to reduce this problem later on, and Thiepval is a perfect illustration as to why this was a necessary step. If a whole family or local regiment were destroyed in one catastrophic battle, it would have harrowing consequences for after the war.
Some other recommendations for your day on the Somme would be the Devonshire Commonwealth Cemetery, which is a beautiful small burial site for some of the men killed during the Somme by Mametz. It’s quite a popular site with school trips and literature fans as this is the final resting place for quite a few WWI poets, such as Lt. William Noel Hodgson who wrote ‘Before Action’. From the sunken position of the cemetery you also get a beautiful view out over the rest of what was the Somme. Siegfried Sasson was positioned just over the top of the hill you’ll be able to see from here.
Newfoundland Memorial was one of my favourite stops along the Somme trip. Favourite sounds a bit morbid given what I was visiting on this trip, but if you visit you will see why. It’s beautiful. There are no harsh concrete constructions here to remember the dead. Wild flowers attract a mass of butterflies, the still visible trenches are slowly being reclaimed by mother nature, and alone in the flat lands that used to be no man’s land, stands a lonely tree who weathered the storm of the Somme. It feels wrong to call a spot where thousands died beautiful, but I personally prefer the more subtle memorials like this. It reminds me of many poems from the soldiers who would talk about how birds still flew, flowers still grew, how the sun shone, despite the horrors. With the knowledge of what happened in your mind, you appreciate the beauty of a place like Newfoundlands far more than you would back home. And, personally, I believe it does more to honour the fallen’s memory than to shed a tear or two.
Lochnagar Crater Memorial is another must see stop. It’s a lot nicer here since my last visit – which was in the pouring rain when I was 13 – when it was literally just a muddy whole in the ground. They’ve now built a proper walk way around here making it more accessible for those with disabilities, there’s toilets and even a small road side cafe. The crater measures 90 meters in diameter, 20 in depth, and was created when mines that were dug under the German lines was detonated before the first push of the Somme. It is a rather shocking physical reminder of how big an impact the war had on the land.
Now you’ve had a bit of background, the problems of 1917 will all become a bit clearer. There was several changes in staff, especially in the higher tiers of the French army, which had a big impact on the battles of 1917. I would also say 1917 was the year it became most obvious how important the Commonwealth effort was. With the Somme and the deaths of such a high number, the victims and survivors alike became faceless in a way. British became the universal label for the men of the British Isles and the Empire. In 1917 however, regiments from Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India and many more committed truly heroic deeds in the effort for victory.
I would start with Vimy Ridge. If, like me, you decide to do a quick trip around France and you stop off at Vimy this year you will have the honour of visiting this site not only on it’s 100th anniversary but the 150th anniversary of Canada’s confederation. The battle of Vimy is regarded by historians as the birth of Canadian nationalism which started their journey to becoming an independent country. You can take a tour of the tunnels the soldiers dug, and the walk to the striking memorial is pleasant in the summer – though you can drive. The tour guides are absolutely fantastic here and they are all volunteers from Canada. The passion and love and pure admiration they have for the history is intoxicating. As it is entirely free you have no excuse not to take advantage of their knowledge.
Vimy will take up a good portion of your day as there is so much to see and take in, so I would perhaps take it easy for the rest of the day or perhaps do this on one of your travelling days – either on your way to the hotel or home. Alternatively combine it with one of the other locations I’ve suggested for the other days.
I’m suggesting these sites are done together because a lot of the battles work well with one another and they are also very close to one another, so it limits your time in a car or on the coach. Start in Monchy-le-Preux, where is a tiny village you could almost blink and miss as you travel through. What happened here was probably one of the most upsetting things for me to hear given my love of horses. The town, which was held by Germans was won in an amazing performance of cavalry skill. It is one of the examples historians point to when saying the cavalry was still a valid and important part of the make up of the Allied forces. However, after the capture of the town it suffered heavy bombing from the Germans, who decided the town should be obliterated rather than held on. The attack saw the obliteration or abandonment of most of the cavalry forces. The Germans then attempted to take what remained of the town with their infantry but the line was held by just 12 Brits. It’s a fascinating story which is better told as you are standing where they stood so I shan’t go further than this.
Head then onto Bullecourt which is only a little further on. This is a good place to discuss the Hindenburg Line fighting and the struggles the allied forces faced here due to uncut wire, skewered reports, and lack of men. Again, it is an injustice for me to reel off the stories told here of the men but of particular note here is the work of the Australian regiments, who were the one group to break through the line on the designated day and take the German line. Command thought they were lost due to communication loss, but their sudden appearance at a later storming guaranteed a victory for the allies when it looked as though the Germans were about to win.
At the time of writing this Tank Deborah is probably on her way to her new home, but we were very fortunate to know Philippe, who is practically her lover, and so we were able to visit her before she was moved and have lunch in her shadow. Deborah is a Mark IV tank who was used in the battle of Cambrai – only three of her eight crew survived the fight. If you ever get a chance to visit, try and ensure you can talk to Philippe too, who found, excavated and then researched her history. You can actually visit the graves of the other five missing tank members right next to the new museum, and pay homage to them. It is a fantastic opportunity to see Deborah as so many of the tanks from WWI were scrapped or stolen to be reused in WWII. She is in near perfect condition apart from the gaping hole that caused her demise. She stormed the town she lives in during the battle of Cambrai and was destroyed by heavy German fire, then abandoned by her crew. Miraculously none of them actually died in the vehicle, but rather trying to make their way back to the British front line. You can even read the letters sent by the commander to the families of those who did not survive, and their harrowing story.
Explore the rest of Cambrai in the afternoon – there are lots of lovely peaceful cemeterys dedicated to different regiments and countrymen, and each one has a different story. We focused heavily on the commonwealth ones due to the group we were made up of, so I would advice doing a bit of research before you go.
Cambrai is in my opinion a very important battle which often gets overlooked by tourists. Historians, too, are guilty of dismissing the use of tanks in WWI but when you think of their importance in WWII it’s very interesting to see how their ancestors did in the first Great War. Whilst they were perhaps not the war winning pieces of technology politicians marketed them as, as you will learn from your time in the museums around here, the generals understood their value and the importance of them in future warfare. The use of tanks also developed industrial warfare, which is a very interesting area for military historians and hobbyists.
This is another one of those half days so again perhaps you can coordinate this to fall on your leaving or arriving day. We did it as we left France.
Firstly, Arras is a beautiful city and I would actually recommend staying here for the duration of the trip. It’s hard to imagine that the whole city had been completely razed to the ground during the war. Today, there are lovely hotels very well priced, the restaurants are fabulous, and drinking in the plaza feels like you’ve landed in one of those retro movies where artists perform on cobbled corners as people sip on martinis wearing big hats. But underneath the city is a network of tunnels dug throughout the war for the soldiers to get as close to the Germans as possible. In parts of the tunnel, the allies were so close to the Germans they could actually hear them singing. The Wellington Quarry allows you access to a section of these tunnels. In there you will see the drawings, the last minute etchings and prayers of the men who waited for the order to go over the top. You do get to wear a very cool WWI tin hat when you go under, but the merriment ends as soon as you descend into the tunnels. This is a very hard hitting and gruelling place to visit. The tourist center has done itself proud with the audio guide and visual clips of the men during the period. It gives you a flavour for what it would have been like for the men stuck down here at lengths of time.
After the emotional stories your guides will tell you of some of the men who lived and died down here, as you exit the tunnels Owen’s words from his poem hover above the exit:
“I am the Enemy you killed, my Friend.”
Tunnels often switched hands as one side gained the upper hand or the other re-took their sectors. Enemies would have found and see the intimate insights into their lives as they moved in. Pictures, prayers, notes to loved ones, names. Many men might have even left behind precious items in the hopes to return for it at a safer time. Owen’s words really hit home that on either side, these men were the same. They all had lives, loved ones, and truthfully they had no personal quarrel with each other. They might have been friends in another life, and they had to enter tunnels and see these snippets of the lives their bullets may well have ended.
On your way out of Arras, the Citadel is also worth a stop, which is another beautiful monument to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died defending Arras.
I hope this has given you the startings of a good trip, especially if you are interested in 1917. The brilliance of battlefield tours is that you can mix and match, so if you do find yourself having to pick the key parts to see if you want to reduce 1917 to a day, pick the ones I have hopefully given you a flavour too. It obviously also depends if you have a guide, as some of these places you cannot truly appreciate unless you have someone to tell you the stories. Based on that, if you do not have a guide, I would make sure to visit Vimy Ridge, Tank Deborah Museum and Arras’ Wellington Quarry. If you do have a guide, discuss with them the ones which fit in best with your routes in relation to your hotel location.
As always, I hope you enjoy your trip based on my recommendations. Perhaps, not as you would enjoy the trip to Paris, or my Road Trip around Ireland, but if you are a passionate historian you will enjoy the stories this land carries in its very soil now.
From 1917 with Love xoxo