WWI Battlefields – Somme, Arras and Ypres

Historians defined World War I as the first ‘worldwide conflict’. There is probably no better place to appreciate the multi-ethnic provenance of the two opposing formations than in the region between Amiens, France and Ypres, Belgium.

Along this sector of the front, which did not move much between 1914 and 1918, Germany alone fought against the allied forces of France and their mainly African colonies, Belgium and the British Empire, which included Britain, Canada, Newfoundland, India, Bermuda, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia. Even the Army of South Africa found its way to the battlefield of the Somme in 1916, and the United States contributed to the last battle of Ypres and to the final rush against the German positions in 1918.

The contributions of all these Nations are remarkably represented by memorials and war cemeteries, which since then point the map of this area remembering the history of those fateful years and the fierce battles which took place – most notably the Battle of the Somme, the three Battles of the Artois with the Battle of the Vimy Ridge, and the five Battles of Ypres.

The fury of the Somme offensive, which took place between July and November 1916 and procured 1.1 million casualties – including more than 300’000 killed – on both sides, meant the region is particularly dense in memorials, which in some instances include little sections of the once extensive labyrinth of trenches. Due to the quality of the soil, these trenches have largely disappeared here, differently from the case of the region of the St. Mihiel salient, south of Verdun (see this post). Besides the overwhelmingly high cost in lives of the few miles of terrain gained by the Entente, this battle is famous also for the first ever use of tanks.

The battles of the Artois for the control of the area north of Arras were fought between 1915 and 1917, and here was recorded one of the top average deaths-per-day rates of the war, in the order of 4’000 on the side of the Entente.

The town of Ypres found itself on the line of the front from the first offensive of the Germans, when they tried – and failed – to reach for the coast of the North Sea in 1914. The region south of there saw continuous action until the final ‘100 days’ campaign of 1918, which actually broke the German lines and convinced the Kaiser to withdraw his troops, putting and end to the war. Ypres is mostly famous for the first ever use of lethal gas to drive enemy soldiers out of the trenches. More than 400’000 soldiers were killed on that sector of the line of the front, during at least five massive operations scattered over four years of war.

This chapter presents some notable war sites in this extensive region, which is easily accessible between Paris and Brussels, and today well prepared for tourism and very nice to visit – a pleasant countryside with many small and picturesque villages. Photographs were taken in 2016, during the first centennial of the Offensive of the Somme.

Map

Instead of looking how to reach for each site listed below in its dedicated section, you can find here a comprehensive map where you can see their respective locations at a glance. None of these sites is difficult to reach, provided you have a car – the most time-effective way to move around in that region. You can find a parking nearby each point of interest.

Sights in the Somme

The battlefield of the Somme Offensive stretches roughly over a triangle between Amiens, Bapaume and Peronne. The offensive took place between July and November 1916, and was conceived to decrease the pressure of the Germans in the area of Verdun further southeast, where the French were facing the mighty blows of the German war machine. This offensive was operated by the British and French on two split parts of the sector.

This battle is among the most famous in WWI due to several reasons. One is the atrocious death toll on both sides in face of the very little motion of the front line, which was pushed some miles towards the east. It was also the first battle where the Kitchener’s Army saw serious combat – this name is attributed to the corps of the British Army formed as a result of the recruiting effort of the ministry of war of the time, Lord Kitchener, soon after the first phases of WWI. These mainly very young, non-professional soldiers participated in the thousands in this bloody offensive.

After the offensive, the front line remained stable roughly until 1918, with hostilities lasting in the area until the end of the war.

There are many commemorative monuments, cemeteries and museums on the area of the battlefield. A nice institutional website made for tourists and listing many sights is here. Further information on the British website here. I suggest devoting at least a full day moving around the area with a car without the need to rush. Most sites are open 24 hours, while museums and documentation sites clearly have opening times. The following are just some major sites which are surely worth visiting in this region.

Museum ‘Somme 1916’, Albert

This is the ideal starting point for the exploration of the battlefield of the Somme. The small town of Albert is just where the line of the front ran at the beginning of the battle of 1916. This proximity meant the village was on the line of fire of the artillery of both Germany and the Entente. As a result the village was largely destroyed during the war. The museum has been built in a tunnel under the local church, rebuilt in the 1920s. The tunnel was dug as an air shelter in the 1930s, in preparation for another war soon to strike in the region…

The exhibition has three highlights. The first is a vivid reconstruction of several portions of the trenches on the sides of the two opponents. Some special features including optical equipment and weapons of the respective formations are displayed. Shelters, medical rooms and firing positions are all part of the tour. Germany and the British Empire are especially represented, for together with the French on a lesser scale, they were the most involved in this bloody battle.

A map of the battle and some ‘war bulletins’ telling the number of shells shot and the number of casualties help understanding the huge cost of every inch of terrain gained by the Entente during the four months of the offensive.

Secondarily, many items left behind from the days of operations have been collected and are showcased. These include many weapons and shells, plus material dug out from the ground, like helmets, knives, pots, buckles, tags and even still branded canned food!

A collection of different fuses illustrates the many possible functions of the shells.

The third interesting feature of this place is of course a very realistic reinstatement – with lights and sounds – of the ‘environment’ of a trench during war operations. This is impossible to capture in pictures, but it is designed very well and makes for a very evocative introduction to a visit of the area.

The museum has its own website here.

Lochnagar Mine Crater, Boisselle

The first and most spectacular phase of the Somme Offensive was probably its very beginning. During the months preceding the attack – starting early in the morning of July 1st, 1916 – the British prepared a series of underground tunnels, coming close to the German positions, and stored a number of colossal mines there. The attack began at 7.00 am, with a shelling over the German positions so intense that it was heard in London. About 30 minutes in this firestorm, 19 mines placed beneath the German lines were detonated within a couple of minutes.

The first of these mines was responsible for the Lochnagar crater, about 450 ft across and 220 ft deep, and obtained firing some 27 tonnes of explosive! At the time it was the most intense and loudest ordnance ever fired. Today you can still appreciate the size of the crater as you walk all around it.

Pozières

A group of interesting memorials is located around the village of Pozières, which was geographically in the center of intense action. A small memorial of New Zealand can be found nearby the former place of observation bunker called ‘Gibraltar’. Only part of the foundations of this observation post can be seen today.

Another sight is the local Australian memorial, and the unusual memorial of the British Tank Corps, with miniature models of the tanks used in the battle.

Only about 30 tanks could take part to the offensive. Used in action nearby here for the first time in history, while possibly not decisive in this particular battle, tanks undeniably confirmed their potential in breaking through the enemy lines, without fearing the barbed wire obstacles and machine gun fire. Tanks were soon to be developed further, and participated in the last offensives of the war in the hundreds.

London Cemetery and Extension, Longueval

This cemetery is mainly dedicated to the British soldiers of the ‘London’ Division, mainly responsible for the conquer of the High Wood, a fiercely contended group of trees placed on top of a low hill, taken and lost several times in the battle of 1916. It is one of the largest among the many war cemeteries in the region.

It is composed of a smaller part built soon after the Somme Offensive, and of an extension added around the original nucleus, for more graves which came later during the war. Looking at the graves it is possible to notice that many of the soldiers buried there are unidentified – ‘A Soldier Known Unto God’ is the inscription you find often times.

The cemetery was enlarged again years later after WWII, as more British soldiers were lost in the war against Hitler’s Germany in the area.

Delville Wood South African National Memorial, Longueval

This memorial has been erected in the 1920s on a land assigned in perpetuity to South Africa by the French government of the time. The memorial is the main WWI monument to the Army of South Africa in Europe, commemorating their service and the death of more than 10’000 throughout the war.

A British cemetery can be found cross the road, facing the South African monument, where a further memorial to the troops of New Zealand can be reached nearby following the local indications.

Thiepval Memorial, Thiepval

The grandest memorial in the battlefield of the Somme, Thiepval was completed in the early 1930s and inaugurated by the Prince of Wales and the president of France to commemorate the soldiers of the British Empire who died in the area and whose burial site is unknown. More than 72’000 names are graven on the sides of the memorial.

The memorial serves as a joint French-British monument, and a number of soldiers of both nationalities are buried nearby.

Close to the memorial there is an interesting documentation site, with a very vivid and modern pictorial reconstruction of the trenches.

The location on top of a hill on the very battlefield of the Somme Offensive makes this place really evocative, notwithstanding the many tourists.

Auchonvillers

Not far from Thiepval it is possible to find the village of Auchonvillers, where on private land – actually in the garden of a local teahouse – there is a small part of a preserved covered trench.

In the vicinity of the village it is easy to spot the Ulster Tower. This was built in the 1920s to commemorate the contribution of the ‘Ulster’ Division of Northern Ireland, and is an almost exact copy of a tower in Bangor, Ulster.

Not far between Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel, one of the countless smaller monuments is a Celtic Cross bearing the inscription ‘Cruachan’, the war cry of the Campbell clan. It commemorates a number of Scottish Divisions fighting in the battle.

The Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont-Hamel

This is one of the largest preserved trenches of the Somme area, and one of the only two Canadian historic landmarks out of mainland Canada. The park has original trenches on display, some of them preserved, some today barely visible. The site commemorates the action of the Newfoundland Regiment, which had one of the highest casualties tolls of the war, being reduced to less than 20% in the first day of combat during the Battle of the Somme – almost 700 casualties.

A 1:1 size statue of a caribou, the mascot of that territory which at the time was not part of Canada, is prominently standing on top of a hill in the park. Scattered around are other monuments, two small cemeteries and the ‘Danger Tree’, a copy of a dead tree originally standing there and helping the German artillery adjusting the sight and better directing their fire, thus causing more casualties in the nearby spot.

Red Baron’s Crash Site, Vaux sur Somme

The site of the crash of Manfred von Richtofen, aka ‘The Red Baron’, is in a field nearby Vaux sur Somme.

There is only a small placard on the road, remembering the fatal crash due to Australian machine gunfire. This happened in April 1918 though, much after the end of the Somme Offensive in summer-fall 1916.

Australian National Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

This is the main commemoration site of the Australian troops in WWI in Europe. It was erected here due to the proximity with the sector of the front assigned to Australia during and after the offensive of 1916. A successful battle was fought there in 1918, in the final months of the war.

It was the last major commemorative monument to be completed in the area, being unveiled in the late 1930s at the presence of King George VI. Also men from the air force are commemorated and buried there. The names of thousands of soldiers without a grave are listed on the sides of the monument.

While the architecture was somewhat contested at the time, the location is gorgeous, overlooking the southern area of the battlefield of the Somme. The monument was hit during WWII, and traces of the bullets can be seen on the side slabs of the monument.

Australian Corps Memorial, Le Hamel

This monument commemorates the effort of the forces of the Entente in the battle taking place here in summer 1918, when the war was still fiercely raging in the area notwithstanding the approaching end. The monument has been erected close to a small section of trenches, of which traces can be seen nearby. Flags of some of the participants to the struggle on the side of the Entente are present.

When I visited there were some poppies in a field nearby the monument. Poppy flowers, rather common in the region, were the only flowers on the devastated no man’s land between the adversary trenches. These flowers came to represent the sacrifice especially of the British soldiers, and the poppy was adopted as an official symbol of war veterans in the 1920s.

Sights in the Artois

The French city Arras in the heart of the region of the Artois found itself on the front line as it got stabilized already in 1914. Three bloody offensives which caused the French huge losses were launched in the region in 1915. The front moved a few miles forth and back, without any decisive breakthrough on either side. In April 1917 a major battle was fought in the area, which led to the conquer of the Vimy Ridge. At that time, the British had taken over responsibility for that sector of the front. The area is especially famous for the underground tunnels, dug by both opponents to place mines and for sheltering and storage purposes, thanks to the soft chalky soil typical of the region.

Wellington Quarry, Arras

These tunnels were carved in central Arras mainly by men of the New Zealand Tunneling Company, who included enlisted natives from the Pacific islands. Works were started from an existing quarry. Some areas are really spacious, while parts of the extensive tunnel network are narrow and made only for trolleys. Original inscriptions can be seen on the walls, as well as everyday items collected by archaeologists.

The quarry is managed by a local society and can be visited on guided tours. Full information here.

Memorial and Commemorative Park, Vimy

This large area, now belonging to Canada, surrounds the Vimy Ridge, where the homonym battle was fought in 1917, leading to the conquer of this piece of territory by the Entente. Actually, the uncontested protagonists of this offensive were the Canadian Divisions. Many soldiers coming from different territories of Canada overwhelmed the German defenses in a well prepared and coordinated attack. Together with the Newfoundland memorial in the Somme (see above), these are the only two Canadian national landmarks outside of mainland Canada. There is a visitor center with Canadian Rangers, offering information and guided tours.

A first part of the site is composed of a preserved group of trenches, which are partly open-air and partly underground. The extensive network of tunnels in the area was prepared in advance, and provided a protected area for billeting troops as well as for storing materials, goods and medical facilities. Visiting the underground part is possible only on guided tours.

Surface trenches are have been refurbished, but the majority of the grounds are preserved in the sense that nobody is allowed to walk on them, also for the very high danger bound to unexploded ordnance – warning signs can be found almost everywhere. You can still see strange grooves in the ground, either grenade craters or trenches.

The most visible part of the site is the Vimy Memorial, built right on top the Vimy Ridge and inaugurated in the mid 1930s by King Edward VIII and the French president. It commemorates the service of the Canadian Divisions in Europe during WWI. Thousands of names of Canadian soldiers lost and whose burial is unknown are listed on the monument, which is a fine example of architecture from the time.

German War Cemetery, Saint-Laurent-Blangy, Arras

Despite the most visited are the war memorials and the annexed cemeteries of the Entente, all along the front are also a number of German war cemeteries. One is located close by a more apparent British cemetery northeast of Arras, along a road called Chemin de Bailleul.

The smaller number of cemeteries and an equal number of soldiers killed meant German war cemeteries are more crowded. In this small cemetery about 22’000 mostly unknown soldiers are buried. Some of the gravestones tell about the Jewish ethnicity of some of these German soldiers.

Sights around Ypres

Moving north from the Somme along the line of the front, passing Arras and crossing the border with Belgium, the very nice and relaxing countryside would not easily recall the deadly battles fought in the area during the full scope of WWI. The city of Ypres was involved in five great offensives between 1914 and 1918 – sometimes associated also to other ‘official names’ by historians – and similarly the salient to the east and south of the town, stretching over the Flanders region to the border with France, was fiercely contended for the duration of the war.

‘In Flanders Fields’ Museum, Ypres

An excellent starting point for the exploration of the WWI sites around Ypres is this modern museum, located in the central square of the beautiful medieval town of Ypres. Actually, the exhibition can be found in a medieval building once hosting a kind of stock exchange, among the oldest in the world.

The museum starts from setting the scene and telling about WWI. Further on, the focus is on the German offensive in Belgium in 1914, and the actions around the town of Ypres, where French, Belgian, British and later American forces were active against the Army of the Kaiser.

The museum is very modern, you are given a special bracelet giving access to multimedia explanations along the self guided tour. Visiting may take more than 1 hour if this is the first site of the kind you are visiting, may be less if you go with some preparation concerning WWI facts in the area. Full information here.

Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres

The Menin Gate was originally one of the gates of the town of Ypres, fortified by Vauban in the 17th century, along the road going to the village of Menen. Incidentally, this was the gate through which many of the soldiers billeted in Ypres and going to the trenches nearby were to walk through. The location was chosen to be transformed into a memorial for the troops of the British Empire. This was unveiled in the 1920s, and more than 54’000 names of soldiers of the British Empire lost in the battles around the Ypres salient without a grave are listed.

A short commemoration ceremony – the ‘Last Post’ ceremony – is celebrated every evening at 8 pm by the gate.

British War Cemeteries, Ypres

Similar to the battlefield of the Somme, many war cemeteries can be found in the region around Ypres. At least one of them can be found in the medieval town, with a scenic view of the moat running around the ancient fort. As typical, some graves belong to unidentified soldiers.

Memorial Museum ‘Passchendaele 1917’, Zonnebeke

The battle of Passchendaele was an offensive carried out by the forces of the British Empire with the support of the French between July and November 1917. Often identified as the Third Battle of Ypres, it turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles on this front, where a gain of around five miles in favor of the Entente was paid with about 520’000 casualties, equally shared between the two opponents.

In the town of Zonnebeke it is possible to find a very well designed museum and memorial of this battle. Besides showing the facts of the battle and the devastating effects in the area, the museum has on display a huge collection of original war equipment, including an incredible collection of different types of shells.

Another uncommon sight is typical WWI gear – gas masks. As a matter of fact, Ypres is associated to the first ever use of poisonous gas in military history. This is not accurate, since poisonous gases had been used in more instances since ages, and actually had been banned by international agreements in the early 20th century. Furthermore, the first irritant gases was used with limited effects by both the French and Germans earlier in 1914. Yet it was during the Second Battle of Ypres in April-May 1915 that the Germans attacked with a specifically designed and mass-scale produced chlorine gas, turning what had been an expedient into a new substantial part of their arsenal. Chlorine gas, with a distinctive brownish appearance, is very effective against the lungs and other mucosa membranes, and being heavier than air it forced men to leave the trenches where it had been poured.

Soon after the introduction of lethal gas by the Germans, the Entente started producing similar weapons. More and more gases were experimented with, but also the corresponding countermeasures. Gas masks became part of the regular equipment of soldiers since the first attacks. These were very effective too, but filters were made to measure with respect to specific gases, so they had to evolve as new gases were used. Furthermore, gas masks were heavy, they limited sight and motion, and made breathing much more difficult. Plus they did not offer protection against skin burning gases. So, while casualties due to gas attacks turned out to be high but not outrageous at least in face of what had been expected by their designers, the use of gas contributed in changing the face of the war, and made things harder especially for the morale of the troops, which started feeling much more vulnerable even when crouched in their trenches.

In the museum you can see a collection of original models of gas masks, and you are provided a description of the appearance, effects and even a reproduction of the smell of the most widespread gases used during WWI. There are also reconstructed dugouts and underground shelters where you can move in, to experience their small size.

The open-air part offers a reconstruction of a section of the original system of trenches, including some typical features like wooden or metal reinforcements. Many interesting technical details are provided during the visit.

There is also an American prefabricated house from the time, representing many similar items which were provided by the US following the end of WWI to help civilians after the devastation brought by the war in the area.

This very nice and modern museum is very easily accessible, full information here.

Tyne Cot War Cemetery, Zonnebeke

This is one of the largest war cemeteries of the British Empire in the world, totaling more 11’900 graves from WWI. The majority of these men were lost during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917. Before completion of its monumental part, the site was visited by King George V back in the early 1920s.

The walls of the cemetery include two blockhouses, originally parts of the German rear lines and conquered during the actions of 1917. The place is associated also to a small and modern visitor center. Website here.

German Trenches ‘Bayernwald’, Heuvelland

This open-air park is centered on a section of refurbished and preserved trenches of the German Army, originally occupied by the divisions of Bayern. Not far from this site it is possible to see the craters of two German mines.

The site is really interesting to visit. Entrance is at a small fee, but tickets are on sale by the local Tourist Office in the small village of Kemmel, about four miles from the actual site.

Along the road connecting the two, it is possible to spot a memorial for the troops of two American Divisions who fought in this area.

Christmas Truce Memorial, Comines-Warneton

This site is just one of the points where this unique event took place on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day 1914. In the days before Christmas, the Germans had started putting candles on the rims of the trenches and singing carols, which were heard by the British, who on their turn started singing similar carols in their language. An unofficial de facto ceasefire became effective, during which soldiers from both sides started fraternizing, taking pictures of each other, exchanging trinkets and even playing football. Some corpses were removed from no man’s land by both opposing formations. There was no artillery fire in many sectors of the front, especially those around Ypres.

This happened only in 1914 though, when it was thought at least among the troops on both parts, that the war would not last long. Later in 1915 actions started getting bloodier and it was realized that the war would cost much more and would last much longer than expected, and even this little shred of humanity was lost in the firestorms.

What you see is just a preserved piece of opposed trenches, really close to each other in this sector, and a British war cemetery nearby.

Ploegsteert Memorial and ‘Plugstreet 14-18 Experience’, Ploegsteert

This nice commemorative monument of the British was built for the more than 11’000 soldiers lost in the nearby sector of the front between 1914 and 1918 whose burial site is unknown. A Last Post ceremony is held here once per week.

Besides the museum there is a small war cemetery and a modern documentation center, mainly centered on multimedia exhibits telling the facts of this sector of the front in WWI, and trying to describe the everyday experience of those fighting in the trenches. Full website here.

Not far north, moving towards the border Ypres, it is possible to spot the Irish Peace Tower of Messines, built close to the homonym ridge where a battle was fought. This tower commemorates the sacrifice of those from the Irish Island in WWI. It was unveiled in 1998 at the presence of the Queen Elizabeth II, the President of Ireland and the King of Belgium. The design recalls that of a round tower, some of which can be found in Ireland. The stones for construction were transported from the ‘Green Island’.

Extra feature: WWI Commemoration Monument, Detmold, Germany

Touring the nice city of Detmold, not far west from Hannover, I could spot a commemorative monument to the local division of the German Army, dedicated to the soldiers killed in action during WWI. Many campaigns named after the homonym sites in northern France and Belgium are listed on the sides of the monument.

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