This year marks the centenary of World War I – 100 years since the beginning of one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, which claimed the lives of more than 37 million people in just over four years. Co-author of the Bradt guide to World War I Battlefields, Emma Thomson describes a four-day tour of the memorials, battlefields, cemeteries and museums of northern France and Belgium – easily accessed by Kenya Airways’ new Dreamliner flights to Paris
At its peak, the line of First World War trenches known as the Western Front stretched all the way from the North Sea to the Swiss border. Either side of this line, dozens of museums, memorials and cemeteries remember those who fought and died in the Great War. Between 2014 and 2018, World War I centenary celebrations and remembrances will be taking place across the world, but nowhere with more verve than in France and Belgium where many of the battles were played out. The following itinerary visits some of the key locations.
From Paris, start by driving one hour, 20 minutes north, along the A16, to the historic city of Amiens. Famous for its unscathed 13th-century Gothic cathedral, it’s also the ideal base from which to explore the surrounding Somme battlefields.
Forty minutes to the northeast, via the town of Albert, is the Thiepval Memorial and Visitor Centre (www.historial.org) – the largest British war memorial in the world. Its massive 45m-high arches are inscribed with the names of more than 72,000 British and South African soldiers who died in battles between July 1915 and March 1918 and have no known graves. Located a few hundred metres from the memorial, the contemporary visitor centre explains how and why the vast edifice was erected, as well as giving an overview of World War I. Computer databases are also available for those researching an individual soldier.
The Somme landscape bears numerous battle scars, but the most shocking and staggering is Lochnagar Crater (www.lochnagarcrater.org), a ten-minute drive south of Thiepval, via the D929, in Ovillers-la-Boiselle. Caused by British mines exploding at the very outset of the Somme Offensive, it is 91m wide and 21m deep – the largest wartime crater ever created.
Drive just 13 minutes east, along the D20, and you reach the village of Longueval, where the South African National Memorial stands. Rows of oak trees grown from South African acorns lead to an arch recalling a brutal week in July 1916 when the First South African Brigade spent six days fighting the enemy in Delville Wood. Of the original 121 officers and 3032 South African soldiers who fought here, only 142 emerged unscathed.
Next, follow the D20 south and join up with the D1017 until you reach the town of Péronne: site of the Museum of the Great War (www.historial.org) – one of France’s most important World War I museums. Occupying the remnants of the town’s medieval castle, it focuses on the individuals involved in the terrible campaigns. Items such as a German shovel laid alongside a French one are very poignant, and the museum also holds remarkable war etchings by German artist Otto Dix. The centre has a research station for those tracing relatives.
Leaving Amiens, head north for an hour along the D919 to the town of Arras to visit Wellington Quarry (www.explorearras.com), a series of carefully preserved British Army tunnels that were used throughout the war and in some cases date back to the Roman era. It was through here, and similar tunnels, that some 24,000 soldiers emerged, blinking in the early morning sleet of Easter Monday, 9 April 1917, to fight an unsuspecting enemy in the Battle of Arras.
Twenty minutes north, along the N17, is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, a deeply moving white twin-columned monument, seemingly soaring to the sky. The limestone structure commemorates the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the lives of the 66,000 Canadians killed in the Great War. It took 11 years and US$1.5 million to build and was unveiled on 26 July 1936 by King Edward VIII.
From Vimy, bump across the D937 back road to Ablain-Saint-Nazaire to visit the Notre-Dame de Lorette French National War Cemetery – France’s largest military cemetery, home to more than 20,000 gravestones and eight communal graves in which a further 22,000 unknown soldiers are buried. It has remarkable views over the Gohelle Plain. On the plateau summit is a new memorial to the Great War – one of the world’s largest – inscribed with the names of 600,000 men who died on all sides.
From the cemetery, it’s a 40-minute drive along the N41 to Lille, where you should spend the night and visit the imposing war memorial on Place Rihour.
Today, cross the border into Belgium and follow signs for Ypres (Ieper), a 40-minute drive to the north. Battered by artillery fire, the city was reduced to rubble and, after the war, it’s said you could sit on horseback and look over the town without a single building interrupting your view.
The city’s triumph is the In Flanders Fields Museum (www.inflandersfields.be/en), located on the second floor of the Lakenhalle, which dominates the Grote Markt. This hi-tech museum centres around the ‘poppy bracelet’, which is issued to you on arrival. You then input your name and place of birth into a computer, which selects personal stories of people from your town or county who participated in the war. If you can, it’s also worth climbing the steep stairs to the bell tower for sweeping views of the famous battlegrounds. There’s also a knowledge centre which individuals can use to trace relatives.
Ypres is also famous for the Menin Gate (www.lastpost.be) – a colossal arch that marks the spot where soldiers would leave town on their way to the Front Line. Carved into the interior walls are the names of 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in World War I and whose graves are unknown.
As a mark of respect, the road is closed every evening at 8pm, and members of the local fire brigade sound their bugles in a tribute known as the ‘Last Post’.
The fields around Ypres are dotted with dozens of cemeteries, but the most famous is Tyne Cot (www.passchendaele.be) – the world’s largest Commonwealth war grave cemetery – based in Zonnebeke. The final resting place for 11,954 souls, the sight of its uniform graves stretching into the distance is utterly humbling. Originally a German strongpoint, several of their Advance Dressing Stations – shelters for triaging the wounded – have been preserved, including one beneath the mighty Cross of Sacrifice erected in 1922. Gently climb a few of its steps, and you get a glimpse of the Germans’ advantageous viewpoint across the British lines and Ypres. It was this high ground for which the British fought at the Third Battle of Ypres.
Fifteen minutes away is Poperinge, which is unremarkable except for one truly unique site: Talbot House (www.talbothouse.be) – an authentic World War I bed and breakfast that was established in December 1915 for soldiers travelling to and from the Front Line as a place of ‘light, warmth and laughter’ away from the ugliness of war. Here soldiers could make as much noise as they liked, play card games and have an undisturbed night’s sleep. The house is filled with original items and poignant artefacts, such as ‘Friendship Corner’ – a yellowing typed-out list from the visitors’ book where soldiers would leave messages for friends, or notes asking others if they knew of their whereabouts – and a map of the Ypres Salient where Poperinge and Ypres have been wiped away by the fingerprints of soldiers pointing to where they were stationed or had lost comrades.
After overnighting in Ypres, there are a handful of sites worth making a detour for en route back to Paris. You could drive 110km south toward Cambrai, via Lille, and book a guided tour via the tourist office (see Travel Essentials box) of the Cambrai Battlefield. The site of two major battles, it’s bafflingly one of the least visited sites on the Western Front, so can guarantee an off-the-beaten-track experience.
Alternatively, push on further south, for another hour, towards the region of Aisne where the Chemin des Dames (www.chemindesdames.fr) – now the D18CD road – stretches for 30km along a narrow and fertile plateau. It’s here that British Expeditionary Force soldiers dug the first trenches on 14 September 1914. For some, it would come to be as relevant to the Great War story as Flanders or the Somme. Now tranquil, this area is littered with military cemeteries and monuments in honour of the 100,000 soldiers who died fighting over the 100m-high ridge. Famed for its stunning views, it’s perhaps best known for the Nivelle Offensive launched on 16 April 1917, in a bid to end the trench warfare. It was originally planned to commit nearly one million men to battle, including 10,000 Senegalese infantry, but it ended in bloody defeat due to mutinies breaking out in the French Army because of the leaders’ stubborn refusal to call off the offensive.
Finally, just a 30-minute drive east of the airport, is Meaux’s Museum of the Great War (www.museedelagrandeguerre.eu), a rich curtain raiser exploring the wide-ranging social upheavals brought about by the war, as well as the military or political issues. Its large collection of wartime objects ranges from uniforms and prosthetic limbs to barbed wire and gas masks. There are two routes through the museum: the first takes 90 minutes, the other half a day.
Where to stay
• Amiens The central 5-star Hotel Marotte (Rue Marotte 3; tel: (+33) (0)3 60 12 50 00; www.hotel-marotte.com; rooms from €165) has 12 boutique-style rooms spread over two different buildings: the Belle Epoque Old House and modern eco-friendly extension known as The Cube.
• Lille The ultra-modern Hôtel Barrière (Bis Pont de Flandre 777; tel: (+33) (0)3 28 14 45 00; www.lucienbarriere.com; rooms from €175) has great views over the city centre, which is a ten-minute walk away.
• Ypres The Main Street Hotel (Rijselstraat 136; tel: (+32) (0)57 46 96 33; www.mainstreet-hotel.be; rooms from €200) has six opulent and individually styled rooms, or for a unique experience, book a night at Talbot House (Gasthuisstraat 43; tel: (+32) (0)57 33 32 28; www.talbothouse.be; rooms from €34.50) an authentic WWI B&B located in Poperinge, a 15-minute drive west of Ypres.
Kenya Airways’ first new Boeing 787 Dreamliner flies daily between Nairobi and Paris. Read more about this remarkable aircraft at www.msafirimag.com where you can read articles in previous issues of msafiri. In Edition 101, there is also a special feature on planning a dream trip to Paris.
A car is the easiest way of visiting the memorial sites, many of which are situated in the countryside. All the major car rental companies have desks at the Arrivals hall of Terminal 1 at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. A four-day rental of a standard five-seat car with Avis (tel: (+33) (0)1 70 92 20 20; www.avis.fr) costs around €330 booked at the station, and less if you book in advance. Insurance costs €12 extra per day. Unleaded petrol in France costs roughly €1.50 per litre.
Amiens Tourist Office Place Notre-Dame, tel: (+33)(0)3 22 71 60 50, www.visit-amiens.com
Somme Tourist Board Rue Ernest Cauvin 21, tel: (+33) (0)3 22 71 22 71, www.somme-battlefields.com
Lille Tourist Office Palais Rihour, Place Rihour; tel: (+33) (0)3 59 57 94 00; www.lilletourism.com
Ypres Tourist Office Lakenhalle, 34 Grote Markt, tel: (+32) (0)57 23 92 20; www.toerismeieper.be
Cambrai Tourist Office Rue de Noyon 48, tel: (+33) (0)3 27 78 36 15; www.tourisme-cambresis.fr