Friday thought #84 WW1 battlegrounds – Flanders and the Somme

A slight variation on my usual posts, but nevertheless, a place that I have recently visited and something which I would like to share.

Whether or not history is something that interests you, I believe that there are certain things which should never be forgotten and we should always be reminded of, no matter how long ago they happened or how distant those memories start to become. The World Wars are two such things, and on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, 2016 became the year I finally got the chance to visit some of the WW1 battlegrounds in Northern France, something which I have wanted to do for as long as I can remember.

I won’t go into too much detail, as everyone’s experience and interest is different, and I don’t think photographs will ever do justice to the places themselves, but I will share some of them all the same and hope that you can get a feel for these incredible sites. If you ever get the chance to visit, please do, it is an experience like no other.

The countrysides of Northern France and Belgium are quite literally full of history. You need only drive 5 minutes before coming across a memorial, a graveyard or simply a vast expanse where bloody battles were fought. The Battle of the Somme lasted for just over 4 months and with over 1 million men killed or wounded, it is known as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

We visited as many of these sites as we could in 2 days and only wished we had been able to stay another week. The memories of the soldiers who gave their lives have been beautifully preserved and the War Graves Commission have done an incredible job in ensuring that the name of every single soldier who died is carefully engraved and remembered, even those who were never found.

The standout place for us, and the place that will stay in my memory forever are the preserved trenches in the Beaumont Hamel memorial park. The site has been preserved by the Canadian Government to commemorate all the Newfoundlanders who fought in the First World War, and must be seen to be believed. The original trenches are still there, complete with the remains of the barbed wire fences where the soldiers went over the top. Visitors pass the British front line and walk across no-mans-land to reach the trenches where the German front line stood exactly 100 years ago. Perhaps for some this means nothing, or perhaps as part of a noisy guided tour group in August, some of the atmosphere is lost, but on a freezing new year’s eve we found ourselves to be the only visitors walking through this eerie landscape, and looking across no-mans-land in the perfect silence brought tears to our eyes imagining what had happened here.

60,000 men died on the first day of the Somme, some just teenagers. I hope that people will always visit the Somme, as what happened here should never be forgotten.

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Thiepval Memorial, where the names of over 72,000 soldiers are engraved, soldiers with no known grave who were never found
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The Menin Gate memorial in Ypres, France. This impressive structure holds the names of over 60,000 men who fought in the First World War, and every night come rain or shine, the Last Post is played here as a tribute to those who died.
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Vimy Ridge, a Canadian national memorial with over 11,000 names carved on it
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Lochnagar Crater – the mine hole created by the blast which signalled the start of the battle of the Somme
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Looking out through the mist at the cemetery behind the Thiepval memorial
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One of the many beautiful cemeteries which dominate the landscape
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The reconstructed trenches at Vimy Ridge, exactly where the original trenches lay

 

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The Tyne Cot Cemetery, no words can describe this…
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Hundreds and hundreds of tributes to soldiers who gave their lives, some engraved with names, some simply dedicated to ‘A Soldier of the Great War’
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The British front line at Beaumont Hamel, complete with the long rusted remains of the barbed wire fences
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The German front line, a terrifyingly short distance from the allied lines
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