Sunday, 31 July 2011

Touring The Somme

Whilst on our hols in Northern France, Saul and I decided to undertake a Somme battlefield tour using the abridged Holt guide in WHSmith's Battlefields of Northern France magazine that I bought last year.

We started at the town of Albert with its famous Bailique and visited the Somme Trench Museum located in the underground tunnels built in the 1930's to protect civilians from bombardment in any future war. This is an amazing museum and chock full of items recovered from the battlefield, all very evocative.

The tour itself started with a trip to the Lochnagar Crater with a stop en route at the Bapaume Post Cemetery. The crater is absolutely jaw dropping, 300 foot wide and 90 foot deep and almost incomprehensible looking at it now. The site also gives you a good view across No Mans Land from what were the German frontlines to where the British attacks started (one thing we did notice on our tour was that whilst this was by no means a war of movement, the distances covered by the troops on foot were a lot more than we previously imagined).

We then drove on towards Longueval stopping at the Flat Iron Cemetery by Mametz Wood and the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery with the New Zealand Memorial. Just outside Longueval is the new Bristol's Own Cross Memorial for the troops of the 12th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment and after passing through the village the new erected Footballer's Battalions Memorial which its wonderful quote by Millwall player Jack Borthwick's quote that "this is worse than a whole season of cup ties".

Just outside Longueval is the Delville Wood Memorial and South African museum which was really interesting including exhibits not only on WWI but WWII, Korea and even the South African Border War and the guerilla war fought by the ANC's Umkhonto we Sizwe against the Apartheid Government.

We then did a slightly circulatory route to Thiepval as the maps we were using were rubbish(!) but we stopped en route at the Australian Windmill Memorial and Tank Corps Memorial. The Thiepval Memorial and visitor centre is very moving, the memorial listing the names of over 73,000 British and Commonwealth troops who fell on the Somme and have no known grave.

I had intended to end the tour there but decided to have a look at the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel and we were both really glad we did as it was the highlight of the day. We'd already visited Vimy Ridge which has parts of the battlefield preserved but Beaumont-Hamel is an amazing site with the only remaining trenches from the Somme, covering a wide area and giving you an incredible perspective on the distances etc the troops had to cover between trench lines. It is a truly poignant place and the fact that the 1st Newfoundlanders suffered so badly as they had to launch their attack from further back than planned as the new Wellington trench (subsequently used successfully by the 51st Highlanders) had not been completed fully brought home as you walk across No Mans Land toward the German trenches.

Overall it was a really fascinating day and one we will not forget. If you ever get the chance to visit Northern France, a day driving around the battlefield is a highly recommended. I have posted some more photos on my Facebook page here.

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