Picardy, Artois and Flanders are littered with the monuments, battlefields and cemeteries of the two world wars, but they are nowhere as intensely concentrated as in the region northeast of Amiens, between Albert and the appealing market town of Arras. It was here, among the fields and villages of the Somme, that the main battle lines of World War I were drawn. You can get a real feel of trench warfare at Vimy Ridge, north of Arras, where the trenches have been left in situ. Lesser sites, often more poignant, dot the countryside around Albert along the Circuit de Souvenir.
More about France
Find out more
Arras is one of the most architecturally striking towns in northern France, the cobblestoned squares of its old centre surrounded by ornate Baroque townhouses that hark back to its Flemish past. It was renowned for its tapestries in the Middle Ages, giving its name to the hangings behind which Shakespeare’s Polonius was killed by Hamlet. The town later fell under Spanish control. Only in 1640 was Arras returned to French control, with the help of Cyrano de Bergerac. During World War I, British and New Zealand miners dug tunnels under the town to surprise the Germans to the northeast, while the Germans bombarded the town. Only one of the famous medieval Arras tapestries survived the centuries of wartime destruction; it’s now on display in a cathedral in Belgium.
Reconstruction after the war was meticulous, and the townhouses lining the grand arcaded Flemish- and Dutch-style squares in the central Grand’Place and the smaller Place des Héros preserve their historic character. Both were once lively market squares, but now the centre is covered with parking spaces. The architecture is impressive; on every side are restored seventeenth- and eighteenth-century mansions.
Vimy RidgeVimy Ridge, or Hill 145, was the scene of some of the fiercest trench warfare of World War I: almost two full years of battle, culminating in its capture by the Canadian Corps in April 1917. It’s a vast site, given in perpetuity by the French to the Canadian people out of respect for their sacrifices, and the churned land has been preserved, in part, as it was during the conflict. Of all the battlefields, this is the best place to gain an impression of the lay of the land, and to imagine how it may have felt to be part of a World War I battle.
Near the information centre, long veins of neat, sanitized trenches wind through the earth, still heavily pitted by shells beneath the planted pines. Under the ground lie countless rounds of unexploded ammunition – visitors are warned not to stray from the paths. Free guided tours of the trenches are run by friendly, bilingual Canadian students, who supervise the visitor centre. An exhibition in the visitor centre illustrates the well-planned Canadian attack and its importance for the Canadians: this was the first time they were recognized as fighting separately from the British, which hugely influenced their growing sense of nationhood.
On the brow of the ridge to the north, overlooking the slag-heap-dotted plain of Artois, a great white monument reaches for the heavens, inscribed with the names of 11,285 Canadians and Newfoundlanders whose bodies were never found. Back from the ridge lies a memorial to the Moroccan Division who also fought at Vimy, and in the woods behind, on the headstones of another exquisitely maintained cemetery, you can read the names of half the counties of rural England.
The Circuit du Souvenir
The Circuit du Souvenir
The Circuit du Souvenir takes you from graveyard to mine crater, trench to memorial. There’s little to show the scale of the destruction nor do you get much sense of battle tactics. But you will find that, no matter what the level of your interest in the Great War, you have embarked on a sort of pilgrimage, as each successive step uncovers a more harrowing slice of history.
The cemeteries are deeply moving, with the grass perfectly mown and flowers by every gravestone. Tens of thousands of them stand in precise rows, all identical, with a man’s name if it’s known (nearly half the British dead have never been found), his rank and regiment and, often, a personal message chosen by the bereaved family. In the lanes between Albert and Bapaume you’ll see cemeteries everywhere: at the angle of copses, halfway across a field, in the middle of a wood.
The Battle of the Somme
The Battle of the Somme
On July 1, 1916, the British and French launched the Battle of the Somme to relieve pressure on the French army defending Verdun. The front ran roughly northwest–southeast, 6km east of Albert across the valley of the Ancre and over the almost treeless high ground north of the Somme. The windy terrain had no intrinsic value, nor was there any long-term strategic objective; the region around Albert was the battle site simply because it was where the two Allied armies met.
There were 57,000 British casualties on the first day alone, approximately 20,000 of them fatal, making it the costliest defeat the British army has ever suffered. Sir Douglas Haig is the usual scapegoat, yet he was only following the military thinking of the day, which is where the real problem lay. As historian A.J.P. Taylor put it, “Defence was mechanized: attack was not.” Machine guns were efficient, barbed wire effective, and, most important of all, the rail lines could move defensive reserves far faster than the attacking army could march. The often ineffective heavy bombardment before an advance only warned the enemy of an offensive and churned the trenches into a giant muddy quagmire.
Despite the bloody disaster of the first day, the battle wore on until bad weather in November made further attacks impossible. The cost of this futile struggle was roughly 415,000 British, 195,000 French and 600,000 German casualties.