VISIT: Somme American Cemetery
This post summarises my visits to the Somme American Cemetery and is part of a series on the Great War.
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The Somme American Cemetery lies close to Bony, near the Aisne. It is one of the largest collections of American burials in France. It has a memorial chapel and a monumental flagpole along with over 1800 burials, marked by white marble crosses and other religious symbols.
In the chapel the names of the missing line the walls. Rosettes by some of the names indicate those who were later found, identified and buried.
Guides are on site to give information and are very knowledgeable about the site, the cemetery and those buried there. With the explanation of the young man who very politely asked if we were interested in hearing some information, we learned about the founding of the cemetery.
Fierce fighting took place nearby, around the village of Bony. Kicking off the Battle of the St Quentin Canal in October 1918, it was the first major action of the Americans’ War and their first experience of the large-scale killing that so characterised the War on the Somme, and across the Western Front.
Four women are buried in the Somme American Cemetery. Interestingly, they died before the American army arrived at the front. They, along with several men also buried here, were medical volunteers who assisted the allied troops from 1916 onwards.
Access at the Somme American Cemetery
Older guidebooks described the paths around the Somme American Cemetery as gravelly. In fact, as of Spring 2018, they are all paved and smooth.
There is grass between the graves. You will need to negotiate that to get up close, but you can see the markers closest to the centre from the path. Gold stars on certain stones indicate those who received military honours for their conduct.
Around the site, you will find a couple of benches. There is seating at the memorial base.
A couple of fairly shallow steps lead up to the chapel building. At the entrance, there is a heavy door – several older visitors struggled with it and with my arthritic fingers it was a challenge! Inside, low light may pose a problem but that may depend on conditions outside, too.
Back at the visitor centre, two steps and a double door provide entry. Accordingly, this means that there is no accessible toilet. However, for those who can access the visitor centre, there is further seating inside. The main room here is where widows and family members were received on their pilgrimages to the cemetery from the 1920s onwards.
The visitor centre has a good range of leaflets about the site in different languages and guides to other military sites on the Somme.
The best single volume overview in my opinion – clear, lively, with helpful maps and a mix of overview and firsthand accounts – is The Great War Explained by Philip Stevens.
Respected historian Ian Kershaw’s To Hell and Back: Europe 1914-1949 covers the period from the outbreak of the first war to the recovery from the second.
if you are seeking a specific grave or want to make sure you haven’t missed anything, I recommend checking out the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and other sites.
There are very respectable overviews in both The Rough Guide to France (Rough Guides) and Lonely Planet France (Travel Guide). The Bradt Guide World War I Battlefields: A Travel Guide to the Western Front: Sites, Museums, Memorials (Bradt Travel Guides) is a great compromise between those and the intense detail of specialist battlefield guides – and the price has come down since I first encountered it!
If you are looking for comprehensive coverage, you can’t do better than Major & Mrs Holt’s Definitive Battlefield Guide Somme: 100th Anniversary (Major and Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guides).
Transport to France
You can find some great deals on flights, hotels and packages with ebookers,
For those coming from the southern parts of the UK, it’s easy (and often cheaper) to take the ferry to Northern France. Of course, if you have an adapted car it also makes the whole trip easier. I love travelling with DFDS and have gone to Scandanavia and Amsterdam with them several times. Click here to visit their site. For other routes and operators, go to AFerry (click here) to search all the options.
If you are bringing your car, make sure your insurance is good. RAC has excellent Europe-wide roadside assistance (click here).
Car travel is the best way to get around the Somme battlefield. If you are hiring locally, you can do what we did and rent a car directly from Europcar (click here), who has a handy base at the train station in Lille as well as several around the region. Alternatively, the two companies I use regularly are Argus Car Hire (click here) and HolidayAutos (click here), both of which offer a range of providers and great value damage refund insurance at competitive prices.
If independent car travel isn’t an option for you, there are many touring options around the Somme battlefield – the leader amongst them being Shearings Holidays (click here). What you lose in independence you gain in knowledgeable and experienced guides. Often the tours are timed to coincide with particular commemorations. Alfa Tours (click here) also runs occasional tours to the Somme and Flanders.
Hotels and Attractions
My number one recommendation is to use TripAdvisor. It can also be hard to get good information on accessibility, so turning to crowdsourcing can be the most useful option, especially when considering hotels.
Find a great range of hotels and get free nights with Hotels.com or book a package deal with Let’s Go 2.
I get my travel money from the Post Office. Their rates are competitive and I love their buy-back policies.
If you’re a planner, you can get tickets online to lock in your must-dos. You can book attraction tickets and packages via www.tours4fun.com, from open-top bus tours to day trips. Tiqets has pretty much everything you could possibly want for many destinations!
Always make sure you have appropriate travel insurance – and insurance that covers any specific medical conditions. Travel Insurance 4 Medical treats medical conditions as a normal part of life and are worth checking out. Alpha Travel Insurance is also great for flexible needs.