This post summarises my visits to Arras and is part of a series on the Great War.
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Arras City Centre
The beautiful mediaeval town of Arras has not one but two gorgeous, Flemish-style central squares. It has the traditional cloth hall and belfry in Place des Heros. If you’re feeling limber and sound of knee, you could always climb the belfry. Since I’m not made of knees, I declined.
Just around the corner, the Grand’Place flaunts its Baroque Flemish townhouses. Shelling partially destroyed many during the Great War but have been painstakingly reconstructed. If you look closely you can see scars of war on some of the facades.
In winter, this square hosts the Christmas market, while the rest of the year there are outdoor cafes and restaurants all over this area. Wednesday and Saturday are market days, but unfortunately, we missed those this time.
Access in Arras
During the rest of the year, the square is used as a large car park, slightly to the detriment of the atmosphere. This is a double-edged sword for accessibility, as it makes viewing the impressive buildings a bit of a hazardous undertaking. If you can avoid the traffic, it is one of the easier mediaeval squares in Europe to reach, with underground parking year-round. The whole area is very uneven. The two squares are paved with cobbles, though Place des Heros is smoother. The pavements are stone paving and smoother than the squares, although they are most helpful in the area between the squares.
Just South of the centre is the very accessible Carriere Wellington, an underground museum below the city. This has level access to the tunnels and excellent information on their website here. I didn’t go on this trip but they are a great example of accessibility. Despite being a series of underground tunnels used during the world wars, they have a lift and level walkways. The lighting is low but with level access, audio support, well-informed staff and tours limited to 25 minutes in length they must be one of the more accessible underground tours on the planet.
Arras Cemetery (Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery) and Access
To the West you can find the town cemetery, with a Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery. To park, I recommend circumnavigating the site and finding the easiest approach for you, depending on your need for level access and your interests. There’s a citadel nearby if you take a wrong turn! We parked on a quiet street close to a gate, with lowered pavements. The Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery rear entrance has level access.
In common with many CWGC cemeteries, grass covers the burial areas. This means that not only the areas immediately in front of the grave markers but all paths between the graves are grassy. As I am ambulant, I found this comfortable underfoot and very level, but it may be harder to wheel. The grass is well-maintained, however, and is close-cropped and firm.
Arras cemetery is dwarfed by the vast cemetery at Tyne Cot, but is one of the larger cemeteries in the area. Its graves are in orderly rows and it is a great introduction to the battlefield cemeteries, as it is central to the town and lovingly maintained.
This is the grave of Private M Nicholson of the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), my great-grandfather’s regiment.
There are avenues of lavender and daisies, but the main theme here is roses. Beautiful red roses mark out many of the rows, and the peach roses that accompany most of the rest of the graves have a strong scent that carries throughout the cemetery. It is a full sensory experience, appropriate to mark a war in which sight loss was a common permanent souvenir of gas attacks.
The Arras Memorial
The huge structure that dominates the cemetery is the Arras memorial carrying the names of the missing. There is level access from the main road and from the top of the steps down to the cemetery you can get a good view and smell the roses.
There are memorials to the Missing all over the Western Front, but this is one of the largest. The memorial contains the names of 35, 000 killed in this sector between 1916 and 1918. It is one of the most affecting, both in scale and due to the quietness of the cemetery. Furthermore, it is possible to have the whole place to yourself to wander the collonaded structure with its wall after wall of names. And the fact that the names are those who died in a relatively local area lends an immediacy that helps in understanding the scale of the war.
One of the nice things about visiting the larger memorials is seeing who has left tributes. They are collected every so often but kept safe. In the cemetery register, we found laminated cards from an English school. Each had the names and pictures of a lost soldier and the child who researched them. They had written a little about each person and left them on a school trip. Amid the melancholy lists of those who were never found it was a nice reminder that being lost is not the same as being forgotten.
Navigating the Arras memorial is straightforward, with places to sit and level, smooth surfaces.
Flying Services Memorial
The impressive stone column is the Flying Services Memorial, inscribed with the names of almost a thousand killed in the early actions of the air force. The names represent the Royal Naval Air Service, Royal Flying Corps, Australian Flying Corps and Royal Air Force.
Near the Flying Service memorial column is the customary Stone of Remembrance, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. You will find this in many of the cemeteries, a monolith inscribed with “Their name liveth for evermore”.
This is part of a series on the Great War sites at the Western Front.
And here are images you can pin so you can find this again!
Further Resources for visiting Arras
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).
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.
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.
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.