Visiting the Somme Battlefield: a guide to accessibility on the Western Front, Part 1
This post summarises my visits to the Somme battlefield sites and is part of a series on the Great War.
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Not yet will those measureless fields be green again
Where only yesterday the wild sweet blood of wonderful youth was shed;
There is a grave whose earth must hold too long, too deep a stain,
Though for ever over it we may speak as proudly as we may tread.
From The Cenotaph by Charlotte Mew
Not long ago I returned from an enriching and fascinating ten-day visit to the Somme battlefield and towns of the Somme, Artois and the Ypres Salient. In this post, I share some of my impressions and link to the site-specific guides on each place I visited, which contain details of the access arrangements and challenges at each. Below you will find the places I saw in Northern France – the Somme, the Artois region and French Flanders, to cover all bases – and links to some of the most useful resources we used. I’ll cover Belgium in a separate post.
In addition to the research on my ancestors who fought in the war, I took some time to read a few books of interest and gain a bit more knowledge about the war in general and across this area, specifically. The following are my favourites (with affiliate links to Amazon) and some are even on Kindle Unlimited if you fancy a free read!
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, who also runs the outstanding Facebook page for the book, which is giving (at least daily) updates in real time of what was happening one hundred years ago.
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.
For something different, Captain W. E. Johns’ Biggles Learns to Fly is not only the origin story of everyone’s favourite wartime pilot but is an evocative look at the development of battlefield flight. It’s a good accompaniment to the air memorial at Arras.
Let’s talk guidebooks.
You will realise that there are cemeteries everywhere in Northern France and no guide can cover absolutely everything. Sometimes the online resources can outdo print in that respect – 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!
Major & Mrs Holt – the Definitive Guide
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) which has pretty much everything of note, along with many stories of Victoria Cross recipients and accounts of battlefield action where it all happened. GPS coordinates are provided for each location along with detailed route descriptions – handy when trying to navigate along unmarked country roads. The guide covers sites of significance to all nations involved.
There were two major drawbacks, however, as far as we were concerned: first, the points of interest are not grouped in a traditional guidebook manner. The book gives several recommended routes, providing a full day out in many cases (or estimating how long each route will take in reality) including places to stop for toilet breaks and meals and giving clear directions between each point. Given our limited time but independent streak (or even our independent interests), we sometimes found we were picking and choosing from different itineraries with no inkling that places a hundred pages apart were only a couple of miles apart on the map. It took a little more work, but the information on each site was so comprehensive and enlightening that it was worth it.
Second, as many people touring the battlefields come across the channel from the South of England in their own cars, the directions to points along the route are given in miles. This meant that the routes had limited use for us, as our Scottish-American alliance meant that we travelled by train from Scotland and Amsterdam and rented a French car, which measured in kilometres. Providing both sets of information would have allowed us to follow the directions without having to guess. In the end, I marked all points of interest on a Google map on my phone and copied the addresses into the car’s GPS computer.
On a practical note, we used this map by Michelin (Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Picardy – Michelin Regional Map 511 (Michelin Regional Maps)) in both France and Belgium.
It’s perfect for battlefield touring as – though listings don’t make it clear – it includes border areas which cover the entire Ypres Salient and beyond. The only word of caution is that it is incredibly detailed, which makes it a bit eye-boggling if you’re trying to plan lengthy routes, though it is brilliant for finding the obscure roads. We spent a couple of motel evenings circling our main points of interest on this double-bed-sized map to get a sense of where the sites were clustered.
Accommodation for the Somme Battlefield
Our picks for accommodation while visiting the Somme battlefield gives you access from East or West. We were able to enjoy visits to the Artois region and spend a long day driving through major sights from Arras to Amiens. Then Amiens gave us easy access to the heart of the Somme region.
It may come as a surprise, but the surfeit of modern motel accommodation in France does not improve chances of accessibility as much as one might expect. A surprising number of new builds have multiple floors and no lift! This leads to the usual detective work, trying to spot lift doors on hotel site galleries. “Je voudrais reserver une chambre au rez-du-chaussée” is a useful phrase if you need to email a hotel – “I would like to reserve a room on the ground floor”. Sometimes that is the most effective route.
The hotels that we used on the trip were all booked through Hotels.com (I especially love their rewards system and am currently sitting with around £300 of rewards nights ready to use). In Arras we stayed at the Premiere Classe Arras – Saint Laurent Blangy – Parc Expo, which has parking, a lift, accessible rooms (spotless, with hard floors) and costs £30-40 for a double or twin room, depending on dates. In Amiens we stayed in the Comfort Hotel Amiens Nord (which was the Kyriad until recently), with parking and similar rooms, though it is on two floors without a lift so we requested a ground floor room, which offered level access. It cost less than £30 per room per night. Close to Lille, we also stayed in the Hôtel Altia in Neuville-en-Ferrain, which has excellent accessibility features including parking and cost around £45.
Places to Visit in the Somme Battlefield and around
Click on the names to access my posts about these places. This section will be updated as more are added, but here are the links to all of the blog posts about our visits, including accessibility info.
Pin to Pinterest to come back later;
Lille Old Town: A great place to start a trip. Get a sense of the mediaeval history of Flanders before you head out into the scarred landscape of the Twentieth Century.
Arras: The centre of the city is intact or rebuilt but it is both a handy centre for visiting the Artois region and a focus of memorial activity, with a large city cemetery dedicated to WWI.
Vimy Ridge: Canadian national memorial commemorating one of Canada’s proudest campaigns. The Canadian memorials have wonderful volunteers and information centres and at Vimy Ridge there are preserved and restored trench lines to explore. Explore their website here.
Lichfield Crater: A small Commonwealth Cemetery in an old crater on the front lines. It lies off a country road between tranquil fields.
Notre Dame de Lorette and L’Anneau de la mémoire: France’s national cemetery for the war and the recent memorial to all fallen soldiers of the Great War. The French cemetery is an interesting counterpoint to the Commonwealth cemeteries and hosts regular memorials. It is also a moving reminder of the domestic suffering of those who lived on the front line.
Lens 14-18: A modern and accessible museum focusing on the activity around Lens. Visit their website here.
Moeuvres British Cemetery: A typical and tranquil Commonwealth Cemetery with a personal connection.
Somme American Cemetery: At the epicentre of the earliest American forays into the war, with great docents ready to provide interesting information.
Thiepval: Towering memorial in the centre of the Somme battlefield, with an excellent modern museum.
Pozieres Cemetery: A large but easy to visit cemetery just outside Albert. Nearby you will find the Tommy Cafe and the Australian Memorial.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial: One of the most evocative memorial sites, the Newfoundland memorial offers preserved portions of battlefield, including unrestored trenches. The Newfoundland symbol, the caribou, stands over the site. Its museum, in a traditional log cabin, describes the outbreak of war. You can follow the soldiers’ fortunes as you move through the exhibits. Visit their website here.
Lochnagar Crater: A vast and striking reminder of destruction. You can visit this privately-managed memorial arranged around the crater left by one of the allied mines
Notre Dame de Brebières, Albert: A gorgeous art nouveau church built just before the war, and restored afterwards, which spawned one of the most enduring legends of hope.
Sir John Monash Centre and Australian National Memorial: Their website is a great guide to visiting the area, too – visit it here.
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.
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.
You can find some great deals on flights, hotels and packages with ebookers,
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.