Ten places to visit on the Western Front
As we approach the centenary of the First World War thousands of people will flock to the battlefields of the Western Front to pay their respects and discover the places where their ancestors fought and died in the name of freedom. The Western Front covers a lot of ground – the trench systems stretch over five hundred miles from the Franco-Swiss border to the north Belgian coast – and as such it is very difficult, if not impossible, to visit everything in one trip. In that case, what are the ‘best’ places to visit on the Western Front? Well there are many, and I guess to a certain extent is depends on whether you have family ancestors who fought on a particular sector or have a specific interest in events that happened at a particular place at particular time.
In any case, here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite public places to visit on the Western Front. There are hundreds of places that a visitor can choose from though, so if I have missed off your favourite place, please feel free to use the comments section below to add your thoughts!
The Lochnagar Mine Crater – Somme
The largest man made crater on the Western Front is situated on the Somme battlefield just outside the village of La Boisselle. It was made by a huge explosion detonated by the 179th Tunnelling Company of the Royal Engineers and was designed to blow a particular German strong hold to pieces as the British troops went out ‘Over the Top’ at the start of the Battle of the Somme on 1st July 1916. Now, even 98 years after the explosive button was pressed, the crater is incredibly impressive to behold and is a must see for anyone on a tour of the Western Front.
Fricourt German Military Cemetery
When travelling through the Western Front it can be very easy to forget that there were actually two sides involved in the fight. The German men who were positioned on the ‘other side of the wire’ were sons, brothers, husbands, fathers too and it is important to remember this. The Fricourt military cemetery is the resting place of over 17,000 German soldiers, many of which are in double or shared graves. It has a very different ‘feel’ to CWGC sites and is well worth a visit. Another German cemetary worth a look is in Langemarck on the Ypres Salient.
Newfoundland Memorial Park – Beaumont Hamel
This is a remarkable site, situated a few miles north of Albert, again on the Somme battlefield. It is remarkable because it is one of the few places where visitors can actually see and walk amongst the old trench line systems and the surrounding ‘No Man’s Land’ both of which are in a good state of preservation. The large site, as its name suggests is dedicated to the memory of the men from Newfoundland and covers the area of front line which they attempted to cross on the 1st July 1916. No visit to the Somme is complete without a trip to the Newfoundland Memorial Park.
The Menin Gate – Ypres
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is situated in the Belgian town of Ypres. Unveiled to the public in 1927 it has the names of 54,896 Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the fighting in and around the town during the war and who have no known grave. It is a beautiful piece of architecture and every night at 8pm local time the road that runs through the gate is closed to enable the playing of The Last Post by the buglers of the local fire brigade. If you can time your visit to see this ceremony it is a wonderful experience.
The ‘mighty’ Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme is a breathtaking piece of architecture, not only in it’s sheer size and scale, but also in it’s signficance. Completed in 1932, it continues to be the king of British war memorials being the largest of its kind in the world. Over 73,000 names are carved into its walls – names of soldiers who were killed during the fighting on the Somme and who have no known grave. One of the most popular ‘attractions’ on the Western Front, it also has a good visitor centre, although I prefer the peace and serenity of the memorial itself and accompanying cemetery (as long as there are no school visits happening when you are there – then it can get quite noisy).
The Sunken Lane – Beaumont Hamel
Staying on the Somme battlefield, one of my favourite places to visit is the ‘sunken lane’ made famous by the Geoffrey Mallins’ film showing men of the 1st Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers waiting in the sunken lane on the morning of 1st July 1916, just minutes before they clambered over the ridge towards the German lines. The sunken lane was technically in No Man’s Land, connected to their front line trench via a tunnel. Of the men crammed into the sunken lane that morning only 50 made it to a low bank just beyond the lane. From the lane you can also see a large clump of trees on the field beyond the road – this is the Hawthorne Ridge mine crater – the explosion of which is on the same Geoffrey Mallins film. The fact there is such strong video footage of this area right before the Battle of the Somme really adds to the hisorical nature of the site, it brings it alive. To stand in the exact same place as these chaps, and in the place where Mallins filmed them and the mine explosion is a very humbling experience. View the video clip here: The Sunken Lane: Somme 1916
Fort Douaumont – Verdun
With over one million casualties, Verdun was without doubt the bloodies battle of the war. I had the pleasure of spending a day at Verdun when I cycled the Western Front a few years ago. Fort Douaumont was one of a number of large defensive structures built in and around city to protect it from invasion – it is absolutely huge and very atmospheric. At the height of the battle the Fort was smashed by about 1,000 German shells a day – and it survived. The French knew how to build a fort! Inside there are many relics of the war ranging from shells, wire beds for the officers and even the latrines. It is an amazing place.
Tyne Cot cemetery – Zonnebeke
The Tyne Cot cemetery is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world with almost 12,000 graves and another 35,000 names on the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing. The cemetery is a classic ‘battlefield cemetery’ in so much as the position of it is directly on top of a wide ridge which was fought over during the war. Indeed there are even a couple of German blockhouses (strongpoints) still in situ within the cemetery walls, which only add to the overall ambience of the place. The Cross of Sacrifice in the middle of the cemetery is actually built upon a German pill-box – allegedy at the request of the King when he visited during the construction of the site. There is also a great visitor centre at the site and just down the road is the Passchendaele museum which would be rude not to visit too if you are in the area. Two birds/one stone and all that.
Sanctuary Wood – Zillebeke
Some more preserved trenches, this time in Belgium, can be visited just off of the Menin Road between Zillebeke and Geluveld. This site hasn’t undergone too much of a cosmetic makeover and as such is one of the most authentic places to visit on the Western Front. There are numerous shell craters too which gives a good insight into what the overall landscape would have been like in this area. There is often a bit of mud at the bottom of the trenches which seems to add a little bit to the overall visit! There is also a museum which has loads of artifacts in and is very interesting.
Hill 60 – Flanders
Hill 60 was a slight rise of land (60metres above sea level) formed from the spoil of a railway cutting. It was heavily fought over and changed hands several times during the war. There are countless bodies still lying under the smashed landscape – even today the scars of the mines and the shelling are very evident – and the area is owned by the CWGC. The land hasn’t changed too much over the years and there is still a large concrete machine gun post on the site. There is also a small museum nearby that tells the complex and deadly story of this little parcel of land.
Well, there are my fave places, I am sure you have yours too, many of which are not listed… Let me know your favourite places to visit on the Western Front.