With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War fast approaching, many people are considering taking a trip to some of the battlefield sites in France and Flanders, to honour the fallen and gain more of an insight into the experiences of the soldiers who fought for our freedom. Here is MyFerryLink’s pick of the ten most poignant First World War sites:
Wellington Quarry, Arras and Vimy Ridge
Before the Battle of Arras on 9 April 2017, 24,000 British and New Zealand soldiers hid in a series of chalk quarries underneath the city of Arras. In 2008, the quarries were opened up for the first time and now form the Wellington Quarry Museum. Visitors can explore the tunnels, discovering how the troops lived, seeing the graffiti they drew on the walls, and hearing audio recordings of soldiers stationed there. The tour ends through one of the exits that the soldiers emerged to fight from – ending in one of the war’s bloodiest battles.
A few miles outside the town, Canadian soldiers were tasked with the mission of taking Vimy Ridge from the Germans as part of the battle and many died. A vast memorial now stands on the ridge, which was given to Canada by the French, and the original trench lines are pockmarked fields can also be seen.
Maison Forestière, Ors
This little forest house in the farming village of Ors was where British poet Wilfred Owen wrote his last letter home – scribbled by candlelight to his mother – on 31 October 1918. He was killed close by at the age of 25 on 4 November 1918, a week before the end of the war. The local Ors community commissioned Turner Prize nominee Simon Patterson to create a white sculptured memorial to Owen’s message about the horrors of war. A corner of the Ors Communal Cemetery is given over to the graves of 59 British soldiers, one of which is Lieutenant Wilfred Owen.
Talbot House, Poperinge
Talbot House was a soldiers’ club during the First World War. Over half a million soldiers visited the club, which was the brainchild of the Reverend ‘Tubby’ Clayton. Rank did not count within the club, and troops could play the piano or just read a book – in short, lead a normal life for a short space of time. Now a museum, the interior of the property has been largely preserved and the chapel, known as the ‘upper room’ has remained untouched since 1918. It is also possible to spend the night at the house.
Last Post at the Menin Gate, Ypres
Tens of thousands of soldiers passed through Ypres’ old medieval gateway on their way to the front, many of them never to return. After the end of the war, a new memorial gateway was commissioned, known as the Menin Gate, which bears the names of 54,896 soldiers who were reported missing in the Ypres Salient. Every evening at 8pm, an extremely moving ceremony takes place under the vast arch of the gate – the traffic stops and buglers play ‘The Last Post’.
Memorial Museum Passchendaele 1917
With the sole objective of a gaining a few kilometres of shell-torn mud and capturing the village of Passchendaele, more than 400,000 soldiers lost their lives in the course of just 100 days in 1917. This tragic waste of life has been preserved for posterity in this excellent museum, which tells the story of the battle from the perspective of the troops. The museum includes a fascinating six metre deep British dug-out, complete with communications and first aid posts, plus headquarters and sleeping area.
Etaples and Wimereux military cemeteries
The British army built hospitals to care for wounded soldiers around the military camp at Etaples, but more than 10,000 soldiers died of their injuries. As a consequence, Etaples has the largest cemetery for the Commonwealth Forces in France, designed by Sir Edwyn Lutyens. Just down the road in Wimereux, is another beautifully preserved cemetery, where Colonel John McCrae, the author of ‘In Flanders Fields’ is buried.
Douament Ossuary, Verdun
The battle of Verdun lasted for 300 days and 300 nights on a battlefield of less than 20 square kilometres, and resulted in a terrible loss of life. This monumental ossuary contains the remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers, who died during the bloody battle and were laid to rest with their comrades. The inside of the ossuary building is covered by plaques bearing the names of French soldiers who died during the battle, whilst the windows of the ossuary peer in on pile after pile of bones.
There is also a bayonet trench close by, where soldiers were buried alive under enemy shelling on 12 June 1916. A memorial was built to remember them on the ground where their bayonets were found poking up above the surface.
Caverne du Dragon ‘Dragon’s Lair’ Museum, Chemin des Dames
The Chemin des Dames was the setting for the second battle of the Aisne, which lasted just 12 days but resulted in the death of 271,000 French and 163,000 German soldiers. On the Chemin there is a former limestone quarry located 50 feet below the ground called the Dragon’s Lair, which is now a museum offering a poignant insight into the lives of soldiers during the Great War through sound, image and archive documents.
Clarière de l’Armistice, Compiègne
This clearing in the Forest of Compiègne, deep in the heart of Picardy, was the spot where the Germans signed the armistice that ended the First World War in a railway carriage. A war memorial stands on the spot, which was dismantled by Hitler during the Second World War, when he deliberately chose the very same location (and very same carriage) to sign the second Armistice between the French and Germans, marking the start of the French Occupation. A replica of the carriage and museum is now to be found in the clearing.
Franco-British memorial, Thiepval
This huge 45 metre high memorial, again designed by Sir Edwyn Lutyens, was erected by the British government in 1932. It is dedicated to the 75,000 British and South African soldiers missing in action in the Somme, who have no known graves. Over 90% of those commemorated died during the Battles of the Somme, which took place between July and November 1916.