Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields

  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
  • Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
Photo of Peaceful on the Western Front: World War One Battlefields
Photo by flickr user goforchris

A battlefield may not be the most obvious place to holiday, but when the line of trenches has grown back into a charming, rural idyll of open green fields dotted with small villages, and the sky overhead is known for sun and warmth, then it begins to sound a lot more appealing. History and drama in a region known for its food and wine: what was the Western Front is now somewhere to find peace, and get a bit of perspective – one of the best things about travelling.

In 1914 the German army started what was to be the Western Front by invading Luxembourg and Belgium. Both sides literally dug in along a meandering line of trenches that eventually stretched from the North Sea to France's border with Switzerland, though and around Ypres, Armentieres, Loos and Arras. Despite almost constant fighting along this line, it hardly moved during the war, machine gun nests, barbed wire, the big guns and the rows of trenches inflicted heavy casualties on both attackers and defenders, but each advance was in inches and feet. The war was won by wearing the German forces down gradually.

Between 1916 and 1918 the fields along this line were regularly churned up by shelling and littered with the corpses of men who'd been drowned in the mud, as well as row upon row of defences. Today some of the trench lines remain, though the fields themselves are green and sprout wild flowers. Beside them are the cemeteries where white crosses and markers stand in neat lines, like troops on the first day of battle and seldom after. Each town and city in this region has its own war stories to tell, which they do on the memorials, plaques in the churches and on the still scarred and ruined buildings and landscape. There are also numerous war museums to visit.

Though tour companies offer standard tours, the best tours are those tailored to tell the personal story of an individual soldier or battalion, so if you have a relative who served you may want to get in touch with one of our recommended travel specialists who may be able to build an itinerary around their battle experiences.  If you're travelling independently a route following in someone's footsteps will make the journey a more personal one, but as a starter, here's a basic four day itinerary visiting all the major sights.

Day One: The Somme

Mametz Wood MemorialOn the first day of the battle of the Somme the British Army suffered 60,000 casualties, the greatest number any army has ever suffered over the course of a single day.  On the second day the fighting continued, then day after day, until November after which the trench line was held by both sides until there was a reprise of the fighting in 1918. As well as part filled and over grown trenches, the fields of the Somme are littered with memorials. In Mametz Wood there's a striking Welsh Memorial to the men of the 38th Division beside the remains of the huge Lochnagar mine crater which used to be a sunken road; Australian forces are remembered in Pozieres, and on Windmill Hill, and there's a Canadian Tank Memorial near Courcelette where one of the first major tank supported battles took place. The Thiepval Memorial and the Ulster tower are nearby, proving how intensely this small area was fought over.  

Beaumont HamelBeaumont Hamel is one of the best preserved battlegrounds of the Somme, so should be on every Somme itinerary. The school museum at Villers-Bretonneux takes a bit more than an hour to wander though.

In the evening visit the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres where every night at 8PM the citizens give thanks for their freedom with a solemn Last Post Ceremony.

Menin GateDay Two: Ypres Salient

This was one of the bloodiest spots along the line, a tiny last bit of free Belgium which 250,000 men gave their lives to protect. Three major offensives raged here, but there were constant skirmishes, and the life of a Tommy here was not a good one.

The Battle of PasschendaeleThe Cloth Hall, in the centre of Ypres, houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, which is a good place to start your local explorations. Many poignant sites have survived in part and are worth visiting, including the sites of the first gas attacks and the first use of the flame thrower as a weapon, as well as the Shot at Dawn Executions Site at Poperinge and the Passendaele dugout. Hill 60 Battlefield is just out of town, pock marked with its own many memorials.

The grave of double VC winner Noel Chavasse, Britain's most decorated Great War soldier and doctor is in Brandhoek Cemetery which is only a short drive away.

Day Three: Vimy RidgeFromelles  and the Nivelle Offensive  

Arras was the battle fought in the spring of 1917 between the major Somme battles and Passchendaele. These battlefields are less visited than those of the battles that raged, chronologically, around them, but a lot remains on the fields around Arras to remember the fighting by. The bunker where Hitler served, and the house he was billeted to for openers.

Nivelle Offensive, April 1917At Fromelles you can visit the Australian Digger's memorial and the scene of a mass grave, where around 400 Diggers who died during the first Australian action of the Western Front are buried; at Vimy Ridge you can visit the remaining trenches, tunnels and craters and the Canadian National Memorial, near the poppy sprouting remains of the Nivelle Offensive, which was one of the bloodiest of the French led battles, and close by the French underground tunnels at Lorrette de Notre Dame.

Day Four: Verdun 

Battlefield of VerdunVerdun was one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, by one soldier's account “If you haven't seen Verdun, you haven't seen anything of the war.”.

This region was so devastated by the battle that raged over it that after the war Verdun wasn't repaired and repopulated like the Somme and Flanders, it was declared a Zone Rouge, meaning that the ground was so heavy with mines and the bodies of the dead that it wasn't rebuilt.  Which means that this is the place to find your relics and remains still littering the lanes and ridges that cross this now green and peaceful countryside, and to wander amongst the badly damaged fortresses and trenches.

The memorial at Verdun houses the bones of many of the dead in its crypt, which can, rather gruesomely, be seen through windows in its sides. The battlefield also has one of the best First World War museums anywhere on the Western Front.

The Western Front runs conveniently close to cities such as Lille and Bruges, so if there's descent in the ranks over too many churches, cemeteries and empty fields you can drop some of your troops off for a spot of shopping, or a run though a theme park – Disneyland Paris  and Parc Asterix are within easy driving distance.

See the Great Battlefields of D-Day OR The World's Most Historic Battlefields

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France, Normandy, France, Belgium, Europe
Culture, Short Break
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March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October
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