Discover the First World War memorial and battlefield sites of France and Belgium.
Looking out over the flower-filled fields surrounding France's Somme River, it's still possible to make out the scars torn into this landscape by one of the bloodiest wars in human history.
Beneath these wind-swept grasses and iconic poppies lie the bodies of countless soldiers, their unmarked graves giving no clues of the vital and heroic role they played in world history.
The First World War (1914 - 1918) was unlike any conflict seen before. Military strategies struggled to keep up with advancing technology and the subsequent fighting was brutal, prolonged and with casualties in their millions.
Some of the most intense and strategically important fighting occurred on the 'Western Front' where armies found themselves in a stalemate, dug into miles of trenches in a four-year battle for the upper hand. The miles of opposing armies along the 'Western Front' stretched through northern France and Belgium for 440 miles.
A Century Later…
2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the breakout of World War One, and the UK Government's 4-year remembrance programme runs between 2014 and 2018. Whether you want to follow events in this cultural and educational programme or pay respects your own way, the battlefields are sure to see many visitors during this period.
Today, throughout the areas that saw intense fighting, sit memorials, cemeteries and museums where you can learn about the war and pay your respects. Following the battlefields trail can be a deeply moving experience. Whether you're tracing the steps of relatives from generations past or honouring the fallen, the following sites are well-served for visitors.
Tracing Your Family History
Maybe you've heard stories of relatives who served and died in the Great War but you have little information to go on. If curiosity gets the better of you when looking at a familiar photo or letter passed down through generations, then you can find out plenty of information online using only a name. Sadly, it's easier to find information on those who died in service. Search the online records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission using the name of a relative or friend. After entering the name you'll be provided with information including rank regiment/service date of death, service number, casualty type and reference for the grave or place of commemoration, along with details about where to find the cemetery or memorial. When you've found the location of the grave you can retrace their steps. There are also plenty of organised tours available to take you to some of the key battlefield points.
Ypres Salient, Belgium
After an aggressive German advance on the allied forces in 1914, the two opposing armies tried to outflank each other as they headed northwards, in what became known as the "Race to the Sea". This race ended in October 1914 at Ypres, Belgium, though fighting continued for control of the city. Ypres was an important barrier between the German forces and the nearby channel ports, seeing further battles. The second battle of Ypres between April and May 1915 saw great loss of life on both sides, with a total of 95,000 casualties.
At Ypres Salient, you'll find the Hill 62 Trench Museum. It's here, within Sanctuary Wood, that some of the original trenches from 1914-18 still lay. The dilapidated trenches evoke clear images of times past. During the first battle, the wood became a place of sanctuary for those who were separated from their regiment, hence the name. But by 1915, the lower slopes of Hill 62 were part of the front line and fighting moved into the area.
Hill 62 Trench Museum
After visiting the preserved section of the British trenches you can pop into Hill 62 Trench Museum and see a collection of WWI images and paraphernalia from French, German and Belgium sources. Be warned, some of the stereoviews (3D images viewed through two lenses) can be disturbing.
In Flanders Fields Museum
Delve into this dramatic period of history at the In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres. Head to Cloth Hall where you'll come face-to-face with lifelike characters and interactive installations that illustrate the full scale of the tragedy. The authentic objects and images help preserve the link with the past, for those who want to remember and think about war and peace today, and you'll also have the chance to visit the bell tower. Find out more by watching this video.
Ypres Salient is just over an hours' drive from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle's Calais terminal. Follow the A16 towards Dunkirk and cross the border into Belgium. Continue onto the E40, before joining the N8 towards the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.
The Somme Battlefields, France
The Battle of the Somme was one of the First World War's bloodiest battles. British and French armies fought the Germans for control on both sides of the Somme River. This makes the Somme Battlefields, in France, a key historical spot. It was once believed that the war torn villages would never recover, but in the most part they were rebuilt. One exception is Thiepval, which now houses the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, to honour the thousands of British and South African men who died in the Battle of Somme (1916).
Musee des Abris, Albert
A good starting point for a history trip is the Musee des Abris, in the town of Albert, right at the heart of the battlefields. Enter the tunnels beneath Basillica square (formerly used as air raid shelters in World War 2), where you'll find reconstructions of trench scenes and thousands of war items and battlefield relics on display.
The village of Albert (the closest town to the battlefields) is less than a 2 hour drive from Calais. Follow the A26 heading south from the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle terminal.
Verdun Battlefields, France
The Battle of Verdun saw 300 days and 300 nights of continuous fighting between France and Germany. Devastated after the battles of 1916, this area was named a Zone Rouge which prohibited rebuilding. For this reason, many signs of destruction still remain. Remarkable sites include Verdun Memorial at the heart of the battlefields, Fort Douaumont (atop Hill 388) and the destroyed village of Fleury.
Verdun City is less than a 4 hour drive from Calais, following the A26 and A4.
Although we can never truly grasp the horrors of World War One, we can attempt to understand through education and remembrance. While you can learn the facts from books and films, visiting the battlefields, can perhaps provide you with a sense of place and atmosphere.