Commemorate the centenary with a visit to France and Belgium’s historic battlegrounds
In Flanders Fields, the poppies grow...
Although there are many reasons to visit the picturesque north of France, one of this region’s most consistent attractions is unquestionably its deep association with both World Wars. You may well have visited the Normandy beaches made famous in Saving Private Ryan, or visited the iconic American cemetary in Colleville-sur-Mer - but this year in particular, it’s the perfect time to return to the battlefields of France and Belgium or discover them yourself.
July 2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Whilst it’s not especially common to plan holidays around military anniversaries, the trenches, fortifications and monuments that define the Western Front have long attracted curious tourists and those wishing to pay their respects. This is truer than ever this year, with many WWI museums and memorials also playing host to spectacular and star-studded events. Whether or not you’re a military history buff, 2014 is the perfect year to explore the unique heritage of Flanders Fields.
Must-see sites for new visitors
Lochnagar Crater, La Boisselle
One of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, the detonation of the Lochnagar Mine signalled the beginning of the Battle of the Somme and, as a by-product, created the largest wartime crater in the world. At some 91m across by 21m deep, the Lochnagar crater is now a striking memorial to the devastating battle that ranged around it in 1916.
A remembrance ceremony is held each year on July 1st, but it’s well worth a visit whenever you travel - and thanks to the recent introduction of a sturdy walkway, it’s now perfectly safe in wet weather.
It’s hard to imagine the sheer scale of battles like the one at Verdun, which lasted for ten months and may have claimed as many as one million French and German lives. Since its construction in the 1970s, the Verdun memorial has become more of an educational centre than a monument or even a traditional museum. Featuring extensive displays of WWI medals, weapons and uniforms, fascinating period films and a wealth of other information on the battle and the war generally, it’s a perfect place to introduce your family to the astonishing true story of the Western Front.
Menin Gate, Ypres
Known to the thousands of British soldiers who marched through it as ‘Wipers’, the Belgian city of Ypres (NB: if you’re looking at a map, you may encounter the Dutch name Ieper) was a key location throughout the early years of the war.
One of the most poignant memorials to the fallen is the colossal Menin Gate, which lists the names of fifty-four thousand soldiers of the Commonwealth who have no known grave. Each evening at 8pm, the local fire brigade halts traffic through the gate to perform the Last Post - a tradition that, apart from during the German occupation in WWII, has continued without exception since 1928.
Centenary special events
Hearing the War, March-November 2014, Historial de la Grande Guerre
Housed in a castle in Péronne, just south of Arras, the famous Historial de la Grande Guerre museum is perhaps France’s best contribution to remembering WWI. The various collections will be extensively updated during each of the centenary years (2014-2018), and the new programme of events has already started with the moving ‘Sounds, Music and Silence in 14-18’ exhibition, available to visit until mid-November. Made up of hundreds of contemporary recordings of everything from popular songs to funeral marches, as well as the roaring guns, planes and artillery that marked WWI out as the first truly industrialised conflict, this is a uniquely evocative way to transport yourself back a century to the heart of the war.
Angels of Mons spectacular, 23rd August 2014, Mons
According to legend, the outnumbered British forces at the Battle of Mons were protected from the advancing German army by a force of phantom soldiers - some say they were angels, others the ghosts of British archers.
Whatever really happened, the city of Mons is commemorating the famous rescue with a son-et-lumière spectacle in the main square, which will tell the story of the Angels through music, poetry, circus acts and more. Arrive early, or find a hotel with a good view of the Grand-Place!
Aerial Centenary Somme, 12-14 September 2014, Amiens
The first military aircraft in history were deployed over the Somme, and an airfield sited near the battle lines will host a three-day event dedicated to the first generation of combat pilots and their contribution to the war effort. The Amiens-Glisy aerodrome will feature fly-overs, original WWI planes on the ground, and lots of activities for children including the opportunity to build model planes and kites.
Getting there and around:
Most of the key battles of the First World War were fought in north-eastern France and Belgium, so there’s no better way to get to the battlefields than with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle. Calais was an important supply point for the British army fighting just a few miles away, and it’s still an ideal base for exploring the Western Front.
Crossing from England to Calais takes just 35 minutes with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle, so anything from a day-trip to a serious walking tour is easy to enjoy; you can follow the coast east to Dunkirk and the Belgian border, head down the E17 towards Reims or go anywhere in between. Since Calais has such a close association with the WWI battlegrounds, it’s also worth visiting the tourist office at 12 Boulevard Clemenceau to find out what’s being scheduled locally to commemorate the centenary.