WW1 Battlefields

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We have been to Picardy several times and in 2014 made our first foray to see some of the WW1 Battlefields. This page is to share some of our advice on what to do.

Getting there

I enjoy getting the ferry because it feels more like a holiday, and there are plenty of cheap and regular crossings from Dover to Calais. I like using P&O because they’ve been good at getting us across if we’ve been late, and have good customer service.

However the Eurotunnel is a far better option. It’s usually around £80 per trip (although there’s a £15 per trip pet surcharge) and the road links are superb. There’s several trains each hour and it’s essentially first come first served. When you check in you are assigned a letter, and they typically refer to a set departure time. But if you proceed to the boarding slip lanes as soon as your letter is called, there’s a good chance you’ll squeeze onto an earlier train. If you spend too much time in the terminal and wait until the second call, you may well get pushed back onto a later one. The crossing takes just 35 minutes and you can get out of the car as soon as you’re on board. It really is an engineering marvel and wonderfully convenient.

Base

We stay in Mons Boubert which is a friendly village near Arrest. However we’ve also stayed at the Domaine de Drancourt campsite and highly recommend it. We like to book through Eurocamp which have plenty of affordable options. It is toddler friendly and conveniently located. Some of our favourite day trips include:

  • Saint Valery sur Somme – we visit the town centre regularly. It is the port that William the Conquerer departed from in 1066, and was a resting place for Joan of Arc on her way to Rouen in 1430 (I think). There is a monument for the former outside the Office de Tourisme and a plaque for the latter in the medieval part. The Sunday market is worth visiting (but best to park outside of town and walk in) and the quayside is flat and leads to a nice cafe (and playground) on the beach. We’ve enjoyed Creperie Sel et Sucre and Spa Samaris.
  • The Somme Bay steam train – St Valery to Noyelles is 15 minutes, whilst St Valery to Le Crotoy is 30 minutes. There’s a nice Salon de The/Art gallery right next to the station at Noyelles called Relais de las Baie but make sure you check times for the return journey (often it’s either a choice of coming straight back or having to kill a few hours).
  • Abbeville – the town centre is convenient to park in, find a brasserie, and visit the cathedral. There’s also a soft play called Accro Kids which has coffee and wifi. On a rainy day it is a necessity if you have young children.
  • Amiens – under an hour from St Valery and an easy day trip. We parked by the Hotel de Ville, visited the cathedral, and ate on the banks of the river. The old town is worth exploring.
  • Quend plage – Fort Mahon plage is bigger but Quend plage is a little closer (it’s a 40 minute drive), more down to earth (they don’t sneer if you want a coffee before lunch) and has everything you need. There is plenty of parking within a short walk of the beach and several brasseries on the front. The beach is sandy and goes for miles. It can be windy and the weather is unlikely to be much better than the UK but if you bring games, shelter, and a picnic it’s a great day out.
  • Crecy – the battle of Crecy took place in 1346, and was an important part of the 100 years war. It is just over 30 minutes away. There is a small turret that can be climbed to give an overview of the site and visualise the importance of the new technology being employed by the English longbowmen.

The battlefields

The itinerary below is based on what we’ve done, and what we’d do if we did it again. It is based on an overnight stay but could be fit into a daytrip. I’m not including any photos and don’t advise you to do any more research than what you’re reading now. If, like me, you don’t have much familiarity with these sites it’s best to see them for the first time in the flesh. Be willing to be surprised. Once there, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to absorb information. You can find the exact locations easily but we just put the town centre into the sat nav and then looked for the road signs to each place. This seemed like a better way to do it – everything is very well signposted, but it adds an element of immersion and serendipity. Once you are in Albert (and especially Beaumont-Hamel) you could just randomly drive around, and stumble upon cemeteries at random. It’s a bit like a morbid, poignant wine trip.

Day 1

  1. Drive to the Thiepval memorial (1hr 30 mins) – this is a great place to start because the visitor centre has a nice account of WW1 and a separate history of the Somme battlefields. My prior knowledge was limited to what I remembered from school and Blackadder. The visitor centre doesn’t go in much detail, but it fills in a few holes and lays down a nice primer. They also tend to have excellent photographs. The memorial itself is stunning.
  2. Drive to the German cemetery at Fricourt (20 mins) – head north out of Thiepval towards Pozieres. Over 17,000 German soldiers are buried here, making it one of the largest German sites in the area. It provides a haunting contrast to the Allies cemeteries which are individual white stone graves. The German ones are often buried 4 per marker, which are black crosses. Not all of them are crosses though.
  3. Drive into Albert and park by the basilica (10mins) – this is a good stop for lunch, and to stretch legs. Then, underneath the basilica is the Somme 1916 WW1 museum. It is housed underground, in a WW2 air raid shelter, but contains an evocative collection of WW1 memorabilia. There are numerous wax models displaying scenes from trench life. These are uncomfortable and you leave via a dark tunnel with scary sound effects.
  4. Drive to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial (10 mins) – this takes you into actual trenches at the front line. The visitor centre explains the history of Newfoundland (which at the time was a British Dominion) and there are free tours.
  5. Drive to Arras city center (35 mins) – we used the Holiday Inn Express and recommend it. There’s convenient parking and it’s right in the city centre. We walked to the Grand Place via the Place de Heros, and there’s plenty of restaurants in amongst the Flemmish style arches. We ate at Assiette ou Bouef and enjoyed it.

Day 2

  1. Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez (15mins) – one of the biggest British cemeteries and immaculately kept. It also has the advantage of having a Polish and Czechoslovakian cemetery nearby, and a stunning but fleeting view of the Vimy memorial on the road in.
  2. Drive to the Canadian National Memorial at Vimy (11 mins) – a real highlight of the trip. Head to the memorial first and walk around. You need to get back into the car to go on to the visitor centre. You can get a pass to allow you to explore the preserved trenches, and look at the bomb craters. There are also guided tours each hour, on the hour, and these provide access to an underground tunnel system.
  3. Drive back to base (1 hr 40mins) – there are several routes to take, we went via Hesdin. You could make it back for lunch, but we stopped on the way at Chez Nathalie in Labroye. There wasn’t really a menu, just a few specials. They were all authentic and hearty.