2016 was The Centenary of the Battle of The Somme. This battle took place during WWI in Northern France and it was one of the bloodiest, lasting for 141 days it caused over 1 million casualties.
In July last year, my father was travelling to France and Belgium to commemorate the anniversary by visiting different battlefields when an opportunity arose for me to go with him. As this is such an important part of history, and a period that I have great interest in, I wanted to go over to pay my respects.
All of the travel and accommodation was already booked beforehand so I wasn’t able to organise any of it. The journey from Inverness to France took way longer than I would have liked. First we drove to Hull, an 8 hour drive, before boarding an overnight ferry to Zeebrugge in Belgium which took another 12 hours.. We could have flown from Glasgow or Edinburgh in 3 hours.
Arriving in Zeebrugge first thing in the morning we wasted no
more time, by travelling straight to the Pas-de-Calais region in France. The Battle of Vimy Ridge took place here. The first thing I noticed when we arrived near the visitors centre was the massive shell holes that were still visible. I couldn’t believe how big they were and how much impact they made to the landscape 100 years later. The battlefield has been preserved, including some of the trenches. We were able to walk through them and I found it very hard to imagine what it would have been like for the men fighting and living in them during the war.
This area is also where the Vimy memorial stands; this is to commemorate the members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who were killed during WWI. The monument is massive and white; bearing the names of 11,000 Canadian servicemen who died in France – many of them fought for Vimy Ridge – who have no known grave. It was such a sunny and hot day, it was blinding trying to read the names on the monument and made it ever harder to try and imagine what happened here as it now felt very peaceful.
This took up most of our day so we headed to our accommodation which was in Lille. After we checked into the hotel we headed out to find some dinner and spent the evening in a couple of bars, playing darts with the locals.
We were up early the next day as we were heading to the Somme region and planned to visit a few different areas. The first stop was at the Thiepval Memorial, it bears the name of 72,246 missing British Empire servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme. While we were there a ceremony took place where the Last Post was played. It was an extremely moving and humble experience. It was sad reading the names on the walls, thinking that they don’t have a grave and their families never knew what happened to them. The visitor’s centre here is really informative, and if you are planning visiting this region you absolutely have to come here.
Our next stop was at the Ulster Tower, Northern Ireland’s national war memorial. This was built to commemorate the men of the 36th Ulster Division who fought during WWI. It is also worth noting that during WWI both Protestants and Catholics from Northern Ireland fought side by side. We had a tour guide while we were here who told us lots of interesting facts, he was able to tell us exactly where the German front line was and also that people are still finding items from the war, including cutlery, name badges and bullets. We were able to visit Thiepval Wood (this is private and you are unable to visit without a guide). Here we saw trenches that were originally named by Scottish soldiers after their hometowns. One was even named Inverness where I am from. The woods were fascinating, with many areas not yet extensively searched; Who knows what will be found when it is?
Our last stop for today took us to the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial. There are many memorials here including The Caribou commemoration to Canadian soldiers and a memorial to remember the Scottish 51st Highland Division. Across from this memorial I saw the biggest shell hole from the trip, it was absolutely massive. In many areas there is rope cordoning you off from walking on the grass because potentially there are still unexploded shells that could be set off.
Afterwards, we headed back to Lille. One thing that sticks in my mind is that when we were driving around this region we saw lots of cemeteries, with rows and rows of white headstones, just in the middle of fields. Many of the fallen soldiers were just buried where they had died in battle.
We headed out for dinner that evening, I wanted to try some French cuisine, preferably escargot but we couldn’t find any restaurants selling them. So I opted for pigeon instead, wrapped in a filo pastry. I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like but I loved it!
Today we were crossing the border into Belgium. After sampling some Belgium chocolate cake (an acceptable breakfast when you are away from home) we were set for the day. We made our way to Tyne Cot Cemetery. Those who died in the Ypres Salient are buried here, and it is also close to where the Battle of Passchendaele took place. Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world. 11,956 people, of which 8,369 are unnamed, are buried here. We had a guide for our time here and some of the stories that he told us were shocking, what the soldiers had to go through was horrible. Seeing hundreds of grave stones row after row after row was heartbreaking.
After, we went to Ploegstreet (Plugstreet), another memorial. Here a boy was buried, called A.E French of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, he died at the young age of 16. There was also a Jewish grave and also three German graves. All Commonwealth graves of WWI are the same, regardless of what rank you were in the forces. Everyone was buried as an equal.
Then we went to the memorial put up in honor of the 1914 Christmas Truce Match. A famous event that temporarily ended the fighting on Christmas morning. Soldiers from Germany and Britain put down their weapons and played a game of football against each other on No Man’s Land. I thought it was a really nice memorial, symbolising a peaceful moment in time.
Finally, we headed Ypres where my Father was laying a poppy wreath at the Menin Gate, which also serves as a memorial for the missing soldiers of the Ypres Salient. (I have done another page on Ypres). When we got back to Lille it was getting late and we were knackered so just got a takeaway pizza.
I learnt a lot during this trip. Which includes not to leave unfinished pizza in a room with the window open. Our room literally was swarming with ants! Yuck! Just as well it was our last day. We had no plans as we were leaving around lunch time but I wanted to fit in a bit of sightseeing in Lille so I wandered around the city centre. The main square, Grand Place, is beautiful and surrounded by many cafes. We also had time to visit Lille Cathedral and Saint-Maurice Church, both very interesting and stunning looking buildings. If you aren’t interested in visiting the battlefields, Lille would still be a great place to spend a few days in it’s own right. We mainly used it as a base but it’s a pleasant city with a lively nightlife.
This trip was so interesting for me, I absolutely loved visiting these sites of history but at the same time it really is so sad. And I still can’t quite imagine how horrible these places must have been 100 years ago. A week after I returned home I found out that my great-great grandfather fought and died in 1914 and his grave was only an hour away from where we had been so I’ll definitely be returning soon to visit.