The Battle of the Somme (Northern France) is the most important Franco-British offensive of the First World War. This war of attrition was a great human tragedy, causing more than 1 million casualties within 5 months, from July to November 1916.
The land of the Somme counts several hundreds of military cemeteries and commemorative monuments to honour the memories of the soldiers who died, disappeared or were wounded, whatever their nationality.
As we are celebrating the centenary of the Battle of the Somme, we decided to understand this important page of our History. For 3 days, we have walked through the (battle) fields, we have observed the remains of the fightings and we have visited the places of memory.
Here is our remembrance trail.
The Battle of the Somme started on July 1st,1916, at exactly 7h28 …
Albert, located 18 miles east of Amiens, is one of the cities that was heavily bombed during the Battle of the Somme. The image below shows a wall painting reminding the visitors of the presence of the British soldiers and of the damage done on the Basilica’ s golden statue.
In a 700 feet underground, a very interesting museum exhibits an impressive number of objects, weapons, personnel belongings representing the daily life of the soldiers. This realistic account of the first world war is truly moving.
From the town center, we continue our remembrance trail east on the D938 road where is Albert French National Cemetery. It shelters the remains of 6,200 French soldiers. This field of crosses that stretches before us remind us the ghastly statistics of this war.
Then, we reach Fricourt, located 3 miles from Albert. This village was at the heart of the fightings during the Battle of the Somme. The names of the sacrificed lives are engraved on its war memorial. Even the streets remind us some particular crual events, like a street which was given the name of “rue Major-Raper”, British officer shot in the Wood of Fricourt.
Then we walk to the German necropole at the exit of the village.
The black crosses remind us that 17,000 German soldiers were killed in the early days of the fightings. The German Air Force ace Manfred Von Richthofen, known as the “Red Baron”, was temporarily buried in it before being repatriated to Germany.
We keep on hiking in the direction of Mametz, village located at one mile from Fricourt. After 500 yards, the little road to the north of the village branches off and leads to the Mametz Wood on the right. Then, at approximately one mile, we arrive at the Welsh Memorial, a very unique promontory adorned with a red Welsh dragon, emblem of Wales. It is turned facing the Mametz Wood and holds barbed wires in its claws.
In the early days of July 1916, the 38th Welsh Division launched an attack in Mametz Wood to disloge the Germans who were occupying the site. They will succeed after several days of fierce fightings, but at what price! The Welsh Division counted 4,000 casualties.
By contemplating this peaceful countryside, it is hard to imagine that 100 years ago this site was the scene of an unnamed horror.
4. La Boisselle
Our paths lead us through sugar beet and cereal fields up to the village of La Boisselle which lies on the D929 road. The countryside, with its fresly harvested fields is quite silent and peaceful.
In the heart of the village, a postsign indicates the direction of the Great Mine. We follow it and discover a stunning view, a hole measuring 300 feet across and 70 feet deep! And yet, it has been eroded since the explosion.
It is the Lochnagar crater, vestige of the British offensive intended to break the first German line. A series of explosions were triggered on July 1st, 1916 at exactly 7h28, time of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme. We walk around the edge of the deformed landscape which translates the violence of the battle.
5. The Frise’s marshes
This hike leads us to Frise, village on the Somme river. It starts at Eclusier-Vaux mobile bridge and runs along the towpath to Frise. The circuit continues along the Fargny marshes. The watery and picturesque lanscapes offer a total change of scenary.
Two viewpoints, the belvedere of Friesland and the one of Bois de Vaux, offer a breathtaking panoramic view on the whole Valley of the Somme and on the river.
Difficult to imagine, in this landscape out of time, that violent fightings took place a hundred years ago.
Thiepval, located north of Albert, was a martyr town of the Battle of the Somme. Nothing remains of this village, destroyed by the bombardments. On July 1st, 1916, the British troops launched an offensive to break through the German lines. This was the bloodiest action ever experienced by the British Army: in one day 60,000 men were killed, injured or went missing by the German machine gun fires.
An arch-shaped memorial, dedicated to the missing soldiers has been built on the site of the former battlefield. It is the largest British memorial in the world. It commemorates the sacrifices of 72,000 soldiers of the British and South African armies who died, or went missing during the Battle of the Somme with no known grave. Their names are engraved on the panels of the arches.
Going to the other side of the memorial, the visitor feels a lot of sorrow mixed with deep respect: a field of French crosses and Commonwealth white stones, perfectly aligned, extends to the white Cross of Sacrifice, overlaid with a bronze sword. Visitors have brought ornaments, flowers placed at the bottom of the memorial and on some tombs.
This site is deeply moving.
The Ulster Memorial Tower
Less than a mile from Thiepval, we reach the Ulster Memorial Tower. This building commemorates the Ulster battalions, of which 5,500 men died within a few hours on July 1st, 1916. It is a perfect copy of Helen’s Tower in Clandeboye (Ireland), where the men of the 36th Division trained.
Continuing our hike on D73 road, we arrive at the Newfoundland Park Memorial located near the village of Beaumont-Hamel. It was created right on the site of the battlefield and has remained untouched since the First World War ended.
At the time of the Battle of the Somme, Newfoundland had not joined the Canadian Confederation, and the men of the Newfoundland Regiment were all volontary soldiers. Today, the park is a Canadian National Historic Site.
On July 1st, 1916, the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment were fighting with the 29th British Division. The Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out by the German machine gun fires. Of 800 soldiers who launched themselves out of the trenches, half an hour later, only 68 men came back from the attack unscathed. The proportion of the losses was so heavy that this action is considered as one of the most deadly of the Battle of the Somme.
At the entrance of the park, is the Memorial to the 29th Division, a pyramid shape monument.
The Newfoundland Memorial is located in the heart of a very quiet park. A great bronze Caribou, emblem of the Newfoundland Regiment, defiantly watches over the fields where so many brave soldiers died.
Steps lead up to the top of the monument. This overlooking position gives us a stunning view on the battlefield, crossed by trenches lines and riddled with shell holes. The apocalyptic landscape gives a testimony of the hell of the fightings.
We meet several Canadians who have flown directly from their country to honor an grandfather’s tomb and to visit the commemorative sites.
There are several memorials in the park. We stop in front of the British cemeteries. Towards the rear of the park is the 51st Highland Division Memorial which stands in memory of the Sottish soldiers.
We leave the Newfounland Park Memorial by the north, cross the village of Beaumont-Hamel and continue our way on the D163 road. At 200 yards from the exit of the village, on the edge of a hollow road, a Celtic Cross stands at the very place where on the 13th November 1916, the Scottish Regiment of the 8th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders attacked the village of Beaumont-Hamel. This memorial pays tribute to their memory and achievement.
These 3 day hikes in the land of the Somme River allowed us to admire a peaceful countryside which a century years ago was the witness of the Battle of the Somme’s atricities. We could discover and observe some of its vestiges and get a better understanding of this awful page of our History.