Reminders of the Great War are present all along the Western Front. Trench lines can be seen for miles across the fields, while once beautifully thick woodlands remain flattened since the fighting and ponds have appeared in the craters left by shells. A visit to the First World War battlefields makes for a stark reminder of those lost in battle and is a moving way to mark Remembrance Day. Here’s our guide to the best routes for a World War I battlefield tour.
Calais/Zeebrugge – Ypres
Ypres lies just over an hour’s drive from either Calais or Zeebrugge. Today’s serene coastline is a total contrast to the scenes a century ago, when it was the site for many a soldier’s first landing during the Great War. Ypres was left in ruins after seeing some of the worst disasters of the Great War, including the Battle of Passchendaele, which ended in hundreds of thousands of casualties over three months of fighting across the town.
Despite the horrific events that have taken place on its streets, Ypres also saw one of the Great War’s rare moments of kindness in the unofficial Christmas truce held in 1914. The Germans decorated the area around their trenches and the opposing parties met to exchange gifts of food and alcohol, even playing football in no man’s land. After the war, Ypres was reconstructed to largely the same specifications as before, making it a great place for a World War I battlefield tour.
Ypres – Mons
From Ypres, continue southeast to Mons, the town famed for being the theatre for Britain’s first major battle of the First World War. The opposition were held back by the British soldiers lining the bridges along the canal in a two-day battle that would see the first Victoria Crosses of the Great War being awarded to a Captain and a Private of the Royal Fusiliers.
Despite being faced with an army twice their size, the British Expeditionary Force held strong against opposing forces, though naturally it came at a great cost. Their eventual retreat from battle lasted almost two weeks, and it was during this time that the Angels of Mons are said to have appeared to protect the men, who were delirious with cold and exhaustion. Photos show soldiers huddled together in the historic centre of Mons, the town’s original city hall looming large in the background.
Mons – Somme
The department of Somme in northern France is famed for seeing one of the worst and longest lasting battles of the Great War. The battlefields have hardly changed since the conflict, and are best experienced on foot away from the roads. In over four months of fighting, the surrounding area was largely desecrated, resulting in over a million casualties combined from both sides.
Head to Delville Wood for a particularly striking experience. While nearly all of the original forest was destroyed by fighting, the ‘Last Tree’ still stands, and indeed continues to grow despite the shards of artillery metal pockmarking its trunk. An original trench recently discovered at Auchonvilliers (Ocean Villas) has been preserved by volunteers and converted into an interactive exhibit. It can now be visited by the public, providing a rare insight into life on the First World War battlefields.
Feature image by Charlotta Wasteson