At last, the Great War battlefields and cemeteries of France and Belgium have been recognised as World Heritage Sites by Unesco. Most people already knew that they were rather important, so UN recognition – as well as coming very late – might also be thought to add little.
But the countries and people involved in the bid to the UN – having been turned down in 2018 – are immensely gratified. It’s a “strong decision”, said Rima Abdul Malak, the French culture minister. It would then be unwise, as well as unkind, to rain on their parade.
And, anyway, anything which redirects attention to the sites in question – Unesco has identified 139, 43 in Belgium, 96 in France – is a good thing.
With or without a UN accolade, key First World War sites have been continuing to attract visitors in their thousands. There is no denying the pull of the world’s bloodiest conflict, even as it has segued from memory to history. One reason may be that the former killing fields of France and Belgium provide the most moving experience that you’re ever likely to have in foreign parts, in this or any other year.
The woods and undulating farmland of Northern France and Belgium are, as the UN has belatedly noticed, punctuated by monuments and parks, memorials and cemeteries which have turned formerly God-forsaken stretches into some of the most dignified spots in Europe. Occasionally, they may seem to embody a nationalism as bombastic as that which kicked off the war. But no. The monuments are, in truth, vital as expressions of epic grief at the sacrifices made. “It’s us saying thanks to the good guys,” a Canadian military man once told me.
At Rancourt, Guillemont and Martinpuich, you stand where young men fought and died for their mates, for their country and for a cause they mainly believed in. Heroic early illusions may have drowned in mud, blood and stench but it seems that weary dedication took over.
It is not the least irony of the battlefields that, Armageddon a century ago, they now engender calm, friendliness and respect between people, including former enemies. It is unmissable around the French and Belgian sites. One time when I was at the vast German war cemetery at Neuville-St-Vaast, a school group from Shropshire had just visited. In the entry porch, they had left a cross, poppies and a (tailored) quote from Wilfred Owen: “You are the enemy I killed, my friend.” Clearly, everyone benefits century from contact with notions of nobility, decency and self-sacrifice.
That said, the sites are indeed numerous, as the UN has also recognised. Try to do them all and you too will not be home for Christmas. Here’s a selection of 10 of the most interesting and important.
At Tyne Cot Commonwealth cemetery – north-east of Ypres in Belgium – tombstones stretch down the hill, a huge unmoving military formation. Here, where the killed of Passchendaele lie, a lady told me how best to give meaning to war cemeteries.
“What I do,” she said, “is imagine there’s a soldier standing behind each grave.”
A brilliant idea. Suddenly there were thousands of them – 11,956 to be precise – waving, smiling and smoking. A multitude. A soccer crowd. They included 2nd Lieutenant Arthur Conway Young whose tombstone challenged the ambient Remembrance-speak: “Sacrificed to the fallacy that war can end war,” it read. Then they were gone. I went to the visitor centre, then onto the Menin Gate in Ypres for the nightly 8pm Last Post.
“It’s great that you still do this every single evening,” an English fellow said to a local Belgian chap. “But we owe you so much,” said the Belgian. Cynicism shrivels round here.
Just south of Lens, Vimy Ridge commemorates Canadian guts and ingenuity with the region’s most inspiring war memorial – it’s like a pharaonic tuning fork – overlooking the Douai plain.
On April 9, 1917, the Canadians taught everyone else how to attack apparently impregnable positions by advancing an unprecedented 4,000 yards to take the ridge. These days the site, ceded to Canada in perpetuity, is a hush of lawns, woodland, a new visitor centre, restored trenches into which one may walk and now-grassed shell craters into which one may not.
There’s unexploded ordnance among them. Nearby, up another hill, Notre-Dame de Lorette is France’s biggest war cemetery, overseen by a Romano-Byzantine chapel so garishly wrong that it’s right. The site also hosts the 345-metre Ring of Remembrance. Some 500 steel sheets, 10 feet high, form an enormous ellipse bearing the 579,606 names of all those who died in Nord and the Pas-de-Calais during the war.
Neuville Saint Vaast
This village, near Vimy, hosts war cemeteries for all three major combatant nations. All have dignity denied to soldiers in the trenches. But there are differences. The British often preferred men to be buried near where they died, whence the abundance of cemeteries: 410 on the Somme alone. The French opted to gather their fallen into huge necropolises, where cream crosses fill the field of vision. The German cemetery at NSV, the largest in France, is more discreet behind hedges and earth mounds. Metal crosses are further apart. Tombs are unflowered and flow with the landscape, as French and British cemeteries don’t, as if trying to return worn-out warriors to the earth.
The town hosted so many British and Commonwealth soldiers in early 1917 that the Daily Mail sold 10,000 copies a day. The key visit is the Wellington Quarry, where 400 NZ miners expanded ancient quarry workings into a 14-mile subterranean network. Some 24,000 troops gathered down there prior to bursting forth on Easter Monday to attack the German lines in the second battle of Arras. The network had hot water, electricity, trains, a hospital and kitchens where one can still see bottles of HP sauce, and cans of beans and sausages furnished “to cheer the men up”
Sheffield Memorial Park
Don’t park on the farm track leading to the site – the local farmer gets shirty – but you’ve every right to visit what is, in fact, a copse.
It was from here that the northern Pals’ Battalions set out uphill to take the village of Serre in the early morning of July 1, 1916. The battle of the Somme was underway on a 15-mile front. Heavy machine gun fire cut them down “like swathes of corn”, according to a German infantryman.
But, as Brigadier General Hubert Rees noted: “Not a man wavered, broke ranks or attempted to go back.” The main memorial is to the Accrington Pals. It is (of course) in brick.
A plaque to the Chorley Pals reads: “Where the larks sing and poppies grow/They sleep in peace for ever more” – which is the sort of thing you say when there’s nothing to be said.
A bronze caribou on a rock oversees the site, giving an early indication that these 74 acres honour the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Trenches are preserved.
You may walk them, and the battlefield across which 800 men from the dominion attacked on the first day of the battle of the Somme. Only 68 returned unharmed. Their attack failed because, as a senior British officer said: “Dead men can’t advance.” Among those unable to advance were four lieutenants from the same Newfoundland family. This is perhaps the best-preserved of the battlefields.
The visit also justifies lunch at nearby Auchonvillers where Avril Williams’ splendid, unabashed British tea-room – Ocean Villas – has sausage, egg and chips for £8 and camaraderie by the carriage-full.
The greatest British and Commonwealth memorial on the Somme – bearing names of 72,194 Britons and South Africans with no known graves – is astoundingly ugly but diabolically effective. It punches at the sky in outrage, instilling awe. Under its effect, I have seen grown men weep and teenagers silenced.
The visitor centre, with new-ish museum attached, is a most useful complement to the Péronne Historial, and may be visited on a joint ticket. Meanwhile, nearby at Longueval on July 15, 1916, 3,200 South African soldiers entered Delville Wood. Only 143 emerged intact.
The wood, pounded to smithereens, has been re-grown with acorns from South Africa. A monumental SA memorial rises like the parliament of a small nation amid the trees.
Without much doubt, the Historial is the finest museum of the Great War on the Western Front.
It tackles not only military matters but the cultural and social impact on all three major protagonists: Britain and Commonwealth, France and Germany. Vital, too, is a rare complete set of Otto Dix’s 50 Der Krieg etchings. Savage in their portrayal of savagery, they place Dix alongside Erich Maria Remarque – author of All Quiet On The Western Front – in his refusal to glorify war.
Predictably, most copies were later destroyed by the Nazis.
Villers-Bretonneux / Bullecourt
Australians fought like demon Diggers in key sectors along the Western Front – including at Bullecourt, nowadays a pimple (pop 250) on rolling farmland. But war has a transformative effect on the standing of unremarkable spots.
A grand little museum tells Bullecourt’s 1917 story, and includes a letter from Private John Ambrose Ware to his mother in NSW: “Sometimes they are blown to pieces. Others are not so bad – limbs off, skulls knocked in”. This will have been a great comfort to his mum.
That said, the Aussie cemetery, huge national memorial and recent, £57-million Sir John Monash Centre – telling the Diggers’ story – are all at Villers-Bretonneux, where Australian forces were vital in turning back the April 1918 German offensive.
Verdun is, for France, the point of reference for absolute horror as the Somme is for Britain and the Commonwealth.
On February 21, 1916, the Germans attacked en masse from the heights around the town, intending to “bleed France white”. “They shall not pass,” said General Robert Nivelle, and they didn’t, though, over the 10 months, it was a close-run thing.
There were some 976,000 casualties – a few of which you may see by bending down and peering through the low windows of the Douaumont ossuary. Unusually, skulls (and bones) stare back. Around the ossuary and its shell-shaped tower, some 40,000 devastated acres have been left free of development that forest might soften the historical blows.
Nine destroyed villages have not been rebuilt though you may at, say, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, see where they lived and died. Two Great War forts, Douaumont and Vaux, repay attention, as does the recently-renewed Verdun Memorial, a rare museum actually right on the battlefields.
How to book a tour
The sites above can be visited under your own steam, or on a tour. Among companies offering organised Western Front tours are The Cultural Experience, Leger and Classic Battlefield Tours. Personalised trips may be organised with Camalou or Sophie’s Great War Tours.
This article is kept updated with the latest information.