As with the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel somberly memorializes the dead while preserving the battlefield as it was. This is one of the best preserved sections of the Somme and the extensive grounds and its iconic baying elk make it one of the best memorials of the war. The central focus of the memorial is a bronze elk calling in the direction that soldiers went to attack. On the grounds are other British cemeteries and memorials.
The Thiepval Memorial commemorates 72,000 soldiers who went missing in the battles for the Somme, in addition to 300 British and 300 French graves at the foot of the memorial. The Thiepval Memorial dominates the skyline for miles around and is an imposing building. From a distance I’ve always found it a little bulky, but up close, especially when reading the names, it takes on a more nuanced presence. We must have spent 20 minutes at the monument, not counting our time at the visitor’s center. Again, like so often happened after the first few minutes the quiet of the place took on an all pervading sense of tranquility.
At many of the cemeteries on the trip we saw people looking for relatives. Thiepval was no exception and as you can see in the photos there are people sitting on the steeps looking through the registers.
This was the last cemetery we visited on our trip. There are 2,800 graves and on the walls are 14,300 who have no known name.
The following photos are the small monuments we came across as we drove the route. Many of these are small lonely monuments along the side of a road, or in some cases in the middle of a farm field. And a few are tourist traps.
We stumbled on this cemetery in the early morning of our tour of the Somme. The dew was still on the grass and made for a tranquil start.
The Neuville-St.-Vaast German Military Cemetery is the largest one in France with 44,000 graves. At first glance the cemetery doesn’t seem that large until you realize there are four names on each cross. We were the only ones in the cemetery that day. After this we went to Arras another city destroyed and rebuilt. The Wellington Quarry museum is an underground tour through old mines that the British used as barracks and staging areas before the 1917 battles of Arras. Very good museum, but unfortunately you can’t take photos in the mine.
The Notre Dame de Lorette (Ablain St.-Nazaire French Military Cemetery) is the largest French military cemetery in France. It wasn’t really on my initial plan to visit, but given its location between Vimy and Arras it made for a good stop. Before stopping I hadn’t even heard of the battle of Artois, which says a lot about the futility of the battle.
There are two things that make this cemetery unique. First, there are always four volunteers on staff to greet visitors and assure that there is always someone available for the families. Two stand at the entrance to the church and two stand at the entrance to the ossuary. At first I thought they were there to keep people out, but when they saw us looking at the church they waved us over. They were friendly and mentioned something about the cold. They were quite surprised to hear we were from the United States. I don’t think many Americans pass through there. I didn’t take as many photos as I might have because I wasn’t sure if it was allowed in the church.
The other thing, something I’ve never seen, is there was a restaurant on site. It was full of people and served a good menu of the day. The volunteers ate their lunch their too with a good glass of wine.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial at Vimy Ridge is one of the best WWI memorials. Three things make the memorial so memorable. First, the monument itself, like all of the Canadian monuments, is sober. It doesn’t celebrate victory, but morns loss, even though the battle for Vimy ridge itself was a great success. Two, the Canadian government bought the land around the battle field and left it as it was at the end of the war. It is one of the few untouched battlefields left. Finally, the battle for Vimy Ridge was marked with extensive use of tunnels. The tunnels remain and Canadian students lead tours through them that not only explain the tunnels, but what was happening in the battle. And as an added plus you’ll get a little dose of Canadian history. It is a site not to be missed.
Ieper, Belgium was completely destroyed during the war. It has been beautifully reconstructed, including a faithful reproduction of the Cloth Hall. The Cloth Hall houses the In Flanders Fields Museum the most pacifistic war museum I’ve every been in. First there is a constant ominous drone, a music that gives the museum an undercurrent of foreboding. Second, many of the displays are about the dehumanization of the military. When displaying an uniform, they note that when a civilian joins the military his identity is taken away and replaced with a conforming uniform. They shows children’s games that promote militarism along with propaganda from each side. And as you leave the museum there are banners listing every war since WWI. This is not a museum so much about the history of war, but the history of collective insanity. The museum along with the Passchendaele museum bring the horrors that were the four battles of Ieper into focus. I didn’t take too many photos here, but the few I have will give you an idea of what Ieper is like.
The Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing near Passendale is the largest British military cemetery in the world with 11,954 burials. Along the walls of the inclosing arc are the names of another 35,000 missing for the years 1917-1918. The mud of the Passendale campaign particularly contributed number of missing. The area like most military cemeteries was the site of a battle that took place on October, 4 1917. There are three German bunkers in the cemetery, two are readily visible and the third is under the Cross of Sacrifice that is part of every Commonwealth Cemetery.
Given its size, importance, and proximity there were dozens of British tourists and several tour groups. It was quite a marked contrast from some of the remoter cemeteries that where wrapped in quiet. On the other hand, we did get to eavesdrop on the tour and learn a few things.