This past April, I was fortunate in that my wife Karen indulged my long held ambition to tour a part of the Western Front. Sandwiched between six days in Paris and four more in Bruges we spent two nights in Albert and two more in Ypres touring some of the nearly countless Great War sites located in those areas. These pictures show some of the more interesting and poignant locales and recall some of the most infamous episodes of that conflict. Mike Hanlon was kind enough to suggest that they could be featured on the GWS website and showed heroic patience when my e-transmittals of the pictures nearly crashed his computer system! Thank you Mike!
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ALBERT and ALBERT BASILICA
Albert is a pretty typical northern French town and is dominated by the reconstructed famous Basilica whose golden statute of Madonna and child teetered down so precariously, almost literally hanging by a thread, for most of the war. Viewing it, and the painting of how it looked at the time, gives one a pretty good starting point, both physically and emotionally, for a Somme battlefield tour.
LA BOISSELLE CRATER
This was the first stop on our driving tour and Karen's introduction to the awesome power of Great War ordnance. It's difficult not to shudder when viewing what is left of this massive hole in the ground knowing how much large it must have been 85 years ago and how many lives were lost when the British mine went up and the attacking troops went in! A private memorial bench and the cross are about all else there is to see. Note the chalky soil that dominates the area.
There is a well known Australian memorial nearby but this one commemorates the Frenchmen of the town who "Mort Pour La France". The village is a tiny one and like so many others throughout the country it's mind-boggling to see these memorials listing dozens of names of native sons killed 1914-1918. Typically there will be an "amended" plaque containing a much smaller number of those lost in World War II; an object lesson illustrating the far greater slaughter this county suffered in the first war compared to the second.
This is the largest British memorial, designed by the ubiquitous architect Sir Edwin Lutyens. It is the Holy Grail of British battlefield tourists. Ours was the only left hand drive car in the parking lot! It is impossible to convey the overwhelming emotions one experiences walking up this gravel drive and first seeing the over 72,000 names of Commonwealth troops killed in the Somme battle whose bodies were never identified! The thought that tens of thousands of families waited in uncertain and slowly but surely fading hopes that somehow their son, husband or brother might still return to them recalls the emotional agonies of the homefront that mirror those physical ones in the trenches.
These pictures, the Caribou, Dangertree (beyond which it could be fatal to proceed!) & Highlander statute, are from the most modern and well kept of all the Somme sites. While touring the visitor center and verdant park (which contains some of the area's best preserved original trenches and shellholes) we encountered a clearly knowledgeable and erudite English gentleman who was conducting a tour for a few friends. Knowing that the famous author oftentimes could be encountered in these environs I took a chance and discreetly asked him if he might be Martin Middlebrook. Alas my hopes were dashed as he good naturedly responded, "Don't I wish!" We both had a good laugh at my temerity and I expect that this is a story that the retired Folkestone schoolteacher has related, at this foolish Yank's expense, on a number of occasions!
Our final stop in the Somme region was the magnificent Welsh Dragon Memorial. Unbelievably, we were the only visitors to this wonderful place during our nearly one hour long visit! I later told our guide at Ypres, who had recently been working the Somme beat for Salient Tours, of this fact and he told me that there is "never" anyone else at Mametz woods. This is astounding to me in that, not only is the memorial itself one of the best I have seen, but the battle is so well known, was a monument to the courage of the sons of Wales and included such renowned Great War literary figures as Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. The dragon itself, clutching a wad of wire in it's claw immediately brought to mind Churchill's admonition that British troops should not be squandered on the Western Front "chewing barbed wire!" The view of the woods itself from the memorial's rise provides an excellent perspective from which to contemplate the woods itself and appreciate the deadly dangers the Welsh faced in 1916.