Shearings Battlefield Tours - a World War I Remembrance Holiday
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Why it’s never too late for a Remembrance holiday
Standing on the rim of La
Grande Mine, I can’t help feeling that the label for this huge crater is
something of an understatement. Hollowed
out of Picardy’s fragile earth, the gaping hole at La Boisselle in the Somme
measures a staggering 91 metres across and 21 metres deep. Whatever conversation you’re having as you
approach the duckboard perimeter, you’ll stop it for sure as you peer down the
steep grassy sides.
Today the chasm dubbed
Lochnagar Crater is surrounded by peaceful farmland, a sobering free visitor
attraction owned by Englishman Richard Dunning. But when the British blew up German fortifications here in 1916, the resulting
explosion remained the loudest noise heard until Hiroshima. Quite a thought to carry with you as you tour
Picardy’s tranquil, verdant countryside.
We’ve heard a lot about
World War I in the last three years as many nations commemorate the centenary
of the war that was supposed to end all wars. We look back at the sites and sacrifices of a vanished generation as we
watch ceremonies on television, and maybe we’re inspired to delve a little
deeper into our family albums and archives. So why bother to visit when TV and the internet can bring the whole
sorry saga vividly to life in our own homes?
Are the battlefields and cemeteries of Ypres, Passchendaele and the
Somme really the stuff of which holidays are made?
Most definitely. Nobody has successfully invaded British
shores since 1066, but the war zone of Northern France and Belgium is where our
recent history comes to life through the death of our own. And as we enter the last year of centenary
events in 2018, there has never been a more poignant time to visit with a
number of new museums, memorials and exhibitions.
Travel independently by car
and within an hour of Calais, you are deep in the heart of the battlegrounds of
Nord-Pas de Calais.
Less than two hours and you can be exploring the countryside of Flanders in one direction or Picardy’s
valley of the Somme in the
other; a little further south and you’re on the notorious ridge of the Chemin des Dames or the battlefields
of the Marne in Champagne-Ardenne.
There are so many
commemorative sites here that it’s easy to slot a few visits into a touring
holiday. There’s a wealth of free
information available at local tourist offices and museums, as well as
self-drive themed trails. And because
the concentration of sites is so great, you can easily combine Remembrance
sites with cultural visits, city stays, and outdoor fun.
The coast of Nord-Pas de
Calais and Picardy – now amalgamated into the new French region of Hauts de
France – is packed with possibilities for water sports and beach activities,
whilst inland there are hiking and walking trails suitable for both Silver
Travellers and three-generational groups. Or why not combine a tour of the champagne houses with a few Great War
sites? Many of our children and
grandchildren have learnt about World War I at school – probably more than we
did – and Remembrance visits can bring those classroom lessons zinging vividly
If you want to go into an
area or campaign in greater depth, join an escorted tour with expert guidance
from a specialist tour operator such as Silver Travel Advisor partner, Shearings Battlefield Tours. Whichever option you choose, you’ll be
surprised and moved by a wealth of detail you could never have imagined.
In the area around Bethune
and Vimy in Pas-de-Calais, for instance, I was humbled not only by how many
nations were represented – English, French, German and Canadian of course – but
also how many unexpected nationalities. At Richebourg, The Indian
Memorial is flanked by tigers and lists more than 4,000 men down to the
mulateers, whilst the nearby Portuguese National Cemetery is the sole place of
remembrance for Portuguese soldiers lost in the Great War. And at Neuville-Saint-Vaast stands the
Czechoslovak Cemetery and Memorial.
But one of the newest attractions
makes no distinction by nationality or rank. The stunning Ring of Remembrance – L’Anneau de la Mémoire – near the
French National cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette lists nearly 580,000 soldiers
who fell in Pas de Calais in simple
I’ve stood in silence too
before beautiful statues that personify national pride. Who’d have expected the figure of a man from
French Basque country facing away from the battlefields of the Chemin des Dames
in Picardy? Or the magnificent caribou
on top of the Newfoundland Memorial which dominates the grass-lined trenches of
the Canadian cemetery at Beaumont Hamel? Just a short walk away stands a small
dead tree – last one standing from the battlefield – with flags and poppies at
No-one who has read
Sebastian Faulk’s unforgettable novel Birdsong
can forget his evocative depictions the men who tunnelled beneath enemy lines
to lay explosives such as La Grande Mine. And no television experience could reproduce how I felt at walking
inside La Butte de Vauquois near Verdun, where French and German soldiers lived
like moles for three-and-a-half years on opposite sides of this strategic
hill. Nor on the outskirts of Arras,
the emotions I felt on a guided tour of the Wellington Quarry. Allied soldiers lived in this makeshift
underground town before emerging in darkness before enemy lines in 1917. Stand by the exit sign pointing up to the
unknown and I challenge you not to feel a pang.
But it’s uplifting too – a testimony to human spirit and the fight for
Every site offers a
different perspective and it’s hard to pick favourites. Amongst the major players, I’m constantly
moved by Lutyens towering memorial at Thiepval, visible from far and wide. Don’t miss Thiepval’s excellent new visitor
centre full of moving memorabilia, nor the Historial de la Grande Guerre at
nearby Peronne. The huge hidden bunker
of La Coupole near Saint Omer is always sobering too, built to launch V2
rockets on London and a chilling reminder of what might have been.
But it’s often the smaller
and the unexpected that move me. The
surprise view over the Somme water meadows from the small hill at Frise, where
information panels describe a bloody battle in this now idyllic landscape. The inscription on the headstone of a fallen
17-year-old from Yorkshire at Bethune – ‘It is well with the lad. Mother’. And those poignant last letters from the trenches, full of optimism, and
donated to museums by bereft family members.
Last spring, I spent a night
at Butterworth Farm, a
charming B&B with self-catering option in the village of Pozieres, run by
local mayor Bernard and his wife, Marie. They named the property after English composer and musician George Butterworth,
who died somewhere in the field behind their home in August 1916, aged just
31. They’ve even erected a small brick
memorial to the fallen Englishman beside their front gate with support from the
Commonwealth War Graves commission.
Today we remember George
Butterworth – a young talent so sadly lost – through his popular orchestral
idyll The Banks of Green Willow. And now, whenever I hear his music, I also
remember the kindness of a French family who took him to their hearts. And I’m glad that, 100 years on, Remembrance
tourism reaches out to all of us.
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