History lessons: A 78-year-old battle continues to surrender new mementoes. Ross Davies visited a French museum devoted to the story of the Somme

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The Independent Culture
The Gulf War, its opponents feared, could be 'another Somme': the same was said of the Falklands War, and it is still being given as a reason for staying out of Bosnia.

If you want to know about the Somme, the original and worst, a four- and-a-half month battle of 1916 during which a few miles of ground changed hands at the cost of more than a million casualties, then there are worse places to start than the Musee des Abris at Albert, northern France.

The Musee is neither the only nor the biggest museum of the First World War in France. Its dusty, eerie tableaux of trench life impedimenta can't match our own Imperial War Museum's gift for dramatic son et lumiere reconstruction. But unassuming, humble even, this is a museum which is very much a part of the period it evokes.

The museum has 200 metres of galleries, leading off from which are glass-fronted alcoves, each housing either some reconstruction of trench life or just a jumble of Somme bric-a-brac, right down to the (stuffed) rats. The atmosphere is eerie, sinister even.

The uniforms, the weapons and the trench objects, right down to cocoa and marmalade tins are rusty, dusty and frowsty as though they were discovered the day before yesterday.

As you step, blinking, out into the sunlight, all around you is the real thing: the Musee des Abris is a starting point for drives, cycle rides or walks around the old front line, and the many memorials and cemeteries that commemorate the fighting. But be careful of some of the open-air 'exhibits' you find along the way. Somme bric-a-brac can still bite.

Many people can recognize a grenade when they see one - but there is one, fairly common, article that looks like a bit of old motor cycle exhaust and in fact is a British Stokes mortar bomb. Today, the chalk downlands north of the Somme river, where the armies slogged it out in 1916, are given over to sugar beet and maize. Each winter, however, farmers plough up a fresh harvest of Great War relics.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission looks after the human remains, while farmers stack the shells, grenades and mortar bombs at the side of the road like so many milk churns. Once in a while the French Army collects them for detonation elsewhere. From time to time the soldiers don't come quick enough to prevent one of the local lads from blowing himself up while trying to prise the brass nose- cone off a shell.

Non-lethal discoveries, from helmets to field and machine guns, all find their way to the Musee des Abris. New finds are now being made all the time during excavations for a bypass on the D929, the old Roman road between Amiens and Arras which runs through Albert.

Who goes to such places as the Somme and its museum? Everybody, it seems, from schoolchildren to pensioners. The Great War is about family as much as about military or diplomatic history. More and more people are finding out they have a relative who served on the Somme, and who may be there still.

The Musee des Abris Somme 1916, Albert 80300, France. 10.00-12.00 & 2.00- 6.00 Mon-Sun between 1 April and 31 October, and in November on Sundays and Bank Holidays (010 33 22 751617)

(Photograph omitted)