Travel: The bleakest history lesson of them all

Jeff Howell is deeply moved by a visit to the First World War battlefields and graveyards of northern France
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The Independent Travel
ON 1 JULY 1916, 120,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers - most of them recent civilian volunteers - climbed out of their trenches and walked into a hail of German machine-gun bullets. By the end of the day 20,000 of them lay dead, and 40,000 were wounded; it was the greatest tactical blunder in British military history.

Most British people have heard of the Somme, but only a small proportion of British visitors to France visit the battlefields, perhaps not appreciating how close these sites are to home. Yet when the fighting was at it peak the shellfire could be heard throughout southern England.

In recent times there has been a surge of interest in the First World War. Martin Middlebrook, whose book The First Day on the Somme did much to spark the revival when it was first published in 1971, says: "The study of family history has become a popular hobby, and more people want to find out exactly what grandfather went through in the Great War. In many cases grandfather was a young man who suffered, died and was buried in France." The war is now also on the National Curriculum for GCSE history, and schoolchildren are persuading parents to take them on fact-finding trips to the battlefields.

Most of the raw volunteer troops of Lord Kitchener's army in 1916 sailed from Southampton to Boulogne, and were taken by train to base camps around Amiens before marching or being driven up to the front lines - some of them in double-decker red London buses shipped over for the purpose. Today the Somme is an easy 100km drive from any of the Channel ports, which makes it ideal for a weekend trip. Whichever route you choose will take you through the rolling farmlands of Picardie, and through an area rich in military history. The drive south from Ostend runs close to the old Western Front for most of the way, past those other killing fields of Ypres and Passchendaele, and down to Arras, where the medieval tunnels and vaults were used by both sides in the First World War, and by the French resistance in the second. From Calais and Boulogne you can pass Etaples, the biggest British cemetery in France, and Montreuil, site of the British headquarters, complete with a statue of General Haig in the market place. Agincourt is close by, the battleground of a previous British expeditionary force under Henry V in 1415.

The Battle of the Somme takes its name from the departement of that name, with the River Somme marking the southern end of the British sector. The ill-fated British action took place over a surprisingly small area, most of which can be covered in detail in two days by car, bike, or on foot. The small town of Albert, which changed hands several times during hostilities, is the natural place to stay, with its handful of small hotels and restaurants. The Somme is now a relatively poor area of France, however, and tourist facilities are less plentiful than in some other areas.

Nicholas and Pauline Kerr, from Kent, whom I met there, are typical of many British visitors. Although they are unaware of any relatives of their own who died on the Somme, they found the visit highly moving. "You know you're coming to see war graves," said Pauline, "but you don't realise how many there are until you get here." Nicholas was impressed with the reception from the locals. "The attitude here to the British is incredibly friendly, unlike some other areas of France."

While much of the cratered land has now been returned to the plough - a deliberate policy by the French government to get things back to normal - there are still signs of the man-made inferno that raged over the area throughout the 1914-1918 period, as the same ground was fought over again and again. The most spectacular evidence is in the huge holes left from underground explosions; both sides dug tunnels under each others' trench positions, packed them with tons of explosives, and detonated them. The result, apart from the origin of the term "mine" for a buried explosive, is a lunar landscape of craters. Most have been filled in, but some remain, such as the famous double crater on Hawthorn Ridge and the Lochnagar Crater near Albert, which was recently bought privately to preserve it as a war memorial.

Trenches and shell holes are also visible in many places, especially in the wooded areas and, astonishingly, the local farmers still plough up an annual harvest of unexploded shells - even after 80 years. Each autumn there are piles of the things dumped at the side of the road for French army bomb disposal teams to collect. Rifles, tin hats, barbed wire and corrugated iron dug-out roofs are regularly unearthed, and the better- preserved examples find their way into souvenir shops in the area.

But it is the cemeteries that provide the most profound souvenirs of the folly of the Great War. They are everywhere. The death statistics - 20,000 on the first day, 80,000 throughout 1916 (and these are only the British figures) - are just numbers until you are faced with that number of gravestones to look at. The war graves are breathtaking. Maintained to an impeccable standard by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, and each one centred on a stone of remembrance with the legend "Their name liveth for evermore", they are probably the only decent thing to emerge from the slaughter. The most intimate are the small battlefield graves in no man's land between the front lines, some containing fewer than a hundred graves. They bear the names of the battlefield landmarks of the day: Munich Trench, Railway Hollow, Blighty Valley. It is mind-numbing to think of the noise and violence that raged in these tranquil spots to cause so much death. Some also contain German graves - former foes lying side-by-side forever - there can be no clearer expression of the futility of war than this.

The bigger battlefield clearance cemeteries on the Serre Road contain thousands of graves, and are awesome in their own right. Most of the German dead, banished from the area by an irate French government after the Great War, are concentrated in four huge plots. I visited the one at St Vaast, which contains over 40,000 bodies; each cross bears the name of four dead soldiers. The Jewish German soldiers - and there were many fighting in the Great War - have their own headstones, marked with the Star of David.

Even more moving are the memorials to the missing. The First World War unleashed such a level of explosive violence upon the human body that many were simply blown to bits, leaving no identifiable remains. The missing thousands are remembered by their names inscribed upon memorials, and by gravestones bearing the legend "A soldier of the Great War - Known unto God".

If you wish to find a particular grave or memorial, then contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (tel: 01628 634221) with as much detail as possible, and they should be able to give you an exact location within 10 days. From this month onwards it will be possible to search for this information direct from the commission's website (www.cwgc.org), a technology that would have have astounded our poor forebears who fought and died in the mud of 1916.

See Home Front, Sunday Review

FACT FILE

the somme

Getting there

Jeff Howell travelled courtesy of Sally Direct. The cheapest standard cross-channel car fare available is through the Sally Line (tel: 0845 600 2626). The Ramsgate-Ostend crossing costs pounds 60 return for a car and two passengers. London-Albert costs pounds 99 return on Eurostar (tel: 0990 186186).

Getting around

The battlefields can be explored by car or bicycle. Bikes can be hired from the tourist office in Albert (tel: 0033 322 751642). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission publishes maps of the cemeteries and memorials (tel: 01628 634221). Walking tours are organised by Mike Hodgson and Martin Middlebrook (tel: 01205 364555).

Where to stay

Albert is the most convenient base, but has only a few cheap hotels. Contact the tourist office (tel: 0033 322 751642). The larger towns of Amiens and Peronne are also close, and offer good tourist facilities. Contact the tourist offices (tel: 0033 322 716050 and 844238 respectively).

Further information

Peronne has an excellent Great War museum, Historial de la Grande Guerre. Recommended books include Martin Middlebrook's The First Day on the Somme and The Somme Battlefields, both published by Penguin.

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