The battlefields of the Somme

We’ve prepared our itinerary from Saint Quentin to Ypres and timed it perfectly to arrive at the first museum at opening time. It turns out however that the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne is closed on Wednesdays after October. It looks very interesting from the outside so we’re sorry to miss it, but the day goes on so we take a short walk to see the highlights of Péronne instead. The tourist office has a brochure with several tours and we take off through the small town. We see the city hall, the Porte de Bretagne – a well preserved old gateway to town, now in a city park, the Somme riverbanks and the cathedral, but all in all it’s a pretty boring walk. Nevermind, it’s a sunny and crisp day so we make fun and enjoy it!

We discovered the Circuit du Souvenir in another brochure from the tourist office and decide to follow it, since our planning is out the window and we have some time on our hands. I drive and Arne reads the historical notes about the places we encounter. We stop briefly at Rancourt Military Cemetery and then drive through the fields to the South African Memorial at Delville Wood. This turns out to be a cemetery with a large memorial building in Delville Wood itself, housing a recently renovated museum about the participation of South Africa in the Great War. The balance between moving stories about invididuals and general information about the politics and progress of the war make it one of the nicer museums we’ve seen so far.

Arne is determined to see the caribou at the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial so we continue to the circuit. We first stop at Thiepval Memorial, by this time we’re about starving and we’re very grateful that the museum shop sells sandwiches. Lunch is hard to come by on this trip, most of the villages we see are too small for a shop or even a bakery. The memorial is very impressive, but we skip the museum since we still have quite a way to go.

The Newfoundland Memorial is supposed to be a quick stop but when we are welcomed by the canadian park ranger and get a short introduction we realize this deserves a longer visit. After some mental juggling with the list of things to see, we decide to skip the Louvre-Lens art museum and spend more time in this area of the Battle of the Somme. The memorial has three cemeteries but it’s mainly interesting due to the preserved trenches. Before now the battlefields we visited were planted with trees, but this plot was bought right after the war by a Newfoundland chaplain. The clear view of the trenches combined with the description of the progress of the battle here really allows you to imagine what trench warfare was like.

Our final stop is the Canadian National Vimy Memorial, where we happen to arrive right when a free tour is about to leave so we don’t hesitate to and join the group to visit the tunnels and battlefield. The museum is very new and the organization impeccable, a team of friendly young Canadians staffing the museum and giving the tours. The tunnels are impressive, it’s amazing what they were able to do with limited tools, but the story describes gruelling warfare, disease and death. After visiting these main battlefields at Verdun, Chemin des Dames and here at the Somme, we’re really starting to understand how this war was fought and what the human cost was.

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