Whilst driving to Europe a few months back, we had planned on visiting the Belgian city of Brussels. However as previously blogged it was literally days after the monstrous attacks that rocked us all, therefore we had to adjust our route. This meant spending our final day’s holiday across the border in France.
We stayed close to the city of Lille, however when exploring we soon ran out of ideas. Out of nowhere we suddenly realised where we were. We were literally a few miles away from the French border with Belgium, one of the most historically significant locations for both World War One and Two.
After a little research we soon found out that we were only an hour away from one of the most notorious battles of all time – The Battle of the Somme. We remembered snippets of it from our schooling as the turning point of the British and French defence against the German Empire. Although it would be a fleeting visit, we decided the experience would be worth it.
The route would take us past many battle fields, but one that drew me in was the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Vimy was a horrific battle where the Canadian divisions advanced on the German army with tremendous losses. It now stands as a Canadian Memorial park, symbolising the huge loss of life. An imposing memorial now looks out across the ridge engraved with the names of those brave souls who lost their lives.
Behind the memorial lies a number of original trenches, preserved through time by concrete filling and surrounded by woodland. It’s a peaceful yet somewhat haunting experience, somewhere where reflection is a necessity. Thousands of people gave their lives for our freedom in this very place, no doubt we were standing on the death beds of many an innocent soul – it’s a humbling experience.
The landscape surrounding the memorials still hasn’t been deemed safe for public exploration from mines and shrapnel, it’s incredible that even in a hundred years this place still bore the scars of the war.
We were hooked by the experience at Vimy, it was intoxicating and a drive to the Somme could prove even more so. What we didn’t realise was that the Somme is a huge area where the battle raged for 17 days with over a million men wounded or killed. The death-toll was insurmountable on all sides, and as such it is noted in history as one of the bloodiest battle of all time.
We were not sure what we expected but what we found was a huge area of beautiful farm land, small village settlements and peaceful tranquillity. The only reminiscence we initially found were hundreds of grave sites littered throughout this beautiful countryside. The scars on the land may not have completely healed, but time has hidden them from plain sight. A trip to the nearby town of Albert allows an overview of the strategic battle positions, however I recommend wandering them yourselves, as you can attain a real feel of the history and the monumental acts that took place here.
With little time we explored the area of Beaumont Hamel, which still houses some of the original trenches used throughout the battle. This location houses a more authentic experience of the trenches, as they had not been preserved in stone as they have in Vimy. You can’t imagine the trauma and horror that the men stationed here and all over the front line went though. They not only faced the enemy, but faced disease, starvation, loneliness, and imminent death every day of their lives. It’s a humbling experience standing in the footsteps of so many unknown heroes.
July 1st 2016 was the hundred year anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, described as ‘one of the most bloodiest battles of all time’. The sad truth is that we never learnt from these horrific events and 21 years later the world was again at war. Unbelievably, even today there are nations of the world that still experience the horrors of war on a daily basis.
I realise it’s easier said and done but we should learn from the heroes of yesterday and put an end of these senseless conflicts.