Nothing can teach you more about the way the First World War was fought than to see the ground on which it was fought. I’ve been several times now, with friends, with family and with students. Every time I go, I learn something new, even in the most familiar places. I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts to tie in with #talkingww1 tweetathon I’m taking part in later today (Friday 4 July 2014).
I don’t know that it’s in very good taste to have ‘favourite’ First World War battlefields, but here are some of mine. No doubt you’ll have others and I’m interested to hear your ideas. I’ve only included those I’ve been to, and have restricted this to places which are easy to access from the UK, I’m afraid. This was a World War, and every continent has its battlefields to visit.
A general point, first: the cemeteries kept so beautifully not only by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, but by the French and German equivalents, are beautiful places which cannot help but spark reflection. However, if you follow the itineraries suggested in some of the most popular guide books, ‘compassion fatigue’ can rapidly set in and the trip degenerates into a rather depressing blur of tombstones. Personally, rather than spend a whole tour staring at headstones, I prefer to pay my respects and do my remembrance once properly on a trip, and otherwise spend my time studying the ground over which the soldiers fought. As it happens, the cemeteries often offer convenient places from which one can do this, and one should of course behave respectfully in them. But that doesn’t have to extend to reading every inscription, every time.
10) Cleopatra’s Needle, Victoria Embankment, London
The easiest of all the battlefields to visit: you don’t even need a passport. Once can still see the damage done by German bombs during the First World War, however, and the story of the air defence of Great Britain is a fascinating one which tells us much about the political constraints on strategy.
9) Le Cateau
The BEF stood here on the ridge north-west of the town in 1914 much as Wellington’s army had at Waterloo 99 years earlier. Here they felt for the first time the force of modern firepower. Within weeks, the way wars were fought had changed for ever…
8) Le Quesnoy
…And yet, some things stayed the same. The fortifications of this little town were stormed by the New Zealand Division in the last week of the First World War. They used all the tools of modern war. But also medieval weapons such as scaling ladders and burning oil.
7) Vimy Ridge
From the Canadian Memorial here one is not only on the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, but on a clear day can see clear across to the Messines Ridge and Mount Kemmel south of Ypres. One of the few places on the Western Front one can get a sense of the strategic scale, and of the importance of high ground. Note also the monument to the Moroccan Division, who almost captured this ridge two years before the Canadians did.
6) Notre-Dame de Lorette
We often seem to forget that the French bore much or most of the heaviest fighting against the Germans on the Western Front. You can’t forget that in the huge cemetery and ossuary here. You also have an expansive view over Vimy Ridge and the area brutally contested during three bloody Franco-German battles for Artois in 1914-15.
5) Newfoundland Park, Beaumont-Hamel
The preserved trenches and No Man’s Land here are, for me, the most evocative around today and give the best impression we can get of how trench warfare was fought.
4) Tyne Cot Cemetery, Passchendaele
A beautiful and moving place built over old German defences with a good little visitor centre and a view back to Ypres, surprisingly close.
3) Monument of the Nations, Flesquières
By 1917 and 1918 all armies had developed new ways of waging war, integrating new technologies and tactics to fight. Here one stands within the German Hindenburg Line and can compare two interesting cases of the use of modern combined arms warfare: at the Battle of Cambrai (20 November 1917) and the Breaking of the Hindenburg Line during the victorious Allied offensive known as the Hundred Days from August to November 1918.
2) Riqueval Bridge
An iconic point on the Western Front, one of the keys to unlocking the Hindenburg Line. It was captured intact by men of the 46th (North Midland) Division on 29 September 1918 and later was the scene of an iconic photograph of the brigade commander congratulating his troops all standing on the banks of the canal it spans. (I would put the photo here but cn’t be bothered with the copyright, I’m afraid).
1) Devonshire Trench, Mametz
Back on the Somme, with the regimental history in hand, not only can one here follow exactly the course of the action which laid low 163 men of the Devonshire Regiment on 1 July 1916; but it’s also a beautiful and tranquil place to sit and absorb what one has learnt.
These are only sketchy outlines: one could write chapters on many of the above, and I and other historians have! Some of them are clichés; some more off the beaten track. I could easily have come up with a different list of another ten. No doubt you’ll have others and I’m interested to hear your ideas.
If one of you goes to one place, and learns one thing, you otherwise wouldn’t, I’ll be delighted.