THE WESTERN FRONT 1914-1918
BASIC TOUR OF THE SOMME AND THE YPRES SALIENT
This tour is the basic one for first-time visitors from the UK, the former British Empire, possibly the USA and any other interested parties! There is MUCH more of interest to be explored, especially Verdun (French) and the Argonne (American), but these trips are for you to decide upon once you've dipped your toe, sometimes literally, in the waters of this one. The information imparted herein is merely the bare bones. To put the flesh on them, get the absolutely essential guidebooks :
1. Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Somme
2. Major and Mrs Holt's Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient
Despite their somewhat anachronistic titles, these are fantastic books written by two truly excellent guides/historians. Beautifully produced and copiously illustrated, they're readily available from Amazon at about £10 each. They will explain the sometimes cryptic references in my text.
I would advise doing the tour in the order described here; that is, beginning with the Somme and then travelling via Vimy Ridge to Ypres where our tour finishes.
Also I'm assuming that you'll be travelling to the Somme from one of the Channel ports. The one I've chosen is Calais as this is where the vast majority of battlefield tourists arrive in France, either by ferry or through the Channel Tunnel. Basically the idea is to get to the A1 Autoroute.
Before we get going, two final points.
1.The spelling of Ypres/Ieper. This crucial Belgian town was, until relatively recent times, always spelled in the French fashion, "Ypres", pronounced by the Tommies during WWI as "Wipers". However the spelling and pronunciation has changed with the quasi-independence of the northern part of Belgium known as Flanders where the predominant language is Flemish, a close relation to Dutch. It is now spelled "Ieper" and is pronounced as "Eeper". This is neither the time nor place to enter the fascinating minefield that is contemporary Belgian politics. Suffice to say, once you cross the northern border from France into Belgium, all the road signs immediately become Flemish, which can cause some confusion for unwary strangers. Lille, for example, becomes Rijsel and Courtrai, Kortrijk. So long as you're aware of this, there's no problem. For the purpose of this short guide, I shall use "Ypres" as it was at the time of the Great War.
2 The Ypres Salient. A salient is a bulge in a military line. The one at Ypres allowed the Germans to shell the town, which was of enormous strategic importance to the British, from three sides causing widespread destruction. Despite this, the British held on throughout the War. Indeed the town of Ypres became a byword for dogged British courage and holding it was of the utmost importance for Allied morale.
Right, let's get on the road!
THE SOMME - GENERAL DIRECTIONS
From Calais, straight down the A26 to the junction with the A1.
A1 to Junction 14 at Bapaume. A1 is peage (toll road) but it doesn't come to much.
Bapaume to Albert on the D929. (Pic. right)
You are now driving through the battlefield of the Somme, going, very roughly, from the German lines in the east to those of the Allies as you near Albert in the west.
Try to find accommodation in Albert itself, an attractive little market town with no traffic hassles.
The Hotel de La Basilique, opposite the cathedral, is excellent for accommodation and food while, for a drink, the nearby Highlander Pub, the home of the Somme Pipe Band, is both atmospheric and friendly.
On the outskirts is the Best Western Royal Picardie which has a fine reputation and a very good dining room.
The new Ibis Hotel is probably your best bet, especially as it's on a prime location for the battlefields, lying as it does on the eastern edge of Albert on the aforementioned D929. The rooms are tip-top and the restaurant serves good evening meals and stays open, along with the bar, to a reasonable time so that there's no need to go off elsewhere at night. I stayed here in September, 2012, and give it my full recommendation.
All of these hotels have websites.
There are also very good B&Bs on the battlefield itself run mainly by English couples.
I have stayed in the Express By Holiday Inn (How's that for a daft name?) up by the station in Amiens. This hotel is reasonable value if a tad impersonal and is readily accessible with excellent car parking facilities. Amiens is an interesting city and worth a visit on its own but it's 20 miles away from the battlefield which means it takes about forty minutes to reach Albert, the starting point of your battlefield tour.
THE SOMME - BATTLEFIELD TOUR
Duration - Two and a half days, assuming you reach Albert by about midday on day 1.
Have a look around Albert. There's a good underground museum next to the Basilica (cathedral). Look up from the square to see the legendary Golden Virgin.
Go back out of Albert on the road, the D929 to Bapaume, on which you came in. Trust me, this makes sense since you're now following the intended line of advance of the British and French forces.
About half a mile from the Albert town limits you'll come to La Boisselle. Just past the cafe on the right (which does great lunches, by the way) take the minor road, also on the right, and look for the sign for La Grande Mine. Up a very minor road (but OK for cars) you'll come to Lochnagar Mine Crater which is simply 'awesome' , in the correct usage of this currently much overworked word.
Return to the main road and turn right for Pozieres.
Just past the massive walled cemetery on the left you should visit the fine monument to the ANZACs (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) and go up on to the observation platform to look over this part of the battlefield.
Drive through the village for a short distance to the site of Pozieres Mill and the Tank Corps Memorial which lie on opposite sides of the road.
Continue in the direction of Bapaume to the village of Martinpuich and turn right up the D6 to Longueval, with its rather curious piper memorial (See what you think!) and the South African Memorial at Delville Wood (Devil's Wood). This has had a revamp since the fall of apartheid and is staffed by black South Africans plus a Scottish couple, all of whom are extremely pleasant and helpful. At last the sacrifices made by ALL South Africans, Anglo and Dutch, black and white, are being properly recognised, especially, after years of neglect or denial, the black contribution. While you're there, look out for the story of Jackie the Soldier Baboon which is in a small frame on a wall in the museum.
Make your way back to Pozieres via Contalmaison with its very interesting memorial to the Heart of Midlothian football team.
When you reach Pozieres you'll see signs for Thiepval and Newfoundland Park on the opposite side of the D929 road from the Tommy Cafe which has an interesting trench museum out the back and is also good for snacks and lunches.
Follow the D73 road to Thiepval and the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme which is impossible to miss!
Visit the superb visitor centre at the Memorial and then proceed on foot to the Memorial itself (See pic. right). I think you'll be impressed.
From the Memorial, go down the road to Newfoundland Park. On the way go into Ulster Tower (Pic. left), which you'll see on the right-hand side of the road, have a cup of tea and try to persuade Teddy, the curator, to take you on a tour of the excavated trenches in the wood where you'll also find the site of a very gallant VC action. (Are there any other kinds?)
Back on the road, down the hill and over the once infamous River Ancre. Turn left over the railway and then follow the signs up the hill to Newfoundland Park which is quite stunning, the only place on the Somme where an easily understandable part of the battlefield is still discernible.
And that, I would say, is enough for anyone on this, their first visit.
Tomorrow we're off to Ypres in Belgium via the magnificent Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge.
Take the D929 once again, this time right through to Bapaume and follow the A1 to the A26. A few miles up the A26 you'll pick up the signs for Vimy and the Canadian Memorial.
Visit the massive,dazzling white Memorial itself and then go down to the preserved trenches and the underground Grange Tunnel. Take a jacket for the tunnel as it's always chilly down below. All of this is well signposted and so you can't go wrong.
VIMY TO YPRES/IEPER
This next bit's a little tricky. Look at your map and figure out how you're going to get to La Bassee. From there go up the D947 to Estaires and then across to Armentieres
and along the N365 to Ypres, which becomes Ieper once you cross into Belgium.
Whatever you do, try to stay away from Lille/Rjissel where the traffic is a nightmare. Rumour has it that the Flying Dutchman has ended up there, condemned forever to drive round and round the city, never to get out!
YPRES - GENERAL
There are loads of hotels and B&Bs in Ypres and the surrounding area.
From recent personal experience, I can recommend the Hotel Albion and also the Novotel. Both are ideally located just up from the main square (Grote Markt). Crucially, both have parking.
For evening meals there's a superb restaurant close to the hotel called 'L'Ecurie' (See Links).
There are also many cafes round the Grote Markt which all serve more or less the same stuff but are OK. You're paying for the ambience rather than haute cuisine and, to be honest, it is magic to sit there, especially on your first visit, and gaze on the floodlit bulk of the Cloth Hall (Lakenhalle).
Other hotels in or near the town centre are -
Hotel Ariane - A very popular haunt for battlefield tourists.
The Old Tom - Right on the Square. It has welcomed battlefield tourists for years and is very competitively priced.
The Regina is also on the Square and has a good reputation.
Details of all these hotels are on the Ieper Tourist Office website.
THE SALIENT TOUR
Duration - Two to three days, dependent on when you get there and when you leave.
Begin with Ypres itself.
Before doing anything else, go to the Lakenhalle for the 'In Flanders Fields' exhibition, probably the very best way to begin your tour.
Visit the excellent Tourist Information Office, also in the Lakenhalle, and pick up a leaflet for the Ramparts Walk,
which is really nice and ends up via the Ramparts Cemetery (pic. left) at the Menin Gate.
Make sure you visit the Menin Gate by day, when it's relatively quiet, to pick up all the details, as in the evening it gets very crowded.
Now for out of town.
The Ypres Salient is trickier than the Somme to explore as the sites lie north, south, east and west of the town.
How you get to them is up to you and your map. Using the itineraries in the Holts' guidebook is probably the best way of getting your general directions right.
I'd advise keeping the northern sector for last. You'll realise why when you get to Tyne Cot.
Mesen/Messines - Visit the Church where Hitler reputedly sheltered and then the Irish Peace Park.
Ploegsteert ('Plugstreet' to the Tommies!) Memorial
Poperinghe and Talbot House - An absolute must-see! Even if you're an irreligious old git like me, you cannot fail to be moved.
On the way back to Ieper on the N38, turn off to the tiny village of Brandhoek on the right and visit Brandhoek New Military Cemetery. Here lies one of the bravest of them all, Noel Chavasse, VC and Bar (Double VC) of the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps).
NORTH AND EAST
Out by the Brooding Canadian Soldier at St Juliaan to Langemarck and the very atmospheric German Cemetery which is on the outskirts of the village.
Up to Passendaele/Passchendale to Tyne Cot Cemetery (pic. left) which will take your breath away.
The 1917 Passchendale Museum at Zonnebeke with its underground 'experience' is nearby and is very good.
The Trenchline Museum at Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood, which is reached by driving out of Ypres through the Menin Gate and then up the Menin Road, is a fascinating visit though the trenches can be muddy in wet weather. Still it's probably the most authentic site left on the Western Front.
THE LAST POST CEREMONY
On your last night go to the Menin Gate for this most moving of occasions which provides a fitting climax for your trip.
It's always at 8.00 pm on the nose but get there at least 20 minutes beforehand as there are usually large crowds.
YOUR LAST MORNING
Try to visit St George's Memorial Church on Elverdingestraat in the town and also the nearby magnificent St Martin's Cathedral where you can find a smashing poem written by a British officer.
So that's yer lot! An awful lot but perfectly manageable, believe it or not.
Above all, have fun, which despite, or maybe because of, the nature of the tour is perfectly possible.