My Top Ten Places to Visit on the Somme #BattlefieldTopTen - Kathryn's history blog

Sunday, 29 September 2019

My Top Ten Places to Visit on the Somme #BattlefieldTopTen


In the first of a new series for my blog, this article looks at ten of the must-visit places for any battlefield tourist going to the Somme. As with any list, there are sure to be interesting places I miss off. Add your own in the comments below.


It's an obvious choice to start with the British Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, but it is certainly not to be missed. Standing at 45 metres in height and remembering 72,000 soldiers with no known grave, this impressive structure is a focal point for much British remembrance in the area. Not only does the memorial attempt to put into scale the extent of the loss caused by the Battle of the Somme, but it is also an interesting location from which to understand the Somme landscape and the front lines.

After looking round the visitor centre and the memorial itself, it is well-worth walking out to the site of Leipzig Redoubt. This can be reached by following the track south-west from the memorial and walking out to the far side of a small woodland. This was a fortified position on the German front line, mere metres away from the British trenches. These were locate roughly in line with the perpendicular path ahead. A map of this area is provided in the Holts' Somme guide.


A tour of Thiepval Wood must be pre-booked at Ulster Tower or their website, but it is definitely well-worth arranging. The tour departs from the tower and heads into the private Thiepval Wood behind Connaught Cemetery. Here there are preserved trenches which had been in 36th (Ulster) Division's sector on 1st July 1916. The tour gives a good account of that fateful day and the soldiers who fought here, bringing to life the men remembered at the Ulster Memorial Tower.


Owned and run by Veterans Affairs Canada, this free-to-visit park maintains the memory of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment who fought and fell here on 1st July 1916. Trench lines have been preserved, giving a good indication of what this area would have looked like during the war, when it was the only part of the British Somme Offensive to have been attacked downhill. The 29th Division, to which the Newfoundlanders belonged, suffered catastrophic losses here and it took until November for ground to be gained. This 30 hectare park explains their struggle, with a visitors' centre and a number of memorials and cemeteries to visit. Free tours are also available, best suited for new visitors to the battlefields.


Until 1915, this area of the front had been held by the French Army, being taken over by the British as more troops arrived in France. Many of those buried in Serre-Hebuterne French Military Cemetery were killed during the small Battle of Hebuterne fought in this area in June 1915 by the understrength French 21st Division. This is the only French military cemetery in this area so is worth visiting as a comparison to the neighbouring British cemeteries.

The CWGC Serre Road Cemeteries (numbers 1 and 2) also located on this road were both created from 1917 following the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. They are among the largest cemeteries in this area, with 5,000 of the 6,500 graves at Number 2 Cemetery being unidentified, reflecting the process of retrieving these bodies from the battlefields in the months after the Battle of the Somme.


Parking at the Sunken Lane will take you to two interesting locations, both of which were captured on film by Geoffrey Malins on 1st July 1916. The Sunken Lane was the jumping off point for 1st Lancashire Fusiliers on the First Day of the Somme, providing them with shelter in No Man's Land before Zero Hour. It's very atmospheric to watch Malins' footage of the soldiers while here.

A few hundred metres south along the road is Hawthorn Ridge, the location of one of the major crater blown on 1st July. There are ongoing works in this area to make the crater accessible to visitors and it is an interesting site, where one can enter the vast hole in the ground; the result of a number of explosions throughout the battle. Looking south from here, the tree line that marks the perimeter of Newfoundland Park can be seen.


This ancient burial mound was a German fortification during the Battle of the Somme. It stands just beyond the extent of the British advance from the 1916 battle, providing panoramic views of the cemetery. It was a symbolic target for British soldiers, who struggled to take it throughout the Autumn of 1916. They finally took it after the German retreat in early 1917.



'The Hell they called High Wood' was the focal point for attacks between 14th July and 15th September 1916. Communication problems complicated the British advance, with tough fighting almost ongoing for two months. The assaults had begun with a cavalry charge on 14th July and the wood was not cleared until 15th September with the assistance of the new tanks, making this battlefield symbolic of the technological progress of warfare during the First World War. A number of memorials line the perimeter of the wood and a number of the dead are buried at London Cemetery and Extension to the west of the wood.


This beautiful cemetery is one of my favourite places on the Somme to stop and reflect. Among those buried here is Raymond Asquith, the son of then Prime Minister HH Asquith, a pertinent symbol of how the war's losses affected all echelons of society.


It would be remiss of me not to include a German Cemetery on this list. More than 17,000 are buried here, having fallen across the Somme battle area throughout the First World War. Only 5,000 of these soldiers have headstones, the remainder were buried in mass graves, their bodies being reinterred from across the battlefields in the years after the Armistice. The body of the Red Baron, Manfred von Richtofen, was buried here after the war, having been moved from the civilian cemetery he'd originally been buried in after he was shot down on 21st April 1918. In 1925, his body was moved again, being taken back to Germany. The starkness of the German cemetery is really quite striking in comparison to the lovingly maintained Commonwealth grounds.


Last, but by no means least, is Lochnagar Crater in La Boisselle. Tunnelled from beneath the village, this mine was blown minutes before Zero Hour on 1st July 1916. This destroyed the German position the 'Schwaben Hohe' , but the British 34th Division were still not able to capture the village on the First Day. It was finally taken on 3rd July. Each time I visit the crater, I am always taken aback by the vastness of the hole, which is the largest man-made crater from a single explosion in the war.

Do you agree with this list? Or are there more places you'd consider must-visit destinations on the Somme? Add your own in the comments.

Kathryn

(All photos author's own)

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