The Somme: WW1 Battlefields

Monday 27 April to Thursday 30 April 2015

travellingross rating = 10/10

I have been to Gallipoli. To the D-Day landing beaches of Normandy. To many war memorials in Australia. Visiting the Somme western front World War 1 battlefields has been on my list for a while and to visit soon after the ANZAC Day centenary was special. This region is town after beautiful town of stories filled with pain, destruction, loss and recovery.

We left Reims and headed towards the city of Amiens stopping at Peronne to tour the museum. This was the first town of many that we saw Australian flags flying and other Aussie symbols – there is a strong sense of gratitude and after spending time here I learned more about how the Australian soldiers were crucial in many battles to push back the German front. Our first memorial was Le Hamel which was a bit challenging to find especially considering it is relatively new, but included very interesting displays. After one night in Amiens, we continued north stopping at Villers-Bretonneux and then crossed into Belgium staying in a very modern 4 storey townhouse (stairs, so many stairs) in Ypres, which would be our platform for the next 3 nights exploring the battlefields and memorials. Highlights were:

  • Adelaide cemetery to see the grave site where the remains of the Australian Unknown Soldier were exhumed and taken to the national memorial in Canberra.
  • Villers-Bretonneux: including the school & museum funded by Victorian school children and the main Australian memorial in the Somme. The latter is out in the fields on a slight hill that was the centre of a key battle to save the town and push back the enemy. Hard to fathom how many died here, and the concept of trench warfare over such a long front. Reading the tombstones and small crosses placed by school children recently was very sad.
  • The British memorial – the largest outside of the UK. Walking closer to it, you realise the white panels are filled with lists upon lists of names. Only a few gravestones. Most of the dead were not recovered to be buried but lay beneath your feet or in the farmers paddocks. Everything looks so peaceful and beautiful today.
  • Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres. Seemingly endless rooms with artefacts, re-enactments and shocking stories of the chemical gases used, including photos of victims or survivors with terrible injuries. Makes you realise it is not just about those who died, but the ones who survived who probably wished they didn’t.
  • Menin Gate Last Post. This is done every night at 8pm. As we power walked to get there, I had a bet with Mum that we wouldn’t be late and I couldn’t imagine more than 15 people would be there. I was wrong. It was packed.
  • Memorial Museum Passchendaele – seemingly small place but many levels and re-creation of what the trenches would have been like.
  • Talbot House, Poperinge – a place where select soldiers could escape the frontline for a short stay. The House is well preserved with interesting photos and you can imagine the haven this would have been.

France: Paris and Reims

Thursday 23 April to Sunday 26 April 2015

travellingross rating = 8/10

We arrived at Salzburg train station half an hour ahead of our 8 am train to Paris to find it cancelled. What! Another reason not to book train tickets in advance (dig dig). The train info centre helped us get on a train to Munich where we could connect but would need to check with the German info desk as their trains were on strike and the cause of the issue. At least we were heading off and in the right direction. After a long time at the Munich station we were rebooked onto several more trains to Paris arriving 3 hrs later than originally planned. All comfortable and modern trains unlike one’s I’ve taken in Italy. We spent 1 night in Paris near the train station, then rented a car and drove north to the centre of the champagne region. Paris highlights:

  • My 3rd time to Paris. I like the culture of this city, but each time I’ve found it increasingly dirty and full of tourists. We seemed to stay in immigrant’s quarter and not a very comfortable feeling walking around.
  • The height of the Eiffel Tower compared to the rest of the city is still amazing.
  • Mum visited Sainte-Chapelle with the stained glass windows that she didn’t get to last visit and I went to the Conciergerie, a former palace and then prison during the revolution. Mum really enjoyed hers. Mine was not v good, with only highlight being a re-enactment of Queen Marie Antoinette cell where she was held for months prior to her execution. Interestingly, I learned in Vienna that Marie Antoinette was a daughter of the Austrian Queen (she was one of 16 kids married off to the European monarchies!).
  • Montparnasse – never been to top of this office tower that has great views. Unfortunately it was a bit hazy but still a different viewpoint of Paris.
  • Driving out of Paris. Survived the chaos and happy to have an automatic in this traffic.

Reims highlights:

  • The cathedral was the coronation place for all French kings and queens. Destroyed in WW1, it has been rebuilt. Not much to see on the inside though.
  • The German surrender to end WW2 was first signed here 7 May 1945 and then re-signed in Berlin a day later at the insistence of Stalin. Fascinating museum in Eisenhower’s war rooms with original maps etc still in place.
  • Veuve Clicquot. Lucky to get a walk in tour of this champagne house and their caves where all the bottles are stored. The 50 euro tour was best of the two we did and finished with 2 full glass sized tastings of my current favourite champagne. Veuve means widow.
  • Day trip to Epernay. It was a Sunday so I get that not a lot is open but I thought that the Avenue de Champagne would be the epicentre of tastings but it was hard to find more than a couple places. And cost 15-18 euro to taste 3 half glasses. But it was still awesome to drive through the picturesque Champagne Region and I had a couple of champagne breakfasts, lunches, and dinner.
  • ANZAC Day centenary. A momentous occasion in Australian history, we struggled to find a war memorial in Reims but would make up for this in coming days across the Somme battlefields…