The biggest loss of life in British Army History, by Lesley Bellew
July 1, 1916 was intended to end the Great War but instead saw 57,470 casualties including 19,240 missing. The battles raged for more than four months and now, almost 100 years on, The Somme is one of the most-visited Great War commemorative trails where the fighting left an indelible mark on the terrain.
The fields are no longer a moonscape of craters but the 243 cemeteries bring home the biggest loss of life in British Army history. In total, 300,000 soldiers from both sides were killed on the Somme; often their graves were hit by the 1.6m shells that rained down. Many men were simply lost in the battlefields, although sometimes a body would lie in an unmarked grave to be found decades later.
Many were new recruits, young men who responded to Lord Kitchener’s call to fight for Britain.
Several river cruise companies are including visits to the Somme’s pristine memorials and cemeteries, that are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission ,as well as museums and villages during the 100th anniversary of the battle.
1 EUROPEAN WATERWAYS: WORLD WAR ONE CRUISE
Guests on the luxury hotel barge Panache will visit many memorials and battlefields during the World War One cruise which includes sailing along the Canal du Nord. Tours include the battlefields of Arras and Vimy Ridge, the imposing Thiepval Memorial, which commemorates 72,194 men who have no known grave, and the Newfoundland Park Memorial at Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment of 700 men were killed in just 40 minutes.
Further highlights will include the town of Pozières to see the Gibraltar bunker, the Tommy Café, the village of Villers-Bretonneux where more than 1,200 Australian soldiers lost their lives and, in Fromelles, a visit to the VC Corner cemetery at Australian memorial park.
The cruise will also include the Ypres Salient (with visits to the memorial sites), the impressive ‘In Flanders Fields’ museum; the Christmas Truce Cross, the Pool of Peace crater and Essex Farm Cemetery.
Guests will also be able to pay respects to those who made the final sacrifice at the daily 8pm Last Post ceremony at Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing.
Six nights from £3,750, departing on May 22, 2016 from Bruges to Janville, near Compiègne where the Armistice was signed. Return transfer to Hotel Westminster, Paris. Price includes all meals on board, an open bar, excursions and admittance fees plus use of barge facilities, including bicycles and spa pool.
gobarging.com or call 01753 598555
2 SCENIC: GEMS OF THE SEINE
Sail on the new Scenic Gem to tour the Somme battlefields. From Rouen, there will be a full-day’s excursion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with visits including the Australian National Memorial and Victoria School in Villers-Bretonneux.
There will also be a visit to Monet’s garden in Giverny. The artist refused to leave his home during World War One despite being able to hear the gunfire nearby. He was too old to fight so focused his patriotism by painting vast canvases that captured the light in the water of his Japanese garden.
10 nights from £2,880, departs on a Paris round-trip on October 13, 2016
scenic.co.uk or call 0808 278 7064
3 APT CRUISE ON SEINE AND RHONE FROM NORTH TO SOUTH
This two-part cruise starts in Paris and guests can visit the Somme from Rouen. There will also be a trip to Monet’s Garden, where the artist worked throughout World War One.
14 nights from £5,445 on APT’s Aria river ships departing June 10, July 22 and September 2, 2016
aptouring.co.uk or call 0800 012 6683
4 CROISIEUROPE – THE GREAT WAR MS
Victor Hugo sails from Ostend to Lille on this seven-night commemorative sailing. The itinerary takes in Arras and the Wellington Quarry, an enormous underground network created to keep the the troops together in great numbers during the build-up to the Allied offensive. After descending 20 metres in a glass lift, visitors learn about the memorial to the Battle of Arras of 1917.
The cruise also includes a visit to Bruges, which was occupied by the German Army during World War One. Diksmuide is also on the itinerary; here the Belgians flooded the region to keep the enemy back. A visit to the top of the 84-metre Yser Tower offers a clear view of this much-fought over landscape.
There will also be a full-day excursion to the Ypres Salient to visit the British War Cemetery at Tyne Cot, the largest in continental Europe. The impressive Passchendaele Museum and In Flanders Fields Museum will also be on the itinerary. Guests will attend the 8pm Last Post at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres.
A visit to Poperingen, where British troops were stationed behind enemy lines, will be on the itinerary, as well as the military cemetery Lijssenthoek. Here, 10,000 soldiers are buried, including just one woman, Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler.
Seven days from £1,054, departing September 12, 2016
croisieurope.co.uk or call 0208 328 1281
The battlefields of the Somme can be visited on a Circuit of Remembrance or Poppy Route. The cemeteries each have their own story and offer a place for quiet contemplation. Museums and memorials can all be visited within this route.
River cruise lines will have expert guides to take guests on tours but those who wish to explore independently can download an audio guide from the Somme Tourism website. Visitors with a specific point of interest, from family history to looking for a memorial or detail on military campaigns, should visit the websites below.
Thiepval was one of the main theatres of operations during the Battle of The Somme and is now the most important British monument in France. Edwin Lutyens’ imposing 45-metre monument bears the names of 73,367 British and South African missing. Thiepval was one of the largest villages in the Somme in 1914, dominated by a large chateau which was lost during the war. Today, it is one of the smallest communes.
HISTORIAL DE LA GRANDE GUERRE, PERONNE
The Museum of the Great War is an essential visit on a Somme tour. Cross the drawbridge of this medieval castle which adjoins an ultra-modern building where innovative displays explain the conflict, its origins and consequences of the war.
The attack on BeaumontHamel in July 1916 was one of the most costly. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, every officer who went forward in the Newfoundland attack was either killed or wounded. Beaumont-Hamel is the largest battlefield park with a network of trenches and land still scarred by shellholes. The memorial is topped by a great caribou cast in bronze, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment emblem.
See a British, French and German cemetery in close proximity. These memorials create a vivid picture of how dead soldiers were often buried where they fell. The small British cemetery with 93 headstones faces the largest French war cemetery in the Somme, commemorating 8,566 soldiers. On the hill is a German graveyard surrounded by oak trees.
THE CARRIEREWELLINGTON QUARRY, ARRAS
New Zealand miners extended limestone quarries to create a 700bed hospital and a shelter that held 24,000 troops while they waited to go to battle. It is an extraordinary place to visit but not advisable for visitors with restricted mobility. Vist the nearby Fauborg d’Amiens Cemetery to see the Flying Services Memorial to the 991 airmen with no known grave.
THE LOCHNAGAR CRATER, LA BOISSELLE
The British exploded mines at 7.28am on July 1, 1916 and the Lochnagar Crater remains a startling reminder of the carnage. The 100m diameter and 30m deep crater was created by 30 tons of explosives which blew the earth 4,000ft into the air during the opening moments of the Battle of the Somme.
DELVILLE WOOD CEMETERY AND THE SOUTH AFRICAN NATIONAL MEMORIAL, LONGUEVAL
Delville Wood was a tract of woodland on the western edge of Longueval village. On July 14, 1916 the greater part of Longueval was taken by the 9th (Scottish) Division and the next day the South African Brigade of that Division captured most of Delville Wood to form a salient in the line. The cemetery was created after the Armistice, when bodies were brought in from small cemeteries and battlefields. Almost all of the 5,523 burials date from July to September 1916; of those 3,593 are unidentified.
CATERPILLAR VALLEY (NEW ZEALAND MEMORIAL) LONGUEVAL
This memorial commemorates more than 1,200 soldiers of the New Zealand Division who died in the Somme during 1916, and whose graves are not known. The cemetery of 25 graves was made for the 38th Division and the 6th Dragoon Guards. After the Armistice, 5,500 soldiers were brought in from other small cemeteries and the battlefields – 3,796 of the burials are unidentified.
VILLERS-BRETONNEUX AUSTRALIAN MEMORIAL
More than 60,000 Australian soldiers made the final sacrifice during the Great War and 10,982 are commemorated at this beautiful VillersBretonneux site.
Although not on The Somme, this towering memorial at the Vimy Ridge National Historic Site of Canada can be seen for miles across the French countryside and the surrounding woods are still pock-marked with shell holes and craters. The imposing memorial took 11 years to build using 6,000 tonnes of limestone.
Commonwealth War Graves Commission – cwgc.org
Somme Tourist Board – visitsomme.com
French Tourist Office – franceguide.com