World War I and II sites in Hauts-de-France
Updated: May 7
The Hauts-de-France region located in Northern France has a varied history. Some of it good, some of it bad and some of that bad was really bad. I have visited the region hundreds of times and a lot of my exploring has been visiting sites which have a link with the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945). I learnt the basic history when I was at school like the Normandy beach landings and the Battle of the Somme but when I was traveling around the region, my knowledge of the war improved greatly. Some of the stories I have heard, some of the places I have visited gave me a better understanding of what went on in the wars. Not only have I learnt this in this region but all over Europe where battles and crimes took place. But most of the horrific events took place in Northern France (and also across the border in Belgium). Here are some of the places I have visited which I recommend visiting if interested in the wars.
Le Grand Mine
Le Grand Mine (in English it is known as the Lochnagar Mine) located on the outskirts of the village of La Boisselle. What the British army did was truly crazy, daring and brave, a plan which worked to stop the advancing Germans taking more of France. The British secretly dug tunnels under a German field fortifications known as Schwabenhohe (Swabian Height) and on the 1st July 1916 at 07:28, the Brits pulled the trigger and kaboom! A lot of Germans went flying up into the air, lots lost their lives and ones who survived probably had arms and legs detached or blinded, and the fortification was gone. A crater of around thirty meters deep and one hundred meters wide remained. Most of the German army in this area were defeated, some survived and made a run for it, retreating. The British during the Battle of The Somme, did this nineteen times to the German army.
Address: Rte de la Grande Mine, 80300 Ovillers-la-Boisselle, France
In a field between the villages of Wormhout (Wormhoudt) and Esquelbecq, not too far away from the Belgium-France border, east of Dunkerque, it was here the Wormhout massacre took place. The short story of it all was the British were in retreat heading back to Dunkerque as the Germans were advancing very quickly towards La Manche/English Channel in May 1940. The 144th Infantry Brigade of the 48th (South Midland) Infantry Division was holding the main road in the area to delay the German advance so the rest of the British army would get on the boat back to the island. However the troops were overrun by the Waffen-SS soldiers from the 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hilter. The British tried to hold out but used up their ammunition supplies so they decided to surrender to the SS troops, thinking that they would be taken prisoner according to the Geneva Convention (like hell Hilter and his pals were going to go by that piece of paper as they bloody started the Second World War).
After their surrender, they joined other British troops from other regiments as well as French soldiers in charge of a military depot in the area who were taken to a barn in La Plaine au Bois on the 28th May 1940. On the way to the barn the allied troops became a bit more alarmed at the brutal conduct of the SS en route to the barn, which included shooting a number of wounded stragglers who couldn’t keep up.
On arrival at the barn, the most senior British officer in the group, a guy named Captain James Lynn-Allen protested, but was rebuked by an SS soldier. One hundred men were now standing inside the small barn and then the SS threw stick grenades into the barn killing many of the POWs (Prisoner of War). However the grenades failed to kill everybody due to the bravery of two British troops, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Augustus Jennings who hurled themselves on top of the grenades using their bodies so they could suppress the force of the explosion and shield their fellow soldiers from the blast.
The SS found out what was going on so they called for two groups of five to come out. The survivors were shot. However one man who was shot, Brian Fahey survived (which was unknown to the SS at the time). Eventually Brian would become a composer back home and worked with the BBC (and died back in 2007 aged 87). Anyway, the SS saw this method too slow as well and just went into the barn shooting the rest of the surviving troops, all guns blazing! Several British prisoners were able to escape whilst others like Brain Fahey were left for dead. A total of eighty men were killed at the time and within a few days afterwards, some of the wounded died because of their wounds being so severe. A few days after that, Fahey and several others were found by medics of the German Army and were taken to hospital (not quite sure why when the Germans wanted to shoot them in the first place!). Once treated they were sent to prisoner of war camps around Europe (so I am not sure what was better, being shot in a bar or going to somewhere like Auschwitz or Dachau and having a bad time there, but it ended up all good for Brian Fahey because as mentioned, he survived and had a wonderful career in music).
After our visit to the barn, it was time to hit up the cemeteries starting with the one in Corbie where Edward George Wheeler is buried. Found the grave straight away (based on my memory despite the fact the last and only visit here was back in 2011). I never laid a wreath down before so to do this for the first time, I actually felt nervous, made sure it was laid down correctly, saluted and just stood there for a moment, silence. Not a sound was heard from anywhere. Reflecting on what all three brothers had to go through, the only source of information was the thing I learnt through school or on the road. No one in my family has told me what it is like to go into a war because quite frankly, not many people in my family have, and if they did, they have departed Earth. However I was doing this for my whole family and to make sure they weren’t forgotten. I think it is in our duty to keep educating generations on what happened, the consequences, the pain, so that everybody knows in the future not to go down this road and that everyone who died for freedom, has not done it for a lost cause. Afterwards I felt pride in doing this, a little bit emotional, I am not going to lie about that but I knew it was an honour but I also knew I had to do this twice more during the day.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
The Canadian National memorial which is dedicated to members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who were killed during the First World War. Located north of Arras, this huge preserved park is located on the site when all four divisions of the Canadian forces joined up and took on the advancing Germans in the Battle of Arras. After the battle, France ceded this part of the land to Canada on the understanding that they would time this into a park and a memorial. And the Canadians, bloody hell they did a damn fine job erecting this massive monument which overlooks Vimy Ridge and the surrounding area (which is mainly woodland and fields).
Walking around I could see where craters exploded in the wood, signs of where trenches would have been and tunnels, which visitors can’t walk right up to as they are closed off for safety reasons. Maybe there are still unexploded bombs hidden in the ground and could explode at any moment. However humans are not walking over the ground but there were plenty of sheep. I was kinda waiting for a sheep to explode a bomb and turn into a lamb shank right in front of my eyes. However this was over 100 years ago since the Battle of Arras has passed and no sheep have exploded yet.
A bit of history (again) which I found out whilst walking around the memorial. When the Nazi Germans during the Second World War captured the area with the British retreating towards the ports on the English Channel coast, no one from France, Britain, Canada knew of the state the memorial at Vimy Ridge would be in. Would it be destroyed etc? Nope, Hilter, being an artistic himself in his younger years before becoming a political nutter, loved the design of the memorial and its peaceful surroundings that he told his army not to destroy the memorial. How nice of him!
Directions: The Vimy Memorial overlooks the Douai Plain from the highest point of Vimy Ridge, about eight kilometres northeast of Arras on the N17 towards Lens. The memorial is signposted from this road to the left, just before you enter the village of Vimy from the south. The memorial itself is someway inside the memorial park, but again it is well signposted.
The Battle of the Somme - Thiepval Memorial
This is what the Somme is known for, for all the bad reasons. War and battles between armies from other countries took place in this area. The first major battle (which was a major defeat to the locals) was the Battle of Crécy which took place in August 1346 between the French (led by King Philip VI) and King Edward III. This happened during the Hundred Years War (a lot of battles going on in Europe around this time when Royal Families were fighting for more land in other people’s backyards), and to be frank, the English kicked ass that day. Before and after the battle, the English were going through France destroying and sacking many towns on the way. They nearly got to Paris (after traveling from the west in Normandy) but thought bugger it, there were more problems to deal with in Northern France, turned northwards, had a battle and sacked more towns before claiming Calais and holding it for a number of years.
However one of the worst ever battles took place here and claimed thousands and thousands of lives from both armies. The Battle of the Somme. This is also a personal matter for me as I lost two Great Great Uncles in the battle and a long distance cousin. This took place in the First World War and lasted from 1914 and 1918 (basically most of the First World War). Both armies (the Allied Forces and the Germans) were trying to push each other back but it didn’t work. It was just a mess. Eventually (somehow) the Germans lost the war however the land was badly bruised and the clean up operation was huge. There were 420,000 people killed in the Allied Forces and around 600,000 for the Germans. For the British however the 1st July 1916 saw the worst ever day in the army's history where there were 57,420 casualties and 19,240 dead.
There is one place to check out for all the information, displays, stories and researching history regarding the Battle of the Somme and that is at the Thiepval Memorial. They have all the information anyone would want regarding the battles as well as having the biggest memorial in the region which was built by the United Kingdom. Thank you to France and their government for allowing my home country to build this wonderful memorial to the fallen who lost their lives during these nasty battles.
I have written a personal blog post about the Battle of the Somme and other First World War sites here. Please check it out, it was an amazing experience and I remembered my family members by laying wreaths on behalf of my family back home.
Location: The Thiepval Memorial is just off the D151, close to the main crossroads with the D73 in the village of Thiepval. The D73 runs from Poizieres on the main Bapaume to Albert road (D929) to the D50 close to Beaumont-Hamel. Please note to access this site you should follow Rue de L'Ancre from Thiepval village. You should not attempt to enter this site by any other route. Thank you. Each year a major ceremony is held at the memorial on 1 July to mark the first day of the Battle of the Somme.
L’Anneau de la Mémoire
On the outskirts of a village called Ablain St-Nazaire and Souchez is the world’s largest French military cemetery. By god it is huge. There were lots of graves each with a wooden cross but in the middle of the grounds is a huge basilica, Notre Dame de Lorette. However the reason I came here was for the L’Anneau de la Mémoire (The Ring of Memory or otherwise known as the Ring of Remembrance). This is a huge memorial dedicated to the First World War and was opened on the 96th anniversary of Armistice Day on November 11th 2014. The memorial honours the 576,606 soldiers from forty different nations who died in the Nord-pas-de-Calais region (now Hauts-de-France region). The ring has five hundred metal panels that are arranged in an ellipse pattern. Each panel has 1200 names of fallen soldiers and are listed alphabetically by their last name. The 500th panel remains blank so that any newly discovered names can be inscribed. When I saw this on the news when it opened, I was a little bit disheartened that my prime minister of my country at the time did not bother attending the opening of this ring (ok, I know it was Armistice Day and that Theresa May had to be at Whitehall in London, but come on, I think the opening of this memorial is probably more important for the events of the war, that’s my view anyway).
Whilst walking around (and looking for my family members on the panels), I noticed the names which are in alphabet order (as mentioned) but no mention of the fallen’s rank or nationality. The guy who designed the ring, Phillppe Prost states: “No ranks, no nationalities: just a dizzying list of the human stories that ended on France’s northern battlefields.”The names of friends and foes are engraved together in order to establish a theme of forgiveness and reconciliation after the conflict. This place was huge and I believe this memorial is a great way to reunite the countries, remember all those who have fallen and a reminder that this sort of thing shouldn’t happen again.
Location: D58E3, Chemin du mont de Lorette, 62153 Ablain-Saint-Nazair.
There you have it guys. These are some of the places I have visited in the region, however as mentioned earlier, I do keep going back to the region so as soon as I see new sights, I will update this post. I hope you find the information given useful and if anyone has any tips, advice, stories, experiences, then please leave a comment below.
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