ANGELA BIRD'S

Northern France
What to do and see within 90 minutes of Calais

 

BATTLEGROUND FRANCE
Visit war-related sites of Northern France, from the
Norman Conquest to World War II, by way of
the Hundred Years War, invasions by the Spanish Netherlands
and–of course–sites associated with World Wars I and II.

 

 

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Pictured above: St-Valery-sur-Somme; Crécy en Ponthieu; Beaumont-Hamel; Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.   All © Angela Bird.

 

 

 

War has been a fact of life for the inhabitants of Northern France over many centuries. They suffered invasion by tribes from neighbouring lands; then by the Romans
and, later, the Vikings. Disputes over claims to the throne of France by England and by Spain gave rise to the Hundred Years War and the Thirty Years War, respectively.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 obliterated strategic towns
and caused the deaths of many thousands of soldiers. And the 20th century brought the most devastating wars seen in Europe, with World War I fought over
large areas of Northern France, and World War II, causing first the evacuation of Allied troops in 1940, then the construction of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall and launch-sites
for V-weapons, and finally the battles for liberation of the country from mid-1944.


KEY


ROMAN INVASION


100 YEARS WAR


30 YEARS WAR


NAPOLEONIC WARS


WORLD WAR I


WORLD WAR II


 


AREA 1:   DUNKERQUE, CASSEL AND FRENCH FLANDERS

 

 

 


BAILLEUL


The town’s war memorial is a blasted bit of wall, a remainder/reminder of the devastation that the place suffered during World War I. WWI

 


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BRAY-DUNES

 

The wide beaches and sand dunes – so empty today – are where the Allied troops massed while awaiting the Evacuation (see Memorial du Souvenir, below). WWII

 

 


DUNKERQUE

The fascinating story of the Dunkirk Evacuation of May 1940 is unfolded in the Mémorial du Souvenir. WWII

Information about the various places in the Dunkerque area that are connected with this episode can be seen here on the site of “JLB Photos”.

 

  


AREA 2:   CALAIS, BOULOGNE, ST-OMER & WORLD WAR II

 

 

 

 

CALAIS




 

This port was a maze of medieval streets until World War II, when bombing by both sides reduced it almost entirely to rubble. Today the medieval church, built by the English during their occupation of Calais, is still undergoing restoration following World War II bombing. (General de Gaulle was married here on 7 April 1921.) WWII

 

 

 

CAP BLANC-NEZ

 

Dover Patrol monument.  A tall obelisk commemorates the co-operation between British and French ships during World War I in their struggle to keep the Straits of Dover free of German U-boats. The success of a floating barrier, constantly patrolled by Allied trawlers, meant submarines were kept at bay and the conveying of men and equipment to and from the Western Front could be maintained. WWI

 

 

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THEROUANNE

 

Battle of the Spurs  Henry VIII’s army put those of the French king to rout at a battle at today’s Enguinegatte, near St-Omer on 16 August 1513 .  It was dubbed “Battle of the Spurs” because it is said that the French knights spurred their horses so frantically to get away from the English!

 

 

  

 
AREA 3:   LE TOUQUET, MONTREUIL, HESDIN & THE SEVEN VALLEYS

 

 

 

AGINCOURT

Henry V marched from Normandy towards Calais,  but was forced to engage the French Constable d’Albret in battle at what is now the village of Azincourt. There’s a good page on the battle here, on BritishBattles.com.
The modern visitor centre in Azincourt, south of Fruges, tells the story, and you can walk round the battlefield to appreciate it better.
HYW

 

 

MERLIMONT

At the south end of the beachfront promenade you can see a memorial, right, to a group of five young men who vowed to join de Gaulle in London in 1940, after the fall of France, and managed to reach England by canoe. WWII

 

MONTREUIL

As well as being an important fotress in medieval times, Montreuil was the headquarters of part of the British Army during World War I.
Inside the Citadelle, right, make sure you follow the steps down to the “casemate”, and you will find yourself in the semi-underground rooms where the British Army’s nerve centre was located.

A handsome statue, right, of Field Marshal Haig stands in a corner of the main square; the general rode into Montreuil every day from his château billet in the countryside. WWI

 

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AREA 4:   AMIENS, CRÉCY AND THE WILDLIFE OF THE SOMME BAY

 

 

 


AMIENS


Inside the wonderful cathedral, right, don’t miss the memorials in the south aisles to the many Allied troops of different nationalities who lost their lives outside Amiens in 1918 defending the city from the German attack.
At the far end of the cathdral, backing onto the high altar and the choir section, look for the “weeping cherub” statue. Postcards of it were send home by Allied soldiers to their loved ones at home, making it world-famous.
WWI

 


BERTANGLES


Visit this quaint village north of Amiens to see the churchyard in which the body of the “Red Baron”, Manfred von Richthofen, was first buried after he had been shot down by the Allies in 1918. (He now reposes in a family tomb in Wiesbaden, Germany.)
WWI


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CRECY-EN-PONTHIEU

 

To view the battlefield of Crécy, you can climb a wooden tower on the D111, 1km north of the pleasant little town. Edward III of England confronted Philippe VI of France here on 26 August 1346. Ask the tourist office for a map of the route across the battlefield.

10km SE of Crécy, on the D56, the curiously shaped Chapelle des 300 Corps (exterior only) is the supposed last resting-place of many of the French knights slain here. HYW

 

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Monument to the French fallen in Crécy town centre, left; Chapelle des 300 Corps, right.
© Angela Bird

NAOURS

The “Cité Souterraine” makes a wonderful day out for young children, as it has a playground with swings and old-fashioned roundabouts. But its main interest is the tour of the extensive network of tunnels and 300 hollowed-out “rooms” beneath the surface, used by the locals to hide from invaders over the years.
During World War I the tunnel system also did duty as an Australian hospital in 1916;
In World War II it was used by the occupying Germans as a munitions store and as a command post.
WWI & WWII

 

 

Picture from Grottes de Naours website

 


AREA 5:  ARRAS, ALBERT & THE SOMME BATTLEFIELDS

 

 

 

ALBERT

Musée Somme 1916 is in a series of tunnels beneath the town’s large basilica church, now converted into an atmospheric museum of WWI trench life.

Here are some rather wonderful photos of the basilica church of Albert, taken by French photographer Arnaud Fiocret

The modern Thiepval Visitor Centre alongside the vast Thiepval memorial to the missing, right, explains British and French action on the Somme. WWI

 

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ARRAS

Don’t miss the recently-opened Carrière Wellington, a network of tunnels in which troops hid for days before springing a surprise attack on the Germans on 9 April 1917 WWI

 

ARRAS

One of the most powerfully emotional sites of World War II is the Mur des Fusillés,  rightthe dry moat of the citadel at Arras. Rows of stone plaques recall the names, ages, home town and occupations of people – resistance workers or miners with Communist sympathies – who were secretly shot by the Nazis in this spot. Notice how many Polish names figure: workers were brought in from that country in the 1920s to help restore the coal-mining industry after World War I, and the community is present to this day.
Take the road next to the Arras Memorial, around to the back of the citadel, to see this. It’s a solitary spot, so lock up your vehicle and leave no valuables in it, as thefts have been known to occur.
WWII

 


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AUCHONVILLERS

Avril Williams’ “Ocean Villas” tea-rooms almost on the 1 July 1916 front line, have become an institution for battlefield visitors touring the Albert/Beaumont-Hamel sector. All-day snacks available, with seating indoors and out; an excavated section of trench behind the house (the cellars of which are thought to have held a casualty clearing-station in 1916); B&B rooms, offering evening meals around a table shared with like-minded WWI-enthusiast guests; a new (2008) museum of WWI and WWII relics; and a Wall of Remembrance, where for 70 euros you can buy a plaque to commemorate the name of an ancestor who fought on the Somme. WWI

 

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Avril’s Wall of Remembrance

 

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BAPAUME

This little town near the Somme presents many Art Deco façades today, following its total rebuld after World War I.  Here is an Australian website that relates the delayed-action blowing-up of the Town Hall in March 1917 after the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. WWI

 

 

PÉRONNE

The Historial de la Grande Guerre is a modern museum behind the medieval gatehouse of Péronne’s former castle. It gives a good overview of World War I, providing headsets in three languages to ensure visitors understand everything (a passport is required as a deposit for the headsets). WWI

 

 

POZIÈRES

Thiepval Wood Trench Tours  Fascinating guided visits of a recently excavated and partially restored section of front-line trench. WWI 
March to Nov; Tues-Sun, starting from the Ulster Tower, 4km NW of Pozières. Free, but donations welcome. Advance booking essential, via Ulster Tower; tel: +44 (0)3 22 74 87 14.

 

VILLERS-BRETONNEUX

The Musée Franco-Australien, right, at Villers-Bretonneux, describes the involvement of Australian forces in World War I.

This “Digger history” site has good pictures of the Australian National Memorial, outside the town of Villers-Bretonneux. WWI

 

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AREA 6:   LENS, BÉTHUNE, BATTLES OF THE ARTOIS, & THE MINING BASIN

 

 

 

AUBERS

Aubers Ridge hardly rises at all above the surrounding marshland, but nevertheless afforded a major advantage to the Germans from Octber 1914 to October 1918. Attempts were made for the Allies to take it in 1915 and 1916, but little ground was made and heavy losses sustained.

Visit the excellent little Musée 14-18, right, in nearby Fromelles, to see many artefacts from the battles, and the battlefield itself around the Cobbers’ Memorial and VC Corner Cemetery on the D22C 1.4km north of Fromelles. WWI

 


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LOOS-EN-GOHELLE

The volunteers of the Alexandre Villedieu museum in Loos, right, have set up an interesting website to give information on the area where the Battle of Loos was fought during WWI.. WWI

To visit the museum, or to book a tour of the Double Crassier site, contact the museum by email  a.villedieu @ wanadoo.fr
(close up spaces either side of the @ sign)

 

 

Some of the many items recovered from the battlefield of Loos.
© Angela Bird

 

 

 

 


GENERAL:  LINKS ARRANGED BY THEME

 

Roman Invasion 57BC

 

Invasion of Britain by William, Duke of Normandy, 1066

 

Hundred Years War 1337-1453

 

See a good explanation of the war here in The Orb: Online reference book for medieval studies.

 

NEED SOMEONE TO SHOW YOU AROUND?
Members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides can be relied upon to lead you  to the best places for your own specific interests. Individually-tailored tours can be arranged that relate to your own particular focus – from the 100 Years War to World War II.

 

Spanish Armada 1588

 

Thirty Years’ War 1618-48

 

Napoleonic Wars  1804-15

 

Franco-Prussian War 1870-71

 

 


WORLD WAR I   1914-18


The Royal British Legion  are the people to contact in advance of your trip if you want to take a poppy wreath or cross with you to place at war sites.  Their UK address is: The Poppy Appeal, RBL Village, Aylesford, Kent, ME20 7NX (UK tel: 01622 717172).  It is best to arrange this before your trip. Although it is occasionally possible to buy the small poppy crosses at cafés or visitor centres in the Somme battlefields area, you cannot count on it.
There is also a Somme branch of the Royal British Legion, which organises the annual 1 July and 11 November ceremonies at the Ulster Tower and at Thiepval.

 

NEED SOMEONE TO SHOW YOU AROUND?
Members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides can be relied upon to lead you  to the best places for your own specific interests. Individually-tailored tours can be arranged that relate to your own particular focus – from the 100 Years War to World War II.

 

FEEL LIKE PARTICIPATING IN A WORTHWHILE PROJECT?
The War Graves Photographic Project aims to post on its website a photograph of every war grave, dating from World War I onwards   There are so many in the Nord, the Pas de Calais and the Somme areas that this is a daunting task, and the organisers are keen to hear from volunteers who would undertake to photograph every grave in a particular cemetery. (They are especially short of those where a few graves are located in an out-of-the-way village graveyard.)  So if you have a digital camera and a methodical mind, get in touch with them through the website to see which cemeteries still need a volunteer to photograph them.
You will be send a detailed specification of suggested locations, what to photograph, at which resolution to set your camera, what format is required, how to label the resulting images, and how and where to send them.

 

VISIT THE BEST FORUM FOR EXCHANGE OF WWI INFORMATION
The Long Long Trail website has been created by Chris Baker to present the facts of the British Army during World War I. It also has a lively forum on which much fascinating information is exchanged on all topics relating to the Great War – not only in France but also in other theatres of the Great War. If you want to know how to research a particular soldier, there are plenty of hints here. There are discussions about where to stay while visiting, as well as on the minutiae of uniforms, medals, battle-plans and other topics.
 

PLOT THE POSITIONS OF THE TRENCHES
If you are dedicated to trading soldiers of World War I, and want to know exactly where trenches would have been sited, consider investing in “LinesMan”, a computer programme that can be used on laptop or palmtop with GPS system. It shows your current position on a present-day map, and superimposes the WWI trenchmaps on top.

 

First World War is an excellent website created, giving great details on the various battlefields of World War I. Its author, Simon Godly, lists battlefields for British, Canadian, Australian, French, German, American and South African, and enhances his descriptions with present-day views of the sites.

 

The Great War in a Different Light is a brilliant website full of contemporary illustrations, photographs and writings from magazines published at the time. Exhaustively indexed, so you can quickly reach any subject of particular interest, it has extracts from publications in English, French, German, Spanish and Dutch.

 

The Western Front Association is an organisation that supports research into the Great War, the renovation of memorials and other projects.

 

The Imperial War Museum, London, was founded in 1917 and first opened to the public in 1920. Since 1936 it has been in its current location, the former Bethlem Royal Hospital buildings in Southwark. The original purpose of the IWM was to record the story of the Great War and mark the contribution of the Empire to victory. As well as comprehensive displays of uniforms and models connected with World War I, there is the superb “Trench Experience”. Open Daily 10am-6pm.

 

The National Army Museum, London, has a permanent gallery devoted to World War I that includes infantry and cavalry soldiers from 1914, a machine gun team, trench periscope and reconstructed dug-out from 1917. Open Daily 10am-5.30pm.

 

The Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne, France, gives an excellent overview of World War I from the perspective of both sides. Headsets give tours in English, French and German. Open Daily 10am-6pm, Closed mid-Dec to mid-Jan.

 

Drawing Fire is a book made recently from drawings and notebooks of infantryman Len Smith, who enlisted in the City of London Regiment in 1914.  You can browse quite a bit of the book before deciding whether or not to buy.  A talented artist, Smith provides many colour sketches of scenes and colleagues, including panoramic views across no man’s land commissioned by his superiors to indicate enemy positions.

 

Here is a map showing locations of museums in the Somme area, from the website The Great War 1914-1918.

 


NEVER TOUCH ANY OLD SHELLS OR OTHER ITEMS SEEN IN FIELDS AND ROADSIDE VERGES.

It is also strictly forbidden by French law to use metal detectors in the département of the Somme.  This page (in French) explains the law in detail, but basically the reason is that an enormous amount of dangerously unstable ordnance lies in the soil still (unexploded shells, gas shells, etc), which kills and maims many people every year.

 

 

Battle of the Somme  July-Nov 1916


The Battlefields of the Somme is a website set up by the Somme Tourist Board, with an excellent English version. It offers in-depth advice on research, museums, accommodation, tourist offices and other topics.

Well-known battlefield guide Paul Reed has produced an excellent, fact-packed site about the Somme. Here is a link to the “Visiting the Somme” pages, with recommendations for accommodation and restaurants in the area.
 

Here is a map showing locations of museums in the Somme area, from the website The Great War 1914-1918.

 

 

Battle of Arras/Artois April/May 1917

The Battle of Arras is well explained on this page from the Long Long Trail.

 

An explanation, from an American website, of the Battle of Arras and the taking of Vimy Ridge.

 

The Great War Different site shows contemporary illustrations of the tunnels beneath Arras, that enabled the Allies to surprise the Germans and to take Vimy Ridge

 

A description of the recently-opened “Wellington Quarry”, the amazing labyrinth of tunnels beneath Arras in which Allied troops were concealed for two weeks before launching their Easter attack.



Battle of the Lys  April 1918

J Rickard’s site has a good description of the events leading up to the Battle of the Lys, during the German spring offensive of 1918.


WORLD WAR II   1939-45

 

Route 39-45 website gives information on several of the top WWII sites in the Calais area.

 

 

THE DUNKIRK EVACUATION

The Mémorial du Souvenir, on the edge of Dunkerque, gives a fascinating view of “Operation Dynamo”, the May 1940 British operation to pluck the British Expeditionary Force from France in the face of the country’s capitulation to the German forces. 

 

HITLER’S V-WEAPONS

Here is the website for the gigantic blockhouse at Eperlecques, built to manufacture V2 rockets, but so heavily bombed by the RAF that it was never completed – and used instead as a plant for the manufacture of liquid oxygen to fuel the rockets. There’s a V1 flying bomb, on its launching ramp, to be seen.

 

La Coupole is a massive underground blockhouse at Helfaut, now a state-of-the-art museum. Laid out around two circuits: one covers the development of the V2 rocket by Wernher von Braun and his team of scientists; the other looks at the appallingly hard life endured by those who lived in the Nord and Pas-de-Calais area during the five years of German occupation.

 

The fortress of Mimoyecques, near Marquise, was to house the “V3” – a supergun trained on London. Again, the RAF bombing meant that it was never used – but walking deep into the hill to look at the remains of this deadly project is a chilling epxerience.

 

Here’s a page on the comprehensive Musée 39-45 at Ambleteuse, which has scenes and uniforms from the beginning of the war to the end, and on all fronts from Norway to Japan.

 

The Batterie Todt, or Museum of the Atlantic Wall, is a huge gun emplacement on the clifftop near Boulogne, with an uninterrupted view across the Channel to the cliffs of England.

 

Here is a page on the excellent World War II museum in the heart of Calais, located in a leafy park opposite the unmissable brick belfry. 

 

NEED SOMEONE TO SHOW YOU AROUND?
Members of the Guild of Battlefield Guides can be relied upon to lead you  to the best places for your own specific interests. Individually-tailored tours can be arranged that relate to your own particular focus – from the 100 Years War to World War II.

 

 

 

 

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