‘The Hidden Somme’

by Evelyn McKechnie

The Somme today is a place of great beauty and tranquility and a million miles removed from the horrors of the Great War 1914 – 1918. The war devastated many of its lovely towns and villages and the landscape was scarred beyond comprehension.

It is the final resting place for millions of soldiers – French, German and from the Commonwealth. Their cemeteries dot the horizon and almost follow the front line.

Couin New British Cemetery
Couin British Cemetery and Couin New British Cemetery

For many of the soldiers, there is no known grave and their name etched on one of the memorials to the missing of the Somme.

Remembrance Trail

Many people make the trip to this part of France for lots of different reasons. Some come to trace a family member in one of the cemeteries or who is named on one of the memorials if there their bodies were never found. For whatever reason you visit the Somme, you will be compelled to return.

View across the Somme from Flers AIF Cemetery

This land that saw so much death and destruction is one of the loveliest places I have ever been. There is so much to see and all under a backdrop of peace and serenity. You will be spellbound by the idyllic scenery of the many chateaux, abbeys, cathedrals, museums, valleys, lakes, rivers and forests. 

The Woods

Much of the Somme landscape is unchanged since the Great War and many of the woods so desperately fought over are still there – High Wood, Trones Wood, Deville Wood, Caterpillar Wood and many, many more.

Trones Wood with Bernafray Wood in distance

There are lovely walks and one which you can do taking in much of the front line. Information and maps for walking (there are 48 walking paths) are available from the tourist board. Their website is https://www.visit-somme.com/great-war

It is an excellent site and has lots of information on planning your trip, how to get around, accommodation, details on the Circuit of Remembrance also known as ‘The Poppy Trail’, war memorials, cemeteries and information on other places to visit while in the area.

The Little Train

One of these areas of interest is the little narrow-gauge railway called ‘Le P’tit train de la Haute Somme’ at Froissy just a few kilometres south of Albert. The ‘Petit Train’ was built by the British army to supply the front line of the Somme and is the last remaining section of the large network built during World War One. 

The Little Train at Froissy on the Somme

During the war, the train was able to carry up to 1500 tonnes of ammunition every day. After the war ended, the network was used to help rebuild the devastated area until 1924. A section was saved by railway enthusiasts and throughout the summer tourists travel on the line between Froissy and Dompierre.

You can also visit their Museum which opened in 1996 and houses thirty seven locomotives and 100 wagons. It is a wonderful, spacious museum with many of the exhibits lovingly restored by the enthusiasts with a large section devoted to the narrow gauge of the Great War with information panels in German, French and English.

Little train operates fromFroissy and Dompierre ©Philippe Grandsire

The museum comprising of a café bar, reception area, toilets and shop, it offers a great day out for all. You can sit in the Café area and have a great view of the platform outside and watch the steam locomotives heading on their next trip up the line. The return journey is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Tours by Canal

Just a few miles west of Froissy is Cappy. There are some of the finest boats around for a waterways holiday. This is a fabulous way to journey through the Somme where each village has its painful recollections of the Great War.

The Canal de la Somme

Amiens

Starting from Cappy you can travel along the Somme Canal to Amiens, one of France’s oldest towns and one time home to Jules Verne. Its fantastic Gothic cathedral is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame d’Amiens

Here you will find a maze of ancient streets, shops, restaurants, cafes and pubs and many colour-washed houses. Louis X1 called it “the little Venice of the North”. 

Colour-washed house in Amiens

Abbeville

At Abbeville, there is another flamboyant gothic art church. The magnificent collegiate church of is a masterpiece of Gothic art on the theme of the Trinity.

Collégiale Saint Vulfran in Abbeville – ©DR

Then there is St Valery, which was founded by an Irish monk who came to convert the pagan Picardians.

St Valery sur Somme – ©SommeTourisme – AB

Heading in the other direction from Cappy brings you to St Quentin with its tall, narrow houses; Ham with its beautiful church of Notre Dame and Peronne with its amazing museum ‘The Historial of the Great War’ and a definite must-see on your trip.

It is quite feasible if you had the time and money to travel from the mouth of the Somme at St-Valery-Sur-Somme through Abbeville, Bray-Sur-Somme, Amiens, Ham, St Quentin, Peronne, Arleux and Arras, Lens, Bethune to St Omer. Good website for info https://www.french-waterways.com/waterways/north/somme/

The Thiepval Visitor Centre, Memorial and Museum

One of the most visited places in the Somme is the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme. It is the largest memorial to the missing from any war and stands isolated on the Somme.

Thiepval Memorial to the Missing

There is also a visitor centre in place which has had thousands of visitors since it was opened on 27th September 2004 by HRH the Duke of Kent with M. Pierre Mirabeau the Regional Préfet and M. Daniel Dubois the Président du Conseil Général of the Somme.

Thiepval Visitor Centre

It has excellent facilities – café, shop, etc including a large exhibition area and a database providing information on the men whose names appear on the Thiepval Memorial. The story of the Somme is told with words, graphics, maps and photographs with texts in French, German and English.

View across the Somme battlefields from the top of Thiepval

One of the most striking exhibits is panels of over 600 photographs of men who are named on the memorial. After seeing thousands upon thousands of names, it was a strange feeling looking at all these faces, some very, very young staring down at you. It goes a long way to show the scale of the losses. 

New Thiepval Museum

The museum was inaugurated on 1st July 1916 by the President of the French Republic, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. The Thiepval Museum is dedicated to the battles of the Somme, a gallery dedicated to the Missing and another to the Aces of Aviation featuring a replica of the aircraft flown by Georges Guynemer.

Guynemer – Thiepval – Pascal Brunet

More information on Thiepval is available at https://www.historial.fr/en/news/the-thiepval-museum/

The Contalmaison Cairn to the Royal Scots

On the 7th November 2004, in Contalmaison on the Somme, a cairn was unveiled in memory of the 16th Battalion of the Royal Scots. The 16th Royal Scots, also known as McCrae’s Own, suffered badly on 1st July 1916, with 229 members killed on the field of battle, 350 were injured and a further 27 died later. Some of the Hearts football team who volunteered in 1914 also died along with some other footballers from other Scottish teams. 

Contalmaison Cairn to the 16th Royal Scots – Macrae’s Own

They had advanced on the first day of the Somme managing to penetrate further into enemy lines that any other unit before having to retreat with horrendous losses of almost three quarters of its men and officers. 

Contalmaison Cemetery – famous for its butterlfies

The charismatic Battalion commander Sir George Macrae had always wanted a memorial to the men who died at Contalmaison, sadly it did not happen in his lifetime. Yet almost 90 years after the Battle of the Somme, people still remember the terrible sacrifice by so many with hundreds attending the unveiling ceremony of the men of McCrae’s Own.

Ocean Villas Tearoom, Accommodation, Trench and Museum – Auchonvillers

On the 1st July 2008, on the anniversary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a new museum was inaugurated at Auchonvillers in France. This museum is dedicated not only to the history of the Great War but also to the Second World War.

Auchonvillers on the Somme

There are two extraordinary people involved in the Andre Coilliot Museum and the Wall of Remembrance. One is Andre Coilliot and the other is Avril Williams, who runs a guest house and tearoom at the village of Auchonvillers on the Somme. Auchonvillers was known by the Tommies during the Great War as ‘Ocean Villas’.

Wall of Remembrance

Tonie and Valmai Holt of Holts Tours finally declared the Andre Coilliot museum opened in 2008 with Martin Middlebrook inaugurating the Wall of Remembrance. This is probably the first private Remembrance Wall ever in the Western Front for both those whom survived or killed in action where you can buy a plaque named to a loved one that served or died in the Great War.

Wall of Remembrance at Auchonvillers on the Somme

The Cellar

Avril’s heartfelt feeling for those who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice on the Somme from 1916 to 1918 led her to detailed research of the battlefield and the men who endured there.

The Cellar in Auchonvillers on the Somme

She discovered her well-preserved cellar had been used as a dressing station, first by the French in 1914 and then in 1916 by the Royal Irish Rifles and other units. She discovered graffiti, personal effects and artefacts. James Crozier who was shot at dawn, was thought to have been kept prisoner in this cellar before he was taken out and executed.

Avril said, ‘Andre has collected all his life, his work should never be forgotten. His collection was the best in the area. I feel the Museum was a stepping stone to make the Wall of Remembrance. As now I am whole in the knowledge that this is what my life has been about ‘Remembering the 1WW Soldier.’ 

“People search all their lives to find the contentment I now feel in doing this for them. Sounds stupid but this is just how I feel. I haven’t finished yet but now I know this is ‘my life’ to do exactly what I am doing. I want to leave behind a very good centre which will always be here and run just as I intended. My children will continue I feel sure and even make it more or a Remembrance Centre.

Accommodation at Auchonvillers

Information on staying at Avril’s or visiting the museum and trench can be found at http://www.avrilwilliams.eu/

Listen to Avril talking about Auchonvillers and James Crozier, Shot at Dawn – http://surlalignedefront.fr/2014/04/02/avril-williams-la-grande-guerre-en-heritage/

However you make your way through the Somme, nature remains strong and you just cannot help feeling that the Tommies when behind the lines must have wondered why the world had gone mad in such a beautiful place. However long your sojourn in the Somme, you will find it passes much too quickly.

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Many thanks, all donations gratefully received, however small. Evelyn

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Published by spotonlocations

Scottish based company designing travel apps for historical locations. Travel apps that will take you on amazing journeys to destinations in history where famous events took place. Scotland, Castles, Clans, WW1 & WW2

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