Somme 2016: visiting the Somme battlefields 100 years on

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Discover the sombre past of the Battle of the Somme, as the world commemorates its centenary, with this list of the best sites and museums to visit...

The largest battle to take place during WW1, the Battle of the Somme raged for four and half volatile months and resulted in over one million losses on all sides. When the British launched the offensive on 1 July 1916, they lost 19,000 men with another 40,000 wounded just on the first day.

The Battle of the Somme has since become synonymous with the slaughter of armies on an unprecedented scale due to the increasing mechanisation of warfare. The first 'modern' war, it occupies a place in history like no other and as it passes out of recent memory, the marking of the centenary is especially important.

With commemorations for the centenary ongoing for the next two years, there will be plenty of events happening throughout the area. But whenever you choose to visit, these are the must-see places that you can't leave off your Somme itinerary.

The WW1 sites and battlefields

The Somme battlefields congregate around the department's capital, Amiens, and the town of Albert, just over 30km away. A stunning city in its own right, Amiens is famous for its huge Gothic cathedral that is one of the largest Gothic edifices ever built.

Amiens cathedral

Close to the Western Front, Amiens was repeatedly shelled by the Germans as they tried to advance into the city. Some of these shells fell on the cathedral but, fortunately, it escaped serious damage. A remarkable, ornate structure with the largest internal volume of any French cathedral at an estimated 200,000 cubic metres, it was used as a hospital during the war. Construction began on the cathedral in 1220 and recent surveys have revealed that the facade was originally painted in colour. You can now see what this would have looked like as it's recreated by a light show at night.

Château de Querrieu

Step into the history of the Battle of the Somme at the place where it all began. It was at the Château de Querrieu that the British army HQ was based and from here General Rawlinson gave the order for attack at 7.30am on 1 July 1916. As you wander the rooms of this beautiful 19th century Romantic chateau today, you will find exhibitions about its role during the war.

Lochnagar Crater

An enormous explosion commenced the British attack on the German lines at 7.28am just before the soldiers were ordered 'over the top'. 60,000lbs of ammonal explosives that had been laid in tunnels underneath the German stronghold of Schwaben Höhe were detonated. British tunnelers had been digging tunnels under the German position for months to lay mines and the size of the blast created by the Lochnagar mine launched debris 40,000 feet in the air. It covered German dug outs and trenches across a massive area.

The explosion was so loud that it was said to have been heard in London and has left a crater so huge that it is the largest man-made crater ever made by a single explosion. Nearly 91m (300ft) across and 21m (70 ft) deep, the crater is now a memorial to peace and reconciliation and a place for reflection on the loss of life caused by war. No one knows quite how many soldiers bodies are still in the crater where they have been left undisturbed.

Underground city of Naours

Built into caves that were quarried for their stone, the underground city at Naours is an incredible sight. In the Middle Ages, local villagers would take refuge here from the armies that were commonly crisscrossing the area at the time. There is even an underground church.

Its fame was known even by the soldiers in WW1 and many visited the caves despite them being several miles from the front line. Nearly 20,000 inscriptions by WW1 soldiers have been discovered on the walls of the caves - the highest concentration of WW1 graffiti to ever be uncovered. Leaving their names for posterity; see how many names you spot as you take a tour through the caves. Outside is a 24 acre wooded park with children's play area. 

Little Train of the Upper Somme

The railway line from Froissy to Dompierre was constructed in 1916 to transport troops and artillery to the battlefields of the Somme. A visit today is a lot more enjoyable as you take a ride on a steam train through the beautiful scenery of the Somme Valley and Santerre Plateau. There is also a narrow-gauge railway museum, the largest of its type in the world, with a collection of nearly 40 steam and diesel locomotives from the 1910s and 1920s.

The WW1 museums

Somme 1916 museum in Albert

Discover what life was really like in the trenches at the Musée Somme 1916 in the town of Albert. Inside a 250 metre long tunnel, you'll find out all about the daily life of soldiers in the trenches through lifelike dioramas and reconstructed trenches filled with wartime artefacts. There's also a new 'heroes gallery' focusing on the lives of nine men and women who were personalities during the war including Canadian Lt Col John McCrae, the author of the famous battlefield poem 'In Flanders Fields'.

The town of Albert was severely damaged during the war, which makes it the perfect setting for the museum. Albert suffered a bombardment while the Germans occupied it in 1914, became a centre of military activity during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, and was recaptured by the Germans again in 1918. By the time it was liberated by the British later that year, much of the town was in ruins.

Historial of the Great War in Peronne

Perhaps not what you expect when you arrive at the entrance of Peronne's medieval chateau, the Historial de la Grand Guerre is a very contemporary museum located within the chateau and an elegant modern extension that fronts onto a peaceful lake. Following the chronology of the war and the experiences of the three main nations, the museum takes you on a journey through its collection of 70,000 authentic objects and artefacts - everything from soldiers' everyday items to propaganda, early prosthetics, and paintings by artists including Otto Dix.

The Historial has some great temporary exhibitions and is running an exhibition about the 'Writers of War' until mid-November. There's also a joint ticket available for the Historial and the Thiepval Memorial, which is half an hour's drive away. Peronne itself suffered greatly during the war and was occupied by the Germans for most of the war from 1914-18. 30% of its inhabitants died during the occupation and, every day, the town hall bell rings out the popular WW1 song, 'La Madelon', in remembrance.

The WW1 cemeteries and memorials

The Somme department has the sad accolade of having the most foreign war memorials of any French department. Dedicated to the fallen from around the world who fought during WW1, the memorials and cemeteries in the area number into the hundreds with 410 Commonwealth cemeteries alone.  

Thiepval Memorial

The most famous British and Commonwealth memorial where the main commemoration services are held, the Thiepval Memorial is a striking 45 metre high memorial to the missing and the largest Commonwealth war memorial in the world. Made of red brick with huge stones covered in more than 72,000 names of missing soldiers, it is an astonishing and sombre sight. The average age of the missing men is just 25 years old.

Until mid-November, a daily remembrance service will be held at 12pm that visitors can attend. Inside the visitors centre is a screening room showing three films and also three databases that visitors can use to research more about the war and other war memorials. A brand new museum has just opened on 1 July 2016 containing artefacts from the Battle of the Somme, archaeological finds, multimedia displays and a life-size replica of the plane of French fighter pilot, Georges Guynemer.

Ulster Tower

An unusual memorial, the Ulster Tower is a replica of Helen's Tower on the Clandeboyne Estate in Ireland - the place where the Ulster Division completed their military training. Dedicated to the soldiers of the Ulster regiments who fell during the battle, the memorial remembers many who fell on the first day. The 36th Ulster Division suffered over 5,000 casualties on 1 July 1916 - one in four were killed, missing, wounded or taken prisoner in those opening hours of battle.

Other WW1 cemeteries and memorials

Some of the most well-known Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials of the Somme include the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux and the cemetery at Le Hamel, the New Zealand and South Africa memorials at Longueval and several memorials at Pozières. In this town, you'll find the Tank Memorial and the Pozières Military Cemetery where walls are covered in 14,000 names of soldiers whose grave is unknown. There are also Canadian memorials at Le Quesnel and Courcelette.

The largest French war cemetery is at Rancourt where over 8,500 soldiers are buried. At Vermandovillers, you'll find the largest war cemetery in the Somme, which is a German cemetery. 22,000 remains are interred here with 10,000 crosses and the rest buried in 15 mass graves. A poignant reminder of the cost of the war on all sides.

Have you visited the Somme battlefields? Where did you visit? Let us know in the comments below.

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