First World War Battlefields

  • Old trenches, Newfoundland Memorial - © William Mackesy
  • WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr
  • WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr
  • WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr
  • WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr
  • Lochnagar crater - © William Mackesy
  • WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr
  • Lochnagar crater - © William Mackesy
  • Up the ridge to Thiepval - © William Mackesy
  • Thiepval - © William Mackesy
  • Down over the front line - © William Mackesy
  • Tyne Cot Cemetery - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • Menin Gate, last post - © William Mackesy
  • Spotting munitions above Leipzig Redoubt - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy
  • WW1 Battlefields - © William Mackesy

Key information: First World War Battlefields

  • The battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front are even now, approaching 100 years on, staggering in their scale and unbearably sad in their detail. Every Western European should go there.
  • It is essential to get out into the raw countryside to get that little bit nearer understanding what it must have been like to have to go over the top and attack enemy positions across the shell-holes, mud, wire and bodies of no-mans land and to try to experience the chalky, empty expanses of the Somme or the gentle, deathly slopes of Passchendaele.
  • There are a wide variety of fascinating and usually highly poignant walks, although dont expect ravishing scenery

Walkopedia rating

  • Walkopedia rating83
  • Beauty22
  • Natural interest8
  • Human interest19
  • Charisma34
  • Negative points0
  • Total rating83

Vital Statistics

  • Length: Variable
  • Level of Difficulty: Straightforward
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WWI Battlefields - © James Kerr

WALK SUMMARY

The battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front are even now, approaching 100 years on, staggering in their scale and unbearably sad in their detail. Every Western European should go there, to try to understand what happened, and to have the most poignant of lessons in why peace and justice, and how to secure them in a complicated world, are so important.

This was a war that should never have happened, its causes so complex that it is hard to apportion blame fairly.  It caused over four years of atrocious suffering for the combatants and their families, on multiple fronts. On the Western Front, in Belgium and north-eastern France, millions died, of whom some one million were British, Australians, Canadians and other Empire countries. It was the black inspiration of some of the worlds greatest poetry.

The famous places and events are thus for good reason, and must be seen:  the great monuments to the unfound dead at Thiepval and the Menin Gate at Ypres; the preserved shell-cratered ground and trenches at Vimy, the Newfoundland Memorial Park and below the Ulster Tower; and scores of cemeteries from the horrendously huge to the pathetically small, their lovingly tended beauty adding to their extreme poignancy. The (few and small) German cemeteries are some of the saddest.

 

It is essential to get out into the raw countryside to get that little bit nearer understanding what it must have been like to have to go over the top and attack enemy positions across the shell-holes, mud, wire and bodies of no-mans land and to try to experience the chalky, empty expanses of the Somme or the gentle, deathly slopes of Passchendaele.

  

There are a wide variety of fascinating and usually highly poignant walks, although dont expect ravishing scenery:  this is fairly dreary countryside, despite the occasional pretty little valley (all the more melancholy for it) in the Somme area. Several of these are in Walking the Somme or Walking the Salient.

      The longest would be a three day walk of the entire 18 mile front line of the Somme (20,000 Allied soldiers killed, another 40,000 casualties, on 1 July 1916, the terrible first day). Some of the best shorter Somme walking includes:

o    Walk from the quiet Blighty Valley cemetery in its pretty, wooded, shallow valley to Lonsdale Cemetery and on up the ridge to the Leipzig and Wunderwerk redoubts, cause of so much death, to the Thiepval memorial.

o    A Blunden Walk over the ground where the poet got lost behind enemy lines in the Thiepval area.

o    The Pals Walk at Serre, the ground where the North of England Pals Battalions attacked on 1 July and took such huge casualties.

o    The Poets Walk around the Fricourt/Mametz area, where several of the war poets (including Sassoon, Graves and Noel Hodgson) fought or were on duty.

o    The Yorkshire Walk in the Fricourt area, scene of the highest proportion of losses of any unit on the first day of the offensive.

o    Walking the well preserved and thus particularly gripping and moving ground at Newfoundland Park and around Beaumont-Hamel.

      The Ypres area is harder to find good walks in, because it is more built up.

o    From Sanctuary Wood to hill 62, both on the Passchendaele Ridge, and on to Hill 60, the junction of the Passchendaele and Messine ridges, is a good walk and takes in some of the key sites.

o    You can also walk from Zonnebeke to Tyne Cot British Cemetery, the largest British army cemetery in the word and not to be missed.

o    Although dullish country, a walk around Plugstreet Wood, scene of the famous Christmas truce, is worthwhile.

o    While not a key WW1 walk, dont miss an exploration of Vaubans great fortress ramparts at Ypres, with a particularly poignant rampart cemetery.

      Verdun: the haunting scene of the dreadful 1915 battle of attrition by which the Germans meant to bleed France out of the war.

 

Almost all walks you could do here would be massively enhanced by an experienced guide. The cost of this does, though, militate towards getting a group of friends together to share the cost and the experience. Most randomly chosen groups will have relatives buried there, or who fought and survived. Visiting their graves is particularly poignant and immediate.
 
Try to go for at least 3 full days: the repetition of events, scenes and cemetery after cemetery is the best way to understand, viscerally rather than intellectually, the horrendous scale of the slaughter.

Other accounts: share your experiences

Your comments on this walk, your experiences and suggestions, and your photos are very welcome. Where appropriate, you will be credited for your contribution.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

See also expedition planning, including our universal expedition checklist. Walkopedia encourages responsible travel.

Books and Maps

Suggest books and maps

Books on this walk                      

Walking on the Somme – Paul Reed: essential for Somme walks.

Walking the Salient – Paul Reed: walking in the Ypres area.

 

Other books

Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Somme – Tonie & Valmai Holt.

Major & Mrs Holt’s Battlefield Guide to the Ypres Salient – Tonie and Valmai Holt.

 

Endless good books on the subject, including:

 

The First World War – John Keegan

The First World War – Martin Gilbert

Forgotten Victory - Gary Sheffield. (‘Revisionist’ in that it re-presents the fact that the allies won)

August 1914 – Barbara Tuchman

August 1914 – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. (The Russian angle)

Somme – Lyn Macdonald

They Called it Passchendaele – Lyn Macdonald

The Roses of No Man’s Land – Lyn Macdonald

To the Last Man: Spring 1918 – Lyn Macdonald

Last Letters Home – ed. Tamasin Day-Lewis

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain

Regeneration Trilogy – Pat Barker

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

Goodbye To All That – Robert Graves

The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry

Meet at Dawn, Unarmed – Andrew Hamilton and Alan Reed. (The Christmas Truce and much more)

Maps

Major and Mrs Holt’s Battle Maps of the Somme, ditto of the Ypres Salient. Essential. Can be bought (with or separately from their books) fairly easily.

 

Stanfords: www.stanfords.co.uk.  An excellent (and user-friendly) online specialist source of worldwide maps (it is also good for guidebooks).

 

Best times to walk/weather

 

Best times to walk

Any time of year. Summer for the best weather, other seasons for smaller crowds (except in the lead up to Armistice Day, 11th November) and weather / ground conditions that might remind you of what it was like.

Weather

Generally fine in season, can rain at any time of year.

 

For detailed weather information, have a look at: www.worldweather.org or www.bbc.co.uk/weather/world/country-guides

 

Getting there/transport/permits/fees

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By car/ specialist bus.

 

 

Route(s)

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See Walk Summary above.

 

Possible problems, health, other warnings

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See also the websites in our useful links page for more detailed, and up-to-date, information.

 

Safety and problems: All walks have inherent risks and problems can arise on any walk. Many of the walks featured on this website involve significant risks and possible problems. This website cannot, does not purport to, identify all actual or potential risks, dangers and problems that may relate to a walk or a country. Any person who is considering undertaking this walk should do careful research and make their own assessment of the risks, dangers and possible problems involved. They should also go to “Important information” for further important information.

 

Make sure you have appropriate insurance.

 

Guided or independent?

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Independent

You can do these walks independently.

Guided/supported

While these walks can be done independently, travelling here with a knowledgeable guide has huge advantages. Expedition organisers include:

The best option can be to make arrangements with / through individual guides. (Guides are not cheap, so it is best to get a small group of friends together to share the cost, and the experience.) We did this with Alan Reed, who we cannot recommend highly enough. He can be got at:  

 

76 Foxes Way    

Warwick,

CV34 6AV

UK

 

Or via email (denehouse@btconnect.com)

 

Accommodation

There are masses of places to stay, both in towns and in the countryside. Staying in Arras and / or Ypres, both very historic cities with delightful centres, is highly recommended. Places to stay include:

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Other information and tips

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Useful websites and information

There are many websites with relevant information. Here are some that we think are useful or have been recommended to us.

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Other things to do in the area

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Other walks

WWI Battlefields - ©James Kerr

OTHER ACCOUNTS
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Add your experiences, suggestions and photos. We would be delighted to receive your writing and ideas (which will be attributed appropriately where published).

Anyone planning an expedition to this place should see further important information about this walk.

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