In the early days of World War One, the German Army advanced into Belgium and Luxembourg, creating the Western Front – a 400-mile-long stretch of land from France’s Swiss border to the North Sea that would go on to host some of the most brutal theatres of conflict in World War One, if not all of history.
Characterised by trench warfare, in which pockets of land were fought over for weeks and months in horrific conditions, the battlefields of World War One witnessed a devastating loss of life.
More than a century later, the devastation of World War One can still be seen in the landscapes, museums and memorials of northern France and Belgium.
From the subterranean hospital of Wellington Quarry to the infamous battleground of Passchendaele, here are 10 World War One battle sites to visit along the former Western Front.
The Third Battle of Ypres, later known as Passchendaele, was the site of a major British and French advance in 1917. It gained infamy for its mud and for the tragic loss of life suffered on both sides: the British alone lost some 300,000 soldiers at Passchendaele, and more than 250,000 Germans are also thought to have died.
Today, the battlefields of Passchendaele can be visited solo or as part of guided tours. Many operators offer tours around the wider region of the Ypres Salient – also referred to as Flanders Fields. The area is also home to some key museums and monuments, including the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, the 85th Canadian Memorial and the Passchendaele New British Cemetery.
After the close of World War One, a farmer returned to his land in western Belgium to find a network of trenches and tunnels carved through it. His property, now known as Sanctuary Wood, had been the site of intense fighting during the war. Instead of reworking the earth back into shape, he preserved the area’s military relics for visitors.
Visitors to Sanctuary Wood today can explore the trenches and tunnels of this former battleground. Now a comprehensive museum, filled with recovered soldiers’ possessions, weaponry, ammunition and much more, Sanctuary Wood makes for an immersive and moving experience.
The Battle of Vimy Ridge was part of the larger Battle of Arras during World War One. On 9 April 1917, Easter Monday, Canadians forces attacked German positions on Vimy Ridge, northern France. After 4 days of fighting, and suffering more than 10,000 casualties, the Canadians seized the region.
Today, Vimy Ridge hosts a vast stone monument to the Canadian soldiers who died during the attack. Visitors to the area can also take a guided tour through Vimy Ridge’s network of restored trenches and tunnels that were first carved into the hills during World War One.
The Wellington Quarry was a subterranean labyrinth of tunnels dug into the earth of northern France during World War One. The underground site was vast, encompassing newly dug routes and rooms as well as existing medieval tunnels. Built by the New Zealand Tunneling Company, the quarry ultimately contained a fully functioning hospital of some 700 beds.
Today, the tunnel system is home to the Carrière Wellington Museum. Visitors to the site can expect to take an elevator deep underground, where they’ll be immersed in the history of the former military hospital and subterranean stronghold.
The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and lasted nearly 5 months. It was one of the largest battles of World War One and among the bloodiest in human history. On the first day of battle alone, Britain lost nearly 60,000 men, making it the deadliest day in British military history. And by the close of the Battle of the Somme, a million soldiers from either side had died.
Today, a 40-mile route known as the Circuit of Remembrance starts from either the town of Albert or that of Peronne, winding through numerous battle sites, memorials and museums in the region. Those who wish to embark on this route of Somme battlefields can download audio guides to the route for free from various online sources – including the website of the Historial de la Grande Guerre Museum. Alternatively, various operators offer guided tours around the region.
Pozieres was the site of a major battle between Allied and German forces in 1916. Launched on 23 July, it saw Australian forces battle for the town of Pozieres, which would allow the Allies to attack the German stronghold of Thiepval.
Today, visitors can discover the history of the battle through signs and information panels at the site of the Battle of Pozieres. The area is also home to a Tank Memorial and the remnants of the Gibraltar blockhouse which served a German observation tower. There is also a cemetery and several obelisk-shaped memorials. Pozieres is one of the sites that make up the Circuit of Remembrance.
The Lochnagar Crater, located in the village of La Boisselle in France’s Picardie region, is the site where one of the first and largest explosions of the Battle of the Somme took place on 1 July 1916.
Set off by British forces at 7:28 am, the mine which created the Lochnagar Crater was one of the biggest ever detonated at that time in history. The crater itself is an astounding 100 metres in diameter and 30 metres deep. Today, visitors can see Lochnagar Crater either as a one-off site or as part of the Circuit of Remembrance.
The Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval in France is a 70-foot-high stone structure built as a memorial to the men of Ulster who fought and gave their lives during World War One. The first memorial to be built on the Western Front, the Ulster Memorial is a replica of Helen’s Tower, an important monument which is located in County Down in Northern Ireland.
Located on what was the German front line during the Battle of the Somme, the memorial faces Thiepval Wood, the site from which the 36th (Ulster) Division made its charge on the first day of the famous offensive, 1 July 1916. Today, the site offers guided tours of these woods from its visitor centre. Inside, visitors can view the plaques dedicated to the Irish soldiers, several paintings and visit its memorial chapel.
For those wishing to tour the battlefields of Verdun, the Verdun Memorial Museum offers advice and itineraries, meaning it’s a good starting point for anyone visiting the region.
The Verdun Memorial Museum is dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives at the Battle of Verdun (21 February to 18 December 1916). It stands near the site of the lengthy battle, and the surrounding landscape bears the scars of the war, including mine and shell craters. On display at the memorial museum are weaponry, French and German aircraft, photographs and medical equipment.
Laid out over two floors, the Verdun Memorial Museum immerses the visitor in the realities of the battle by recreating the trench system and using multimedia presentations to guide visitors through the events of the war. Exhibits are translated into English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Dutch.
Fort Douaumont was one of the strongest, most state-of-the-art forts in France at the time of World War One. But in 1916, the stronghold was destroyed during the Battle of Verdun. Today, it stands as a ruin, a haunting reminder of the devastation of World War One.
Fort Douaumont still appears almost exactly as it did at the end of World War One. Despite the destruction, parts of Fort Douaumont are well preserved, including the barrack rooms and command posts. Visitors can take a tour through its 3 levels and see the guns, turrets and weaponry which remain. There is also a graveyard.