Explore World War One History in France
France bore witness to many bloody battles during World War One, and is home to the remains of many battlefields, memorials and museums as a result. Here's our pick of 10 of the most important attractions for anyone with an interest in France's World War One history.
The devastating nature of the ‘War To End All Wars’ was partially conducted along the Western Front. Huge armies dug into the muddy fields of France and set-piece advances involving hundreds of thousands of men. The result was a huge loss of life, often for little gain.
Today, visitors to the French World War One battlefields can experience recreations in museums, explore surviving trench works and observe memorials and cemeteries to those who died.
A number of battlefields are available to visit, including the Somme, Verdun and Pozieres. Other popular sites include Louvemont, the Lochnagar Crater and the Ulster Memorial Tower.
1. Somme battlefields
The Somme battlefields constitute a series of sites where the Battle of the Somme was fought during ‘The War to End All Wars’ – the First World War. They are among the most famous battlefields in France.
Today, a forty 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. Those who wish to embark on this route of Somme battlefields can download audio guides to the route for free from various sources, including from the website of the Historial de la Grande Guerre museum.
2. Verdun Memorial
The Verdun Memorial is a comprehensive museum of the Battle of Verdun and a memorial to fallen soldiers set in the Verdun battlefield, one of the most famous WW1 Battlefields in France. The memorial is set amidst the site of this battle and the surrounding landscape bears the scars of the war, including mine and shell craters. The memorial displays an array of objects and documentation dating back to the battle, including 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, making the Verdun Memorial very accessible and the museum is divided thematically. For those wishing to tour Verdun generally and see the different sites, the memorial offers advice and itineraries, meaning it’s a good starting point for anyone touring independently. It also has a dedicated educational centre.
Pozieres was the site of a major battle between Allied and German forces in 1916. The clash was the first of numerous battles together known as The Battle of the Somme.
Today, visitors can follow the battle with signs and information panels and view the site of the Battle of Pozieres, including its Tank Memorial and the remnants of the Gibraltar blockhouse which was a German observation tower. There is also a cemetery and several obelisk shaped memorials. Poziers is one of the sites that make up the Circuit of Remembrance, a route along which visitors can explore the Battlle of the Somme.
4. Lochnagar Crater
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 7:28am, the mine which created the Lochnagar Crater was one of the biggest ever detonated at that time and 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, a route which explores the Battle of the Somme, one of the biggest battles in World War One.
5. Chateau-Thierry American Monument
The Chateau-Thierry American Monument commemorates those American soldiers who fought in the region during World War I, such as those who took part in the Second Battle of the Marne.
Overlooking the River Marne, the granite structure of the Chateau-Thierry American Monument is a commanding sight with its colonnades and heroic statues. Visitors to the Chateau-Thierry American Monument can learn about the battles which took place in the area using the orientation map on the monument.
6. The Somme 1916 Museum
The Somme 1916 Museum is part of the Circuit of Remembrance, a tour of the Picardie region of France dedicated to the Battle of the Somme. Based in a former crypt in the town of Albert which later acted as a Second World War underground shelter, the museum displays a series of exhibits relating to the Battle of the Somme, including original weaponry, uniforms and equipment as well as looking at the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches.
The museum uses a variety of methods to try and recreate soldiers’ lives, immersing visitors in the experience with imagery, sound effects and lighting. Guided tours are available in English, French and German as are films in the museum’s projection room.
7. Ulster Memorial Tower
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 I. 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.
8. Fort Douaumont
Fort Douaumont was one of the strongest, most state of the art forts in France at the time of the First World War. However, in 1916, it was destroyed during the Battle of Verdun and today it lies as one of many ruined First World War Battlefields in France.
Today, visitors can see Fort Douaumont as it was at the end of World War One. You can take a tour through its three levels and see the guns, turrets and weaponry which remain. Despite the destruction, much of Fort Douaumont is well preserved including the barrack rooms and command posts. There is also a graveyard.
9. Newfoundland Memorial
The Newfoundland Memorial represents the best surviving trench system from WWI and commemorates the efforts of the 1st Battalion of the Canadian Newfoundland Regiment. The trenches at the site of the Newfoundland Memorial are some of the best preserved of their kind and offer visitors an invaluable insight into the conditions of the Great War. As such, it is amongst the best preserved French WW1 battlefields.
The memorial site consists of a number of areas, each of which are signposted, several cemeteries, memorials to the Newfoundland Division and to the Highland Division. The interpretation centre offers visitors can learn more about the origins of the Canadian soldiers and about the Somme.
10. Douaumont Ossuary
The Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun is a memorial site to the soldiers who died whilst fighting in the Battle of Verdun during the First World War. The Ossuary houses the bones of approximately 130,000 unknown soldiers from both sides. These remains can been seen through small windows inside the Douaumont Ossuary and the Ossuary’s cloisters are lined with plaques of the names of fallen soldiers and the locations of where each body was recovered. It also has a chapel where ceremonies take place.
Made up of an imposing stone structure with a 46 metre tower and beautifully maintained fields which house a cemetery with the graves of a further 15,000 French soldiers, the Ossuary overlooks the battlefield of the Battle of Verdun. Visitors can climb to the top of its tower for panoramic views of these fields. The first floor of the Ossuary is dedicated to a museum of the First World War.