Northern France: Fields of Courage

A battlefield tour of northern France can be a surprisingly uplifting experience. Gillian Thornton visits the memorials and monuments to two World Wars

Arras itself was devastated during World War I – look out for archive images in the Town Hall and give thanks to the architects who painstakingly recreated the vast arcaded squares and massive belfry. Today the town is the headquarters of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who do such an excellent job in ensuring that fallen soldiers from every conflict are remembered with respect.

Two decades and one war later, Caen suffered the same fate as Arras, yet miraculously managed to preserve its iconic medieval monuments commissioned by William the Conqueror. Normandy’s vast sandy beaches west of Caen took on the code names of Operation Overlord in June 1944 for the Allied landings on D-Day – or Jour J to the French. British troops arrived on the Calvados coast at Sword and Gold, the Canadians at Juno, and the Americans at Omaha, as well as at Utah in the neighbouring department of Manche. Today, each has its own dedicated museum with archive films and artefacts.

If you have no family connection to a particular beach, I recommend Arromanches, where sections of the Mulberry Harbours still float offshore, some even resting on the sands at low tide. And the vast expanse of Omaha Beach, so graphically depicted in the opening sequences of Stephen Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Saving Private Ryan. Inspiration for all ages.

For a broader view, visit the Caen Memorial, a museum to peace told through the conflicts since World War I. One of many places where enthusiasts can book guided tours of battlefield sites, this unique museum welcomes more than 400,000 visitors a year, half of them under 20 on school and family visits – hope, surely, that lessons are being learned across the years and that my father didn’t cross the Channel in vain.


Remembrance Trails of Nord-Pas de Calais. Four colour-coded trails follow different stages of WWI. Illustrated booklet available from Tourist Offices or visit

Remembrance Circuit of The Somme. A 40-mile route from Albert to P�ronne with information panels at some open-air sites. Available free to download from

Battle of Normandy. Eight colour-coded trails cover the D-Day beaches and inland offensive. Booklet and map available from Tourist Offices.

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Free leaflets, maps and literature are widely available from local Tourist Offices. Every remembrance site tells a moving story, but these are some of the key sites of interest to British travellers:

Nord-Pas de Calais (

Cemeteries around B�thune: Touret Memorial and Military Cemetery of Richebourg, and St Mary’s ADS Cemetery in Haisnes - last resting place of John, son of Rudyard Kipling ( Wellington Quarry, Arras. Guided tour of the tunnels where Allied soldiers hid before the Battle of Arras in 1917 ( Battle of Dunkerque Museum (M�morial du Souvenir). Small museum to the events of Operation Dynamo, which evacuated 340,000 men in 9 days in May/June 1940 ( La Coupole, St Omer. Underground bunker for stocking and launching V2 rockets on London. (

Picardy (

Thiepval. Memorial to the Missing, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and inscribed with the names of more than 72,000 men who died in the Somme sector, ( Historial de la Grande Guerre, P�ronne. Museum of the Great War, especially the Battle of the Somme (

Normandy ( :

Merville Battery and Pegasus Memorial. The Allied attack that started D-Day and a tale of extraordinary courage, ( and Mus�e du D�barquement, Arromanches. Amazing story of an engineering and logistical triumph, (

A battlefield tour of northern France can be a surprisingly uplifting experience. Gillian Thornton visits the memorials and monuments to two World Wars

Whenever I take the ferry to France, I love to stand on deck as the shoreline gets closer and savour the thought that my holiday is just around the corner. But each time I sail towards the harbour at Caen-Ouistreham, I’m also struck by a very different kind of emotion.

In June 1944 at the age of 21, my father landed here on the beach codenamed Sword as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. Not for him, the luxury of a modern cruise ferry, but the cramped conditions of a troop carrier. He’s modest – like so many veterans - about his involvement in the conflict, but I can’t begin to imagine how it must have felt to climb into a landing craft, bound for that perilous stretch of sand.

Today Ouistreham is a low-key but upbeat little resort, worlds away from the mayhem of World War II. Most families go there to enjoy sand, sea and sports, but many also take time to visit the town’s Atlantic Wall Museum, just one of a wealth of museums, memorials and cemeteries dotted across France in remembrance of two world wars.

Reminders of the Great War stretch across northern France from the German border in the east, through Champagne-Ardenne and Picardy, almost to the English Channel. Barely 20 years later, the Channel coast and Normandy were added to the expanding remembrance map - memorials to another generation in a very different kind of war.

Now our last Great War veteran has passed on and survivors from the Second dwindle with every passing year, and yet Remembrance Tourism has never been stronger, as more and more British families search for tangible connections with their past.

To me, Sword Beach will always have a special poignancy, but you don’t need to have a personal connection to either conflict to take something positive away from a remembrance site. Far from being depressing places to visit, they can be both humbling and uplifting as you discover the sacrifices made by previous generations in the name of peace.

In loving memory

Every remembrance site also provides a deeper understanding of the events that shaped both 21st century France and our shared history. British forces may not have been involved at Verdun in 1916, for instance, but the nine-month conflict made military history.

It’s said that every village lost at least one son at Verdun, but many lost whole families – names that appear in long lists on war memorials throughout France. By the outbreak of World War II, many survivors had moved to the towns in search of work, draining the French countryside of its young people.

But many nations fought together. Drive across Nord-Pas de Calais in particular and you can’t help but notice how many Commonwealth cemeteries there are and how close together - a handful of headstones here; a vast grid of identical graves over there, sometimes with little more than a cornfield or cattle pasture between them.

French casualties were buried in huge, national cemeteries or repatriated to their home churchyards, but Commonwealth soldiers were buried where they fell, whether on the battlefield or in field hospitals. Today, more than 3,000 cemeteries across France are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves commission, watched over by memorials designed by the leading architects of the 1920s, Sir Edwin Lutyens, Sir Herbert Baker and Sir Reginald Blomfield.

A register at the entrance to each cemetery enables visitors to find individual graves whilst visitors’ books record reactions from around the world. Walk down the lines of immaculate headstones, ramrod straight like marble soldiers, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the short inscriptions. ‘I love him still’. ‘Thy will be done’. Each one dedicated by a grieving relative.

I was particularly moved by the dedication to a young Private from Yorkshire, killed in the fierce fighting around B�thune in 1917, a simple sentiment from a mother to her 20-year-old son - ‘It is well with the lad. Mother.’ Proud, dignified, and utterly heart-wrenching. But far too many headstones bear the anonymous inscription of the unidentified - ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’

Walk those manicured lines beneath winter skies and there’s an extra poignancy as you pull your scarf around your neck, turn up your collar, and stick your gloved hands deep in your pockets, knowing there were no such comfort for the men who fought on the battlefields of Northern France.

Many visitors are stunned at how many nationalities lie buried almost within shouting distance of each other. In Pas-de-Calais, for instance, near B�thune, the Commonwealth memorial and cemetery at Richebourg is just a short drive from the Indian Memorial and the Portuguese military cemetery.

In the area around Arras, the Canadian memorial and museum on Vimy Ridge look out across the valley to the French national cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, whilst the Germans lie nearby in a vast Valhalla-style setting at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, not far from the Polish monument and a Czechoslovakian cemetery.

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