Many years ago we had a family camping holiday in France. Money was tight, so it was a case of choosing a holiday location we could afford rather than where we would have preferred, but we were happy just to have a holiday in France.
Well, we ended up in Picardy. What we didn’t realise until we got there was how near we were to battlefields, towns and memorials of the First World War.
With some effort, we managed to visit several of the World War 1 sites that are now often offered in the itineraries of ‘battlefield tours’.
We visited the Thiepval memorial, the monument of 16 columns, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, on which are carved the names of over 72,000 members of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme region, were never found or identified and who have no known grave.
Most of the soldiers were lost in the battle of the Somme which commenced on July 1st 1916 and continued until November of that year.
This really is a most impressive memorial. At 43 metres in height, it is the largest British battle memorial in the world.
I found two ‘Claysons’ on the Thiepval memorial who aren’t (to my knowledge) part of my immediate/extended family tree. However, my surname isn’t common. There are three main clusters of the name in the UK and I’m expecting that a link between them will be found at some point soon.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
We also visited the Canadian trenches at the Vimy Memorial park. At the request of the Canadian government, part of the battlefield at the western end of Vimy Ridge was handed to them for the building of a memorial to the Canadian force who fought and died there.
As well as the memorial itself (designed by Walter Allward), a section of the trenches were repaired and have been preserved. These trenches comprise of part of the Allied and German front lines at the time of the Battle of Vimy Ridge.
The town of Albert played a prominent part in the First World War. It was the nearest town to the Somme battlefields of 1916 for the allies and suffered heavy damage during the war. Whilst there, we visited a small museum of the First World War, but I don’t know if it is still there.
Something that surprised me very much was, as we were leaving the museum, seeing outside on the pavement a cardboard box full of First World War shell caps which were for sale for 3 French francs each (which shows how long ago this was).
To be able to hold a piece of the past like that, something tangible from that terrible conflict and something that was also symbolic of the utter senselessness and tragedy of what happened, really struck a chord in me. I bought one and I still have it to this day. This to me isn’t in any way a souvenir, it’s an historical artefact.
You might think that touring such sites might be more than a little depressing. Personally, I didn’t feel that at all. I felt privileged to experience myself the landscapes that men with my name (and others) fought in, as well as appreciation and gratitude that the countries involved in that disastrous conflict have gone to such great lengths to make sure that those men are not forgotten. So they should.
If I were to visit the World War 1 battlefields again, I would almost certainly investigate the battlefield tours offered by the various tour agencies that specialise in this sort of thing. If you are thinking of doing the same, do your research first and make absolutely sure that any tours that you are considering include the locations that are relevant to you and your ancestry.