Somme Battlefields Film
I have put together a short film on the Somme Battlefields, showing some of the sites that can be seen there. This can be viewed below.
The Department of the Somme lies in the Picardy region of Northern France, and is relatively easy to visit from the UK, driving time from the Channel ports is around 90 minutes. It is a region which is made up largely of chalk downlands, and around the site of the 1916 battles, is mainly rural with one small town (Albert) and many small villages. The map below shows the location of many of the 1916 battlefields which are covered in this section of the website.
Map of the Somme Battlefields
Maps and Guidebooks
If you have only a short time to visit the Somme, then perhaps the best book to use is Major & Mrs. Holt's Battlefields Guide to the Somme. This contains several one day driving itineraries, which have both distances and timings for each stop, plus clear directions and a useful map. This enables you to see as much as possible if time is limited. There is also a pocket sized version of this guidebook avaiable now. If you have longer, then walking the country of the Somme is very rewarding, and you get to see far more and get a real feel for the battlefields. I would very highly recommend Paul Reed's Walking the Somme if you have the time to spend walking the area.
For in-depth detail on the cemeteries and many other features, then Martin & Mary Middlebrook's The Somme Battlefields goes into much more detail, arranged by small sectors of the battlefield. This may be difficult to find in print, but is available via Kindle. For more information see the links via the images below, and also the Guidebooks page.
In terms of maps, for modern day maps the IGN Serie Bleue are large-scale (1:25000), and are excellent for walking tours. Sheets 2408 O, 2408 E and 2407 E cover the majority of the 1916 Somme battlefields. For contemporary trench maps, copies of a number covering the Somme battlefields are available in colour from G H Smith. The Linesman system is now also available (see the Great War Digital website).
Visiting the Somme Region
There are several options to choose as a base when visitng the Somme battlefields. The most central for access to the 1916 battlefields is Albert. This enables you to reach the 1916 battlefields in minutes, and allows the maximum time for seeing the sights and enjoying the countryside as well. The drawback is that Albert is a very small town with relatively little choice in the way of hotels and restaurants. I have stayed at the Best Western Royal Picardie, which is a nice hotel with a good but rather expensive restaurant. There is also the Hotel Basilica, and a couple of guesthouses. In terms of eating out, there are a few restaurants, but not a great deal of choice. You should also note that several restaurants are closed on a Sunday evening if you are there over the weekend.
My preference during the day is to buy bread, cheese, ham and fruit before I set off, and have a picnic lunch. There is a small supermarket in the centre of Albert, and a slightly larger one on the road (D929) out of Albert to the east for provisions.
The Basilica in Albert; the golden virgin on the top. The troops believed that when it fell the war would end Photo: Vise Paris
Another possibility for a base is Bapaume (an objective for the Somme offensive), again reasonably close to sites of interest, but this is also a small town with fairly limited amenities - although I have never stayed there. Peronne (to the south-east of the battlefields) is closer than Arras or Amiens, and makes a pleaseant location; a small town again but with some pleasant restaraunts and a good local market on Saturdays.
Another alternative is Amiens. This is a fairly large city, situated about 20 miles west of Albert, so you will have around a 40 minute drive to reach the 1916 battlefields. However, the advantage is that there are numerous hotels, restaurants, shops etc. for the evenings or for others if you are visiting with friends or family who want to do other things! Again, there is a useful website which has information about the city, sights and hotels/restaurants etc. This can be found at www.amiens.fr. I have stayed in the Express by Holiday Inn, which is located right next to the station, and was fine and of a reasonable price as a base, although a fairly impersonal chain hotel as opposed to some of the individual hotels in the smaller towns. There are plenty of others to choose from to suit any budget.
I have also stayed in Arras - again a 45 minute drive from the battlefields, but a very good base - plenty of choice of hotels and places to eat in the city centre.
Troops attacking during the Battle of the Somme Q87: Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, London.
The Somme Battlefields today
Whilst nearly 90 years have passed since the battle of the Somme, the region is relatively unchanged. Obviously, modern roads and housing developments have taken place, but if you are prepared to get away from the roads and walk around the lanes and tracks, then in many cases you can get a real feel for what the battlefields must have looked like then.
Many of the villages were destroyed by the massive artillery bombardments. Several, such as Serre, were made into fortress-villages as part of the German lines and so suffered greatly from artillery fire. After the war ended, there was a proposal to make the Somme battlefields a Zone Rouge - an area where the land was considered so devastated that rebuilding and resettlement of villages was deemed impossible (as was the case at Verdun). However, this was not implemented, and the villages were rebuilt in most cases. There were some exceptions, such as Thiepval (the site of the imposing Memorial to the Missing).
The region is very pleasant to visit and to walk, and combining a walking holiday with visiting the battlefields in this beautiful region of France is a great way to spend a few days remembering the great human toll that the Battle of the Somme entailed.
Burial at a Somme Cemetery. Image from Library and Archives Canada
There are always new things to see and new monuments are being erected to show that the memory of those who fought and died here is not forgotten. One of the most recent is located at Contalmaison next to the church, and is in memory of the 16th Royal Scots, also known as McCrae's battalion, and with a strong association with Hearts Football Club.
16th Royal Scots (McCrae's battalion) memorial at Contalmaison