Somme

The Somme Battlefields

 The Department of the Somme lies in the Picardy region of Northern France. It’s linked mainly of course with the famous British offensive which started on the 1st of July, 1916. However, this area was also fought over in early 1918, when the Germans launched their Spring Offensive.  This was a last, desperate push to win the war on the Western Front, and was also known as the Kaiserschlacht, and on the Somme as Operation Michael.
See the Travelling to the Somme page for information on how to get there, and Staying in the Somme for where to stay. It’s a pleasant region which is made up largely of chalk downlands, and around the main battlefield sites is quite 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 Area

Pages covering specific areas can be found in the drop down menu above under the heading ‘Somme’. The original World War One Battlefields pages covering several of the Somme areas can still be found here, although the pages are being migrated to the new site.


Maps, Guidebooks and Other Useful Resources

If you have only a short time to visit the Somme, then the best guidebook to use is Major and Mrs Holt’s Battlefield 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 really useful map. This enables you to see as much as possible if time is limited.

If you have more time, then walking the countryside of the Somme is very rewarding.  You will get to see far more and get a real feel for the battlefields. The area is rural, unspoilt and largely retains many of the features that were present during the Great War. There are plenty of tracks and footpaths, and as rights of access are not always clear, I would highly recommend Paul Reed’s Walking the Somme as a great guide. This lists a number of routes of varying lengths and difficulties, and also a wealth of information on the sites you’ll see along the way.

For really in-depth detail on the cemeteries, battle sites and many other features, then Martin & Mary Middlebrook’s Guide to the Somme Battlefields goes into much more detail, organised by small sectors of the battlefield. It’s an excellent book as a guidebook and in its own right.

    

The best book describing the 1st July 1916 action is still Martin Middlebrook’s The First Day on the Somme. As well as describing what happened overall on that one day, it also focuses on individual soldiers stories – Martin Middlebrook spoke to many veterans of 1916 before he first published the book in 1971 – it is still a classic today.

A number of books give a wider view of the whole 1916 Somme offensives, from July to November 1916, such as Somme by Lyn MacDonald, and Gary Sheffield’s more recent The Somme: A New History.

In terms of maps, for printed maps the IGN Serie Bleue are large-scale (1:25000), and excellent for hiking. Sheets 2408 O, 2408 E and 2407 E cover the majority of the 1916 Somme battlefields. There are also many online mapping platforms available for your smart phone such as Viewranger, which offer access to the IGN maps with a cost per map.

Trench maps showing the area as it was during various stages of the war are also available online, for instance at the National Library of Scotland website.



The Somme Battlefields today, and Battlefield Tours

Whilst over 100 years have passed since the Battle of the Somme, the region is relatively unchanged. Obviously, modern roads and housing developments have appeared, 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 (now the site of the imposing Memorial to the Missing).

The ground has been left undisturbed at the Newfoundland Memorial Park, and the front line trenches of both sides can be clearly seen, along with shell holes.

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.

There are an increasing number of tour companies which offer guided tours of the battlefields, including tours starting from the UK. These include National Holidays and Titan Travel. If you also enjoy rail travel then Great Rail Journeys offer battlefield tours by rail, specifically visiting the Somme area.


These can be a good way to get an introduction to the battlefields, with expert guides on hand to explain the ground and the sights you will see.

Visiting the Somme Region

There are several options to choose as a base when visiting the Somme battlefields independently. 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. Other options nearby are Bapaume (an objective for the Somme offensive), and Peronne – both again reasonably close to sites of interest, but also small towns with fairly limited options for accommodation and eating out.

A little further away but with far more options to stay and eat out are Amiens or Arras – see the Staying in the Somme page for more information.

Burial at a Somme Cemetery. Image from Library and Archives Canada

Somme Battlefields Film

I have put together a short film on the Somme Battlefields, showing some of the sites that can be seen there.