Where is “the Somme”?
The Great War battle and the battlefields known as the Somme take their name from the French river. You can see the river on the map below, flowing from Peronne across to Amiens, the large city at the bottom left of the map. The area in which the British Expeditionary Force fought on the 1916 battlefield of the Somme lay astride the road between Albert and Bapaume. The French Army lay to their south and fought in the area where the “13.1” and “22” can be seen on this map.
Routes: Most British visitors will approach the battlefield by the motorway south from Arras (if coming directly from the Calais area); or from Amiens and cross-country via Doullens depending on where they are travelling from. The nearest airports are Paris Charles de Gaulle and Beauvais. The French SNCF railway has a station at Albert, with excellent connections to Arras and the rest of the national railway system. There is a station (“Gare Haute-Picardie”) on the TGV high-speed railway line.
Local language: Most people in the main tourist spots in the area speak English well, many fluently. Outside this, in the villages and farms do not expect English to be understood or spoken, although many who live here are British expats who run local battlefield tours and bed and breakfast accommodation.
Money: The currency in use is the Euro. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted but be aware that not all petrol filling stations in France accept British or American cards. There are banks and ATMs in Albert and Bapaume.
Security: This is in general a very safe area. There have been some thefts from vehicles parked in the remote areas of the battlefields, so do make sure that your valuables and documents are removed when you leave your car to go walking.
Why is “the Somme” an important battlefield to visit?
The Somme is mainly visited because of the 1916 battle. It has left a legacy of battlefield cemeteries, memorials, relics, museums and other places of memory, and no British battlefield has the magnitude and poignancy of the terrible losses of 1 July 1916. But “the Somme” experienced fighting throughout the Great War. Between the major battles there was static trench warfare, where both sides would shell the other, raid the enemy’s trenches and where snipers rifles caused the loss of many men. The periods of more mobile, intensive fighting were as follows: all of these periods have left their mark on the area.
- August-September 1914 when the French forces defended the area against German attack
- The 1916 Battle of the Somme, July to November 1916
- Early 1917 when the British continued the battle in the area of the River Ancre
- The fighting moved eastwards and left the Somme quiet when the Germans carried out a withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917
- The German offensive “Operation Michael” pushed the British back across the battlefield in March 1918
- The British began offensive operations here in August 1918 and within a short time the fighting had once again moved eastwards.
The British 1916 battlefield
General: The map above shows the British area of the 1916 battlefield. The entire area is crammed with military cemeteries and memorials yet outside of Albert and Bapaume is a peaceful, rural region. The map shows three red stars, which highlight three of the most-visited and impressive sites. Left to right they are (1) the Newfoundland Memorial Park near Beaumont-Hamel; (2) the Thiepval Memorial with adjacent visitor centre; and (3) the South African National Memorial and museum in Delville Wood near Longueval. There is little or no public transport within the battlefield area.
Accommodation and refreshment: Hotel accommodation can be found in Albert and Bapaume (with Peronne and Amiens good alternatives – further away, of course – at busy times). Bed and breakfast accommodation is also plentiful and can be found in many of the villages. See my guide, below. There are very few places to eat and very few toilet facilities within the battlefield area: like a Boy Scout, “be prepared”. Cafes can be found in La Boisselle, Pozieres and Longueval. There are toilets at the Thiepval Visitor Centre, Newfoundland Memorial Park and (not always open) the now unused visitor centre at Delville Wood.
A view of the devastated area south of Tramway Trench, near Pozieres, showing the hedge at the north east corner of the flattened village. Photograph taken in May 1917. Unknown Australian Official Photographer. AWM public domain image E00511.
What to see and do
This depends on the time you have available and the degree to which you want to understand the 1916 Battle of the Somme and the experience of the soldiers who fought in it. The listing below is of the highlights that I would consider important, but it is not exhaustive and omits many of the smaller cemeteries and battlefield memorials.
- The Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebieres. Totally destroyed during the Great War and rebuilt as it had been before. The tower of the basilica dominated the area and was used as an artillery observation post.
- The Albert 1916 Museum, situated in the crypt and tunnels below the Basilica.
- Plaque memorial to the Machine Gun Corps, on front face of town hall.
- The Lochnagar crater (“Grand Mine”). Huge crater resulting from underground mine explosion on 1 July 1916.
- The 19th and 34th Division memorials, situated near the village church.
- Pozieres Military Cemetery and memorial to the missing. On main Albert-Bapaume road between La Boisselle and Pozieres..
- The Gibraltar blockhouse. Preserved remains of concrete and brick German defences.
- The 1st Australian Division Memorial, situated next to the Gibraltar blockhouse. Commemorates the 5,285 men of the division who became casualties at Pozieres.
- The site of the Pozieres windmill, which featured in the 1916 fighting and is now an Australian memorial.
- The Tank Corps memorial, on the opposite side of the road to the windmill site.
- The Canadian battlefield memorial. On main Albert-Bapaume road.
- The Butte de Warlencourt. Ancient burial mound, site of intensive fighting in late 1916, with views over northern part of the battlefield.
- The Green Howards memorial. Situated within Fricourt British Cemetery (Bray Road).
- Fricourt New Military Cemetery. On the old front line of 1 July 1916, containing graves of the 10th West Yorkshires, the British battalion that suffered most casualties on that first day of the battle.
- Fricourt German Cemetery. The only German cemetery on the battlefield.
- The Devonshire Cemetery and Gordon Cemetery. Situated on the old front line of 1 July 1916, containing graves of two battalions that made the assault on the village. On the Albert-Peronne road south of the village.
- The memorial to McCrae’s Battalion (16th Royal Scots). Located in the grounds of the village church.
- The memorial to the Liverpool and Manchester Pals. In village centre.
- The South African National Memorial and museum. Situated within Delville Wood.
- The Bristol’s Own (12th Gloucesters) memorial cross. On the Longueval-Martinpuich road, half a mile from the village.
- The memorial to the 16th (Irish) Division. Adjacent to the village church.
- The memorial to the 20th (Light) Division.
- The memorial to 41st Division. In village centre.
- New Zealand Division memorial, not far from Flers but on track that begins close to Longueval.
- The memorial to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.
- There are two villages close to each other, Bazentin-le-Grand and -le-Petit. In the vicinity are Mametz Wood and High Wood, both scenes of bitter fighting. Mametz Wood can be approached from Mametz or Bazentin, by a track that can be treacherous in winter. It can be entered but at your own risk. High Wood lies alongside a main road and is easily accessible but can not be entered.
- Numerous memorials are situated on the perimeter on High Wood.
- Red dragon memorial to the 38th (Welsh) Division at Mametz Wood.
- Small memorial to “Nine brave men” of 82nd Field Company of the Royal Engineers, in Bazentin-le-Petit.
- The British memorial to the missing. Visible from many parts of the battlefield.
- Adjacent visitor centre (free entry; displays; shop; small cafe; toilets).
- Memorial to 18th (Eastern) Division.
- Ulster Memorial Tower and park (cafe adjacent, from which tours of Thiepval Wood trenches can be made).
- The Newfoundland Memorial Park, which encompasses an area of the opposing front lines of 1 July 1916. Trench systems, part of which can be walked; memorials to 29th Division, 51st(Highland) Division and Newfoundland memorial to the missing; several cemeteries within the enclosed grounds; visitor centre with toilets.
- Serre is a very small village but in the vicinity are some important battlefield sites. Along the main road that passes through Serre are several military cemeteries, British and French; a French memorial chapel, and the memorial to the Sheffield City Battalion. Down a lengthy and often rutted track there is a cluster of British military cemeteries; the Sheffield memorial park; and the memorials to the Accrington and Barnsley Pals.
Slightly further afield
- The Historial de la Somme, the principal military museum for the battle, is located in Peronne.
- The P’tit Train de la Haute Somme is a preserved working narrow gauge railway, accessed at Froissy.
- Australian National Memorial and cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, in which village can also be found the Franco-Australian war museum.
- Souvenir Francis memorial chapel, as well as a cluster of French, German and British cemeteries, at Rancourt.
- Preserved trenches at Soyecourt and the nearby remains of the destroyed village of Fay.
The Somme today. A view from the park surrounding the Ulster Memorial Tower near Thiepval, looking across the steep-sided valley of the River Ancre towards Beaumont-Hamel on the other side. The fir trees on the left horizon mark the location of the Newfoundland Memorial Park. Note the British military cemetery in the valley, and also the chalky marks in the ground: they are indicators of former trenches and strongpoints. The spring and autumn are excellent periods for visiting the Somme, for high crops can sometimes obscure the views in the summer.
All of the battlefield tour companies, from the major holiday operators down to small one-man bands, offer Somme tours. You will have no problem finding information about them. Be sure to carefully examine their itineraries and accommodation offer, and also check the quality and qualifications of the tour guides as far as you can. Buyer beware!
The only battlefield tour company that I personally endorse is Battle Honours, run by my friends Clive Harris and Julian Whippy who offer outstanding tours with excellent guides.
Finding your way around the Somme is easy. The roads are good and generally well signposted. The main sites are, in my view, definitely worth seeing but unless you get out in the battlefields and villages you will be unlikely to gain a good education and feel of what the Somme was about. Arm yourself with a good guide book or two, my Google Earth guide (below) and my “Your Family History” magazine article on the steps you should take when planning your own independent tour of the battlefields of France and Belgium.
The Long, Long Trail’s Google Earth guide to the British cemeteries and memorials
Download this free Google Earth layout of the British cemeteries and memorials in the area of the 1916 Battle of the Somme
The locations are accurately mapped. The Google Earth file can be used for conversion to POI files for use in any satellite navigation system.
Open KMZ file: right click this link and “Save Target As”.
If you have Google Earth installed in your computer, and Google Earth is your default program for opening KMZ files, by clicking on the file (wherever you have stored it) the cemeteries and memorials of the Somme area will appear in your Google Earth window. They will be stored into your “Temporary Places” folder.
The KMZ file is virus-free. All use is at your own risk.
Zoom right in to see specific places – even create your own Google Earth or GPS battlefield tour, safe in the knowledge that the basic data is accurate.
Battlefield guide books
The best guide books for touring the Somme area are
The original and still the best, recently updated, is Rose Coombs’ “Before Endeavours Fade”.
Like Coombs’ work, this guide covers much more than the 1916 Somme battlefield and does so extremely well.
Another excellent guide, this time focused on the Somme.
Maps of the area
The Michelin road map series covers the area well, but for real detail obtain the IGN Serie Bleu maps, Rather like the British Ordnance Survey, they provide incredible detail and are a must for those who will wish to cycle or walk the battlefields. They are readily available in France
“I don’t really have my own favourite place to stay in the Somme area. I prefer to stay in Arras or St-Quentin and drive the 30 minutes between there and the Somme, to take advantage of a better range of accommodation, restaurants and things to do in the evening. But there is a fantastic range of good quality accommodation to be found, right on the battlefield. I have stayed in several of the places I have listed and found all of them to be excellent.”
Chris Baker, author of The Long, Long Trail
When booking any accommodation, buyer beware. The Long, Long Trail can not be held responsible for the availability, price or performance of any of the accommodation listed here. Obviously.
Note that accommodation is invariably full for 1 July. Book early. For 2016, if you have not already got somewhere, you are probably too late.
The international dialling code for France is 0033 or +33.
|Le Gourmet *
Address: 10 rue de la Gare, 62450 Bapaume
Tel: 321 07 20 00
Fax: 321 07 98 81
Website URL: www.le-gourmet.fr/
M. et Mme Ringard
Hotel. Situated in Bapaume town centre.
|Hotel de la Paix *
Address: 43 Rue Victor Hugo, 80300 Albert
Tel: 322 75 01 64
Hotel. Situated in Albert town centre.
|Hotel de la Basilique **
Address: 3-5 Rue Gambetta, 80300 Albert
Tel: 322 75 04 71
Fax: 322 75 10 47
Website URL: www.hoteldelabasilique.fr/
Hotel. Situated in Albert town centre.
|Best Western Royal Picardie ***
Address: Avenue du General Leclerc, 80300 Albert
Tel: 322 75 37 00
Fax: 322 75 60 19
Website URL: www.royalpicardie.com
Hotel. Situated on the western edge of Albert.
B&B / Guest Houses
|Avril Williams Guest House and Tea Rooms
Address: 10 Rue Delattre, 80560 Auchonvillers
Phone: 322 76 23 66
Fax: 322 76 23 66
Website URL: www.avrilwilliams.com
|The Battlefields Experience
Address: 2 Rue des Cordeliers, 80560 Mailly Maillet
Phone: 322 76 29 60
Fax: 322 76 29 60
Website URL: www.battlefieldsexperience.co.uk
Rod and Jackie Bedford
|Beaumont Hamel View
Address: 15 Rue Delattre, 80560 Auchonvillers
Phone: 965 235 563
Website URL: www.beaumonthamelview.com
Dave and Anita Platt
Address: Route de Beaumont, 80560 Auchonvillers
Phone: 322 76 28 79
Fax: 322 76 28 79
Website URL: www.lesgalets.com/
Address: 10 Rue Du Mantier, 80360 Hardecourt Aux Bois
Phone: 322 85 14 56
Fax: 322 85 14 56
Vic and Diane Piuk
Address: 27 Rue Pierre Lefevre, 80560 Mailly-Maillet
Phone: 322 76 21 44
Mme. Paulette Pecourt
This small business operates at a number of locations
Refer to website for full details
Website URL: www.chavasseferme.com
Jonathan Porter, 50 Grays Park, Belvoir, Belfast, BT8 7EG
|Les Sars B&B
Address: 37 Rue National, 62450 Le Sars
Phone: 321 07 05 01
Fax: 321 24 78 10
Website URL: www.memorysomme.com/
Mme Danièle Roussel
|Bernafay Wood B&B
Address: 55-57 Grande Rue, Bois Bernafay, 80300 Montauban-de-Picardie
Phone: 322 85 02 47
Fax: 321 24 78 10
Website URL: cf.geocities.com/bed_and_breakfast_bernafay_wood/index.htm
Jean-Pierre and Christine Matte
|Otago View B&B
Address: 48 Rue Principale, 80300 Flers
Phone: 322 85 47 43
Website URL: http://www.fieldsoffrance.com/index.html
Peter and Hilary Smith
|Butterworth Farm B&B
Address: Route de Bazentin, Chemin de George Butterworth, 80300 Pozieres
Phone: 322 74 04 07 Email: email@example.com
Website URL: http://www.butterworth-farm.com/
Marie and Bernard Dellatre
|Freeman Farm B&B
Address: 9 Rue de la Gare, 80300, Miraumont
Phone: 322 75 72 03
Website URL: http://www.lostgeneration1914-18.com/
Tim and Gill Wright
Address: 1 Place des Britanniques, Flers
Phone: a UK number 07917 460 613
Website URL: www.dinnakenhouse.com/
Address: Route de Flers, Longueval
Phone: a UK number 0121 430 5348
Fax: a UK number 0121 436 7401
Mrs Jeannie Alexander, 27 Courtway Avenue, Maypole, Birmingham B14 4PP
Address: 80300 Authuille
Phone: 322 74 59 29
Fax: 322 74 05 14
For more information