Image by A. Thompson
In late 2012, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, pledged over £50 million to help Britain celebrate the forthcoming centenary of WW1. He, like so many of us, recognised the importance of remembering all those who fought and died in a war that did so much to shape not only Britain's future, but mankind's too.
As such, 2014 will witness many programmes and events across every medium imaginable to mark the occasion. Yet, for many the most poignant form of remembering still remains a trip to the actual battlefields where so many lost their lives. Although the Eastern Front, running from Poland to Serbia, bore witness to an equally unimaginable level of bloodshed, the Western Front was where the majority of the British army fought during WW1. For this reason, this suggested tour focuses on the Western Front.
If you're driving from the UK, you have two choices for your mode of transport; the ferry or the Eurotunnel. P&O ferries run from Dover to Calais regularly at reasonable prices. The Euro Tunnel, on the other hand, will get you to your destination quicker but will be more expensive.
The Western Front ran from Belgium, through France and up to the Swiss border for a distance of around 450 miles. Although you will probably choose to arrive in France – via a ferry or the Eurotunnel – we're going to start our suggested tour of the Western Front in Nieuwpoort, Belgium which is just under 50 miles from Calais following the A16. Once in Nieuwpoort, we’re going to run from north to south.
Nieuwpoort to Compiegne
Nieuwpoort is a Belgian costal town and the northern most part of the Western Front. This area was known as the Yser front, which started in Nieuwpoort and stretched to Diksmuide, and it is here that the Battle of Yser was fought. The graves of fallen British soldiers and Belgian comrades reside nearby. If you know that a relative lost their life in WW1, but are unsure where they may be buried, you can use the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (COWG) website to help find the grave.
From Nieuwpoort the town of Ypres is roughly a 40-minute drive along the E40 and N8. Due to its strategic position, the town of Ypres was a flashpoint for battle throughout WW1, including Passchendaele one of the most notorious battles of the entire conflict. Both the excellent In Flanders Field Museum and The Menin Gate are situated in Ypres. The former is an award winning museum with a number of new exhibits opening for the centenary, and the latter is a memorial built for the missing dead from WW1's nearby battlefields.
After Ypres you can continue to drive through the region of Flanders, initially along the N37 and then along the A19 into northern France and to the next destination of Compiegne. The drive will take you approximately two hours, but if you've left Nieuwpoort early in the morning, you'll be able to fit in a visit to the Armistice Carriage museum. This museum is of significant importance to WW1, as it was here that the armistice, which ended the war, was signed.
Where to stay and eat
After a busy first day, you can choose to rest for the evening in Compiegne. This location boasts a variety of excellent hotels and restaurants to cope with all budgets.
Hotels: the Château des Bonshommes is a luxurious hotel located a little less than two miles from the centre of Compiegne. It was once a priory used by Napoleon III (the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) as a hunting lodge, but is now a hotel, complete with spacious rooms and onsite dining. Standard double rooms start from €96 per night, although there are more expensive, deluxe options available.
If the Château des Bonshommes is too pricey for your budget, the Ibis Budget Compiegne Centre Ville offers cheap and comfortable accommodation.
Restaurants: if you like sea food, you could do a lot worse than a visit to Hotel du Nord. Situated by the river, you can revel in the restaurant's beautiful location whilst you watch your food being prepared in the open kitchen. The price of the menu averages between €25 and €50 for food and drink per person.
River Gauche is run by a local family, who use locally sourced products cooked to perfection to produce food that is nothing short of spectacular. A touch more expensive, the price of the menu averages between €50 to €120 for food and drink per person.
Compiegne to Reims
From Compiegne, the drive to Meaux will take you just over an hour. In Meaux you will find The Museum of the Great War, or as the locals call it: the Historial de la Grande Guerre. Like many museums along the Western Front, The Museum of the Great War is opening new exhibitions to mark WW1's centenary anniversary. Situated near to where the Battle of the Somme raged, this is arguably the best of all the WW1 themed museums along the Western Front.
From Meaux drive along the D603 until you reach the A4, after driving for around 45-minutes look out for the signs to Reims. Once you arrive in Reims, you can make arrangements to visit the Champagne Battlefields which are close by. The memorial at Chateau Thierry, as well as the Aisne-Marne and the Oise-Aisne cemeteries are each worth visiting whilst you are in the Champagne region. Meanwhile, as the name of the region suggests, champagne grapes are grown in the area, and there is ample opportunity to enjoy one or two flutes of the sparking favourite, if you should so choose.
Where to stay and eat
Especially if you've decided to indulge in the region's famous champagne, a stop off in Reims is recommended in order to prepare for what will be an action packed stay in Verdun.
Hotels: La Demeure des Sacres, located in the centre of Reims, is the expensive but lavish option. Situated near to the Reims Cathedral, the hotel delivers all the mod-cons in a stylish and contemporary setting, but you should expect to pay upwards of €206 for a room.
For those travelling on a more modest budget, The Holiday Inn, also in the centre of Reims, offers comfortable and clean accommodation.
Restaurants: If you want to experience French cooking at its contemporary best, L'Alambic will sate your appetite and some. Situated in a cosy cellar, expect to enjoy excellent service to accompany your delicious tasting wines and food.
A cheaper but similarly interesting option is presented by the Café du Palais. A bistro adorned with 1930's period art such as Art Deco glass, paintings and sculptures, the Café du Palais launches a pleasant assault on senses beyond just taste and smell.
Reims to Verdun
Once you awaken day three starts with a medium-length drive. Upon leaving Reims, you will need to drive along the A4 for around an hour before you can follow the signs into Verdun. The town of Verdun now presents a beautiful retreat; however during WW1 it was the site of a French fortress that was fought over, at an astonishing cost to life on both sides. The historical significance of Verdun to WW1 is so great that you will probably need at least two days to see everything.
No visit to Verdun is complete without seeing Fort Douaumont, the region's most important stronghold. Captured without a struggle by a relatively small number of the German army after only three days, the blood that was shed in attempting to recapture it was indicative of the entire battle.
Over 40 million artillery shells are believed to have been fired during the battle of Verdun, and you can visit Long Max Cannon – the site where the giant German gun fired the first shell.
The Underground Citadel is a reconstruction that offers a unique perspective on what it was like for the French Soldiers that were stationed underground during the battle. Here you will pass through the reconstructed tunnels on a small train and witness a reconstruction of a trench battle and the scene of the Unknown Soldier being chosen.
Verdun Memorial is a memorial site and a museum dedicated to the battle. Set across two floors, here you will find a number of exhibits and multimedia-based presentations that realise the full horrors of the battle. Whilst the town's Ossuary, which houses the remains of 130,000 unnamed soldiers; the National Cemetery of Douaumont and the Destroyed Village of Fleury each present poignant reminders of the devastation caused by WW1.
Where to stay and eat
If you plan to visit Verdun for two days, you will need to find somewhere to stay and eat within the town. So here are a couple of suggestions, again to cater for differing budgets.
Hotels: The Hostellerie du Coq Hardi is the more expensive option, with prices for a room starting from around €98. But its location within the old city is fantastic, and if you appreciate hotels that have rustic charm, you will love it.
For those on a tighter budget, The Ibis Budget Verdun is the best place to find comfortable, no frills accommodation.
Restaurants: Rated the number one restaurant on Tripadvisor, Epices et Tout is a massively popular place to grab a bite to eat. Offering contemporary and stylish surroundings and a menu to match, the Epices et Tout restaurant is undoubtedly one of Verdun's finest eateries.
La Paillote Meusienne, meanwhile, offers a buffet style menu with a range of delicious homemade food at very reasonable prices. You should be able to grab a filling bite to eat for under €11 before drinks.
Preparing to take to the road with peace of mind
The schedule suggested will probably take you between four and five days, yet only scratches at the surface of what a battlefield tour by car could offer. For maximum flexibility, though, access to a car is imperative, so if you don't own a car yourself, hiring one or even a campervan is a must. Either way, you must be prepared for the alternative European driving culture and conditions.
For starters, when driving France, you are legally required to carry reflective jackets, a warning triangle, headlamp beam deflectors and a breathalyser at all times. If you are in a hire car, these should be supplied for you, but you must always double check as it is you who will be deemed legally responsible for carrying it. It's also very important that you swot up on the road laws before you drive in Europe, to help we've created this 'Know the Rules' checklist.
If you are taking to Europe in a hire car, you simply shouldn't leave without sufficient insurance cover. Most hire companies will provide adequate third party insurance and some form of collision damage waiver that will protect you in the event of your hire car becoming stolen or damaged.
However, you will probably still be liable to pay an excess (the amount you pay before your insurance company covers the remaining cost of covering a claim) in the region of £850 if something were to happen. Excess insurance will reimburse the cost of this happening and can be purchased from iCarhireinsurance.com for a fraction of the cost that it would from your car hire company.
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