Why The Somme?
The idea started when we found very cheap flights to London from the States. (Price is often how we decide on our vacation destinations, practically speaking.) Since it’s a short trip on the Eurostar from London to lots of places in Europe, we often fly into London if the price is right and then head elsewhere.
We decided on northern France and the Somme because it was a part of France none of us had spent much time in and we thought learning a bit of World War 1 history would be good for the kids. Lille is an easy 1.5 hour Eurostar journey from London and is a good starting place for touring many World War 1 sites, such as the Somme or Ypres.
Researching Our Trip To The Somme Beforehand
Once we decided on France and the Somme as our destination, I immediately dived deep into my pre-trip research mode, checking out guidebooks and scoping out online travel blogs.
And I came up a little empty to my surprise. Not about World War 1 in general- there is a plethora of books, movies, blogs, and academic papers detailing the causes, effects, the soldiers, the weaponry, etc. of this pivotal moment in world history.
But as far as travel to the Somme? Crickets from Rick Steves and Fodors. A few paragraphs on Lonely Planet online (not in their France guidebook). And only 2 or 3 helpful websites and travel blogs on the web. I was starting to get worried- does no one go to the Somme or is it just not that great of a destination?
After our trip, I can definitely tell you it is not the latter. The Somme was a fantastic place to explore and we could easily return and spend several more days to see everything we missed. The kids were engrossed, happy, and left more knowledgeable about a war that is sometimes given cursory treatment in American schools. The Somme was, in short, an awesome family vacation destination.
To Help The Kids Find A Personal Angle
We picked the Somme specifically because we had family that died there and we knew where their graves were located. That made the visit so much more interesting to the kids as we told them what we knew about their great-great-great uncles and their lives before we left on the trip.
I would definitely recommend looking up possible family members to anyone visiting the Somme as it gives the kids something tangible to look for among the almost ungraspable number of names and graves.
There are a number of websites that can help you locate graves, but the best is the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who keeps listings for the 1.7 million men and women who died in World War 1 and 2. Their database is searchable by as little as a last name and encompasses all the countries in the Commonwealth- U.K, Canada, Australia, India, etc.
The American Battle Monuments Commission does the same for all American soldiers buried overseas and their database is also searchable by as little as a last name.
The Details Of Our Trip
What To See Around The Somme
Follow the Remembrance Trail- a 92km long driving route that hits the most important sites from the Battle of the Somme. Try to take at least two days to do it. Nothing is that far from anything else but you will want to spend more time than you think at each stop. See the official Visit Somme website for a good overview of the Remembrance Trail.
Go to Ulster Tower (in Thiepval) first to inquire about the guided tour of the Thiepval Wood if you weren’t able to get in touch with them through their website before your trip (see the description below).
Do as much of the Remembrance Trail as you can but I would emphasize the following:
Two remnants of incredibly large explosions set by British tunnelers underneath the German trenches. Lochnagar is better preserved of the two, with a boardwalk and sculptures around the edge, but you can walk down into Hawthorn Crater.
Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval
We received a guided tour of the Thiepval Wood which is adjacent to the Connaught Cemetery and across the street from the Ulster Memorial Tower. This is a must do if you can get the tour.
Our fantastic guide took us through the recreated trenches in the private woods owned by the Somme Association, bringing the soldier’s experiences to life with stories and mementos that fascinated the kids (and adults). He did not sugar- coat the facts but he had funny anecdotes to go along with the death and destruction that surrounded the Thiepval Woods during the Battle of the Somme, and he was such a wonderful storyteller.
The tour through the Thiepval Woods was hands- down the kids favorite part of northern France. Contact the Visitor Center through the link on the website (scroll down below “Thiepval Wood”) to book a tour. Or go early in the day and inquire at the cafe about availability. The tour is free but they will ask for a donation towards the restoration and upkeep of the Thiepval Woods.
The cafe onsite has basic sandwiches (cheese, ham, or cheese plus ham for those who like to go fancy) for 3 euros as well as good coffee and other drinks. For the tea drinkers (or Brits) among you, they make a proper cuppa.
Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont- Hamel
A lovely memorial to the tragic history of the Newfoundlanders on July 1, 1916. You will want to spend some time here walking around the maze of trenches still visible and the pretty good museum.
Walk to the far end of the grounds to find the statue of the piper commemorating the 51st Highland Division. He overlooks the Y Ravine, where ferocious fighting took place in November of 1916.
It is mind boggling how many soldiers died in the 74 acres that encompass this memorial in just a few months of 1916.
Memorial To The Missing in Thiepval
There are more than 72,000 names inscribed on this massive arch, all Commonwelath soldiers whose bodies were never found or properly identified. You really need to see it to grasp just how many names are carved into its walls.
You’ll find a museum near the car park that has a free part and a paid section. We only saw the free part and it was well worth a walk around. The paid section apparently has a large mural of the Battle of the Somme, a vintage plane, and multimedia exhibits of what the war was like for the Germans in the trenches as well as the civilians in the area.
Somme 1916 Museum in Albert
In downtown Albert, this museum is entirely located in the tunnels underneath the town. It gives a good idea of the claustrophobic nature of trench and tunnel warfare and a pretty good history of the war.
Kids will enjoy the novelty of being underground and are surprisingly unaffected by the more graphic recreated scenes, such as the field hospital in all its gory detail.
Not on the Remembrance Trail but close by:
The Wellington Tunnels (Carriere Wellington)- Located in Arras, these tunnels were dug out by soldiers from New Zealand in order to launch a surprise attack on the German in April of 1917. 20,000 soldiers hid in these tunnels to pop up just meters from the German lines.
The tunnels are a massive piece of engineering and another kid favorite to visit. You have to wear hard hats for the tour so they were sold on it from the beginning.
For More Information
Check out the blog World War Battlefields which has a great introduction to the sites of the Somme, a map, and other recommended resources, plus a short YouTube video of the area.
Where We Stayed
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Arras is a pretty town about 20- 40 min from the majority of the sites along the Somme. It has a beautiful cathedral in one of its 2 large town squares and lots of good restaurants. Also, it has a TGV station with convenient trains to Paris and a Europcar rental place next to the station.
Holiday Inn Express Arras Located diagonally across from the train station, this hotel was a great find. We got 3 rooms on the top floor for our extended family group of 9 people (5 adults, 4 kids) and we had plenty of space. The rooms were very large with a double bed, sofa bed, large desk, and 2 chairs facing a TV.
The bar area downstairs had decent prices for wine and soft drinks so that, plus the free WiFi, made it a perfect spot to unwind after a day touring memorials and learning about WW1.
You can pay to park at the underground parking lot of the hotel (expensive) or park for free on the street on weekends. Even during the week, the street parking prices weren’t terrible. A large breakfast buffet is included.
Other Towns Around The Somme To Look For Lodging
Besides Arras, other nearby towns are Perrone and Albert, which anchor the two ends of the Remembrance Trail. Or you can look in Amiens if you want more of a city feel. Amiens is about 30-45 min away from the Remembrance Trail.
You’ll find lots of hotels in Amiens, a handful in Arras, and a few in Albert and Perrone.
If you want a vacation house rental (or gite as it commonly referred to in France), look on booking.com, Airbnb, or VRBO in and around Albert and Perrone. There are lots of options, ranging from small apartments in town to converted outbuildings on one of the many farms in the area.
How To Get Around The Somme
We rented cars through Europcar for the week for the bargain price of $60 for 2 days, unlimited mileage. We picked up the rental car right in the Lille train station and were on our way to Arras by 2pm, stopping to see some sites along the way. We returned the car in Arras at the train station.
Driving in France was relatively easy but I would recommend paying for international data on your phone and using Google maps. The majour sites of the Somme have pretty good signs but it can get confusing when you don’t see them or the signs are small.
Driving around the Somme is scenic, traffic-free, and I quite enjoyed it. And you won’t find tolls in these more rural areas, a rarity in France.
I do believe that kids need to see battlefields, memorials, cemeteries, war museums, etc. first hand because it helps them understand the events in a way that adds so much depth to whatever they may read about it later in school or in life.
We were a little concerned before we left whether the trip might be too much for some of the kids but we were pleasantly surprised by how much they enjoyed it. Definitely the family connection helped, plus the fantastic tour guide from Ulster Tower really brought the history of World War 1 to life for them.
Arras was the perfect place to make our base for the trip and it was nice to leave the battlefields and memorials in the afternoon so we could relax at the hotel (the kids played on their electronic devices, the adults had a glass of wine, everyone was happy). Then we would walk to an amazing dinner in one of the many great restaurants in Arras. It turned out to be a great way to leave World War 1 behind for a bit and enjoy France in the now.
We would recommend this trip to anyone with any aged kids. You can go as in-depth as you want to in the museums or just walk around the memorials if you have toddlers. The Somme had plenty of history, outside activities, inside activities, convenient lodgings, and crowd free sites (at least in March) to enjoy. We would happily return to the Somme and this part of France again- there was still so much to be seen!