Next year marks the 100th anniversary of World War One and as 2014 quickly approaches us, we remember the brave soldiers who fought in Northern France during the Great War.
Between 1914 – 1918 the Nord-Pas de Calais region was one of the major battlegrounds of World War One. Nearly 100 years on, visitors from around the world can remember this monumental part of history and reflect on the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to serve their countries.
Northern France has plenty of sites that help commemorate those who fought in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Here are just a few key places that help tell the story.
Memorial & Military cemeteries, Richebourg
To honour the soldiers who sacrificed their lives fighting in the Nord-Pas de Calais region, the regional council built several remembrance trails upon the battle grounds in the area.
The three key sites on the remembrance trail 14 – 18 “The Western Front” are situated in the Bethune-Bruay region. These are:
Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial
Built by Sir Herbert Baker in 1927, this memorial honours the 4,700 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting in France and Belgium. The location of the memorial was specifically chosen as it was where the Neuve-Chapelle Battle took place in March 1915 and was where the Indian Corps fought their first major action as a single unit.
The memorial features a beautiful dome shape structure containing a list with the names of the 206 Indian prisoners of war who died in Germany.
The memorial also features striking sculpture work, including two tigers that are carved on either side of the column, acting guard above the temple of the dead. Words carved onto the lower part of the column, read: ‘God is One, He is the Victory’.
Portuguese National Cemetery
Just a stone’s throw away from the Neuve Chapelle memorial, the Portuguese cemetery is the only resting place that remembers the Portuguese soldiers who fought in France. A total of 1,831 soldiers are buried here.
In 1916, the Portuguese abandoned neutrality and entered the war on the side of the allies.
During 1918, the first blow fell against the 2nd Portuguese Division as the German Army launched Operation Georgette in the Lys Valley.
Ten German divisions overwhelmed the two Portuguese divisions and around 7,500 soldiers lost their lives on that day.
The following day, the last remaining survivors defended the village of La Couture before eventually being forced to retreat.
In honour of the soldiers that defended La Couture, the monument was built featuring architectural embellishments that highlight the ruins of a Gothic church and symbolise the Portuguese Republic coming to the aid of one of its soldiers.
Le Touret Military Cemetery and Memorial
Commemorating over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in the Western Front during 1914 – 1915, this cemetery is constructed of pillars that lead to a peaceful sanctuary overlooking row upon row of neatly bedded headstones.
In World War One the grounds of this cemetery were used by field ambulances and fighting units until the German spring offensive began in March 1918. It was also where the men of the Indian Corps buried their fallen comrades in November 1914.
The cemetery is the final resting place for 912 soldiers of the British Army and also accommodated 264 Portuguese soldiers from 1917 until they were transferred to the Portuguese National Cemetery in 1919.
These memorial cemeteries help provide a peaceful backdrop to reflect on the many lives that have been lost. Inside each memorial, registers and documents can be found for visitors wanting to track down ancestors to help piece together their family tree.
The Wellington Quarry, Arras
Opened in 2008, the Wellington Quarry tells the story of how the British prepared for the Battle of Arras in 1917. This monumental battle included 24,000 soldiers flooding out from the quarry tunnels to attack the German defences.
On 29 August 1914, Arras was evacuated by French forces and remained in French hands throughout the war. It was the only town in France to occupy a front-line position for the entire duration of the Great War.
The city retreated underground and original tunnels and catacombs previously dug out by the Romans were connected to new tunnels dug out by the British and the New Zealand tunnellers. These tunnels were especially useful for medical units and as shelter for Allied troops.
Now an underground museum, the tunnels of the Wellington Quarry are open to the public and invite visitors to discover the emotional story of the Battle of Arras. The guided audio tour and the visual displays including original drawings on the quarry walls give an insight into the living and working conditions of the soldiers that spent 4 years down in the tunnels.
Post-war reconstruction sites
As several towns and cities were destroyed during World War One, many iconic buildings and historical monuments needed reconstruction after the war ended. These included:
Bethune Town Hall, Bell Tower and Main Square
In 1918 the German Army failed to occupy Bethune, therefore they decided to blitz the town destroying houses and the town hall. Remarkably, one of the town’s last surviving architectural constructions was the Bell Tower, which remained standing after the town was destroyed.
After the war, the buildings in Bethune were rebuilt in a Flemish architectural style and the houses were inspired by art-deco. Today, the beautiful architecture is what attracts many tourists to this area.
Lens railway station and mining tower
Lens was an important industrial centre during the war and was in German hands until taken over by the Canadians.
The town was destroyed after several battles that took place in World War One, and like Bethune; Lens was only rebuilt until after the war ended.
One of the most notable battles that took place on the outskirts of Lens, on the Western Front, was the battle of Hill 70. This battle was between the Canadian Corps and five divisions of the German Sixth Army.
The town’s most distinguished and important feature to be destroyed by the war, was the railway station and was later re-built in 1926 by Japanese architect, Urbain Cassan, who designed it in the shape of a steam locomotive with art deco style in mind.
Inside the station, stories of coal-mining and the history of the town are told through beautiful mosaics, which pay tribute to the minors that worked long hours in dark and dank conditions.
As the coal miner’s capital, Lens is home to the tallest slagheaps in Europe, which are situated in the town’s former coal mining village. These slagheaps stand tall at an amazing 186m high and are listed as a Unesco world heritage site.
Another feature that was re-built after the war was the mining tower that extracted the coal. This tower played a vital part in both World Wars as coal acted as the primary energy source. Since its rebuild, the tower has become another iconic feature of the city and a cultural hub.
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