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The Canadian memorial at St. Julien, Belgium remembers the battle of Ypres. (Marcus Gee/The Globe and Mail)
The Canadian memorial at St. Julien, Belgium remembers the battle of Ypres. (Marcus Gee/The Globe and Mail)

In the battlefields of France and Belgium, the ghosts still haunt Add to ...

When my wife and I visited France for two weeks this summer to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, we decided to spend the first week in Paris – an obvious choice. But what to do for the second? Tour the châteaux of the Loire Valley? Visit Dijon or Lyon? We hemmed and hawed before settling on a completely different option: a tour of First World War battlefields. We got a few odd looks – a romantic interlude among the gravestones? – but it turned out to be a moving and altogether absorbing experience.

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We had wanted to visit the First World War sites for years. Between us, we have three grandparents who fought on the front lines (the fourth was, mercifully, too young to join up). My father’s father won the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry when he stormed a German machine-gun nest near Monchy-le-Preux and took 11 prisoners, showing “a splendid example of resource and disregard of personal safety to his men.” My wife’s father’s father, also awarded the Military Cross, was a chaplain, scouring the hell of no man’s land for the wounded and the dead. Her mother’s father was badly wounded when his horse fell and rolled on top of him amid the trenches of the Somme.

By some miracle, all three men survived. But we never knew them, and we wondered what they must have been through. So, after a splendid week in Paris, we rented a car and headed north.

Most of the First World War battlefields can be found in northern France and Belgium, along the snaking line leading inland from the Channel where the great armies of King and Kaiser locked horns. A tourist visiting 100 years later can never fully comprehend that ordeal. But you can get some sense of the human cost by visiting the scores of memorials, cemeteries and museums strung along what used to be the Western Front.

We began our trip in Amiens, about a two-hour drive from Paris and a convenient jumping off point for many of the key sites. The provincial city of about 130,000, known for its vast cathedral, hit the headlines this summer when riots broke out in its deprived housing estates a few weeks after our visit. Oblivious to the city’s troubles, we stayed in a charming bed and breakfast run by a young mother whose chatty son entertained us at meal times.

From there, we struck out for Beaumont-Hamel, a name known to all Newfoundlanders. At 9:15 a.m. on July 1, 1916, 801 officers and men of the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top, aiming to seize the German-held village in the Somme Valley. Just 68 came through alive and unwounded. The site of the massacre is marked by a giant bronze caribou on a mound overlooking the battlefield.

On the field below, you can see a replica of the stunted Danger Tree that was a landmark for both sides. You can also walk through the trenches where the Newfoundlanders huddled before their disastrous assault. Today, the ditches are covered with green grass. You travel on dry wooden walkways instead of trudging through mud and dodging rats, but on a wet, blustery day under a lowering sky, you can still feel a hint of what it must have been like to wait for the whistle’s shriek or sergeant’s bark ordering you to action. Deep craters scar the landscape. Unexploded shells still rest under these fields – farmers have been killed running over them with a plow – so the grass is kept short with grazing sheep instead of lawn mowers.

On the same day we visited the main British monument, at Thiepval near Albert in northern France. This, to me, is the most impressive of the monuments on the front, an immense arch of brick and stone that dominates the landscape. Designed by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, it memorializes the British and South African soldiers killed in the Somme and left without graves.

We spent a few minutes walking through French-British cemetery that lies on a slope below the monument. Many of those buried here, as in the other First World War cemeteries, are unknown soldiers. Dog tags, then made of leather, often rotted away in the mire and left the dead impossible to identify. The white British headstones bear the words, “A soldier of the Great War – Known unto God;” French crosses simply say “inconnu.”

You can hardly turn a corner in this part of the world without coming across a collection of meticulously tended war graves. Many are just tiny plots surrounded by farmers’ fields. There are hundreds of them, each with white headstones arrayed among sprays of flowers. Commonwealth cemeteries have a visitor book where you can record a tribute.

The next day we went to Vimy Ridge, a must for any Canadian visitor. The soaring monument by sculptor and architect Walter Seymour Allward stands at the highest point that was stormed and taken by Canadian forces in April 1917, an achievement that was a coming-of-age moment for the young Dominion of Canada. Sorrowing human figures rendered in stone grieve for the 11,285 Canadian soldiers killed in France who were never identified or properly buried.

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