Battlefields of the Western Front

Throughout history, War Memorials were erected to commemorate victories in battle, but today’s memorials are not to glorify war, but to remember those who paid the ultimate sacrifice and to stand as a reminder of the horror of war, and maybe to create an understanding between former enemies in the hope that peace can be our future. Many memorials stand to the memory of the un-named dead, whereas others bear the names of the brave men and women who sadly lost their lives in these conflicts.

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them”

A fitting epitaph, which adorns many Commonwealth memorials. “The Ode” by Lawrence Binyon.

This tour is a suggestion of battlefields, Monuments and cemeteries on the Western Front and the site of fierce fighting in WW1, these suggested sites can be visited over a period of days whilst staying in the area. Walking the ground on which these terrible conflicts took place is a very moving experience and helps us to appreciate the sacrifices made by the brave men and women who fought in WW1.

Neuve Chapelle

Neuve Chapelle, fought between 10-13 March 1915, was the first large scale organised attack undertaken by the British army during the war. It was fought in an attempt to reduce a German salient south of Ypres and it followed the dreadful winter operations of 1914-15. The battle ended with the British in control of the village of Neuve-Chapelle but the Germans on the ridge to the east. Neuve-Chapelle marked the last offensive use of the Indian Corps on the Western Front.

The British losses in the four attacking Divisions were 544 officers and 11108 other ranks killed, wounded and missing. German losses are estimated at a similar figure of 12000, which included 1687 prisoners.

Places of interest nearby:

  • The church of St. Christophe, rebuilt, as was much of the commune, after World War I.
  • The Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries and memorials.
  • The Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial of the British Indian Army.
  • Finds from the battlefield, in the mairie.

The Indian Memorial

The Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle commemorates over 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives on the Western Front during the First World War and have no known graves. The location of the memorial was specially chosen as it was at Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 that the Indian Corps fought its first major action as a single unit. The memorial takes the form of a sanctuary enclosed within a circular wall after the manner of the enclosing railings of early Indian shrines. The column in the foreground of the enclosure stands almost 15 feet high and was inspired by the famous inscribed columns erected by the Emperor Ashkora throughout India in the 3rd century BC. The column is surmounted with a Lotus capital, the Imperial British Crown and the Star of India. Two tigers are carved on either side of the column guarding the temple of the dead. On the lower part of the column the words ‘God is One, He is the Victory’ are inscribed in English, with similar texts in Arabic, Hindi, and Gurmukhi.

Le Touret Memorial

The Le Touret Memorial commemorates over 13,400 British soldiers who were killed in this sector of the Western Front from the beginning of October 1914 to the eve of the Battle of Loos in late September 1915 and who have no known grave. Almost all of the men commemorated on the Memorial served with regular or territorial regiments from across the United Kingdom and were killed in actions that took place along a section of the front line that stretched from Estaires in the north to Grenay in the south. This part of the Western Front was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting of the first year of the war, including the battles of La Bassée (10 October – 2 November 1914), Neuve Chapelle (10 – 12 March 1915), Aubers Ridge (9 – 10 May 1915), and Festubert (15 – 25 May 1915). Soldiers serving with Indian and Canadian units who were killed in this sector in 1914 and ’15 whose remains were never identified are commemorated on the Neuve Chapelle and Vimy memorials, while those who fell during the northern pincer attack at the Battle of Aubers Ridge are commemorated on the Ploegsteert Memorial.

The men of the Indian Corps began burying their fallen comrades at this site in November 1914 and the cemetery was used continually by field ambulances and fighting units until the German spring offensive began in March 1918. Richebourg L’Avoue was overrun by the German forces in April 1918, but the cemetery was used again in September and October after this territory was recaptured by the Allies. Today over 900 Commonwealth servicemen who were killed during the First World War are buried here. The memorial was designed by John Reginald Truelove, who had served as an officer with the London Regiment during the war

Location:

Le Touret Memorial is located at the east end of Le Touret Military Cemetery, on the south side of the Bethune-Armentieres main road.
From Bethune follow the signs for Armentieres until you are on the D171. Continue on this road through Essars and Le Touret village. Approximately 1 kilometre after Le Touret village and about 5 kilometres before you reach the intersection with the D947, Estaires to La Bassee road, the Cemetery lies on the right hand side of the road.

Memorial to the 55th (WestLancashire) Division

It was at Givenchy during the 1914-1918 War that the 55th West Lancashire Division made its famous stand, maintaining its position intact when assailed by no less than three German divisions. This was the only sector of the whole Allied front held inviolate during the great German offensive of 1918, and the stand made by the 55th Division on April 9th-16th, 1918 was afterwards acknowledged by the German General Staff to have marked the ruination of the supreme German effort. Devastated in the course of the First World War Givenchy was severely damaged during the 1939-1945 War when heavy fighting covered the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk. The Memorial Hall (given in 1924 by the City of Liverpool for orphans and aged inhabitants), the Mairie and the Schools were completely destroyed. The cemetery is near the 30ft. high granite cross standing in a small park which forms the 1914-1918 War Memorial of the 55th West Lancashire Division.

Loction:

Givenchy-les-la-Bassee is a village some 27 kilometres north of Arras and about 5 kilometres west of La Bassee, a small town on the N41 road from Bethune to Lille.

Aubers Ridge

It was on 24 March 1915, several days after the failed offensive at Neuve-Chapelle, that General Joffre made an official request for the British Army to take part in a huge offensive he was planning in Artois at the beginning of May. The aim of the offensive was to break through the German line north of Arras. The main thrust of the attack was to be made by the 10th French Army on Vimy Ridge and two supporting attacks on the flanks would, it was hoped, secure the heights of Lorette Spur to the north-west and other high ground to the east of Arras. If everything went according to plan the French hoped that they would be able to advance into the coal basin itself and take Douai.

In this context the British fought two battles, that at Aubers Ridge and at Festubert, both fought in May 1915 and both to distract the German’s from Joffre’s main attack. Neither battle achieved the results hoped for and huge casualties were sustained- it reportedly took three days to transfer the wounded of 9 May to the field ambulances on the second line. In one single day of fighting the British Army had lost 11,000 men (dead, wounded and lost in action) which was, in relative terms, one of the highest casualty rates of the Great War, in particular for officers. The memorial at Le Touret remembers those who died at Aubers and Festubert and have no known grave. The cemetery was made after the Armistice, by the concentration of graves from the battlefields on all sides of Aubers and several smaller burial grounds. There are now over 700, 1914-18 and a small number of 1939-45 war casualties commemorated in this site. Of these, nearly 450 from the 1914-18 War are unidentified and a special memorial is erected to one soldier from the United Kingdom who is believed to be buried among them.

Location:

Aubers is a village about 8 Kms north of La Bassee and 3 Kms north-west of the main road from La Bassee to Lille.

Fromelles and Pheasant Wood Cemetery

In the early evening of 19 July 1916, near the village of Fromelles, in northern France, two infantry divisions newly arrived on the Western Front, the 5th Australian and British 61st (South Midland) attacked a 4,000 yard section of the German frontline centred on a notorious strongpoint called the “Sugar Loaf”. Advancing over unfavourable ground, in clear view of resolute and expectant defenders, the attackers suffered terrible casualties in a matter of minutes. The action turned into a bloody catastrophe – the Australians had over 5,500 killed, wounded and missing; 61st Division reported over 1,500 killed, wounded and missing. No tactical advantages resulted from the action and it remains the worst day in Australian military history.

Completed in July 2010, Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery is the first new war cemetery to be built by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in fifty years. The cemetery contains 250 Australian and British soldiers, whose remains were recovered in 2009 from a number of mass graves located behind nearby Pheasant Wood, where they had been buried by the Germans following the disastrous battle of Fromelles on 19 and 20 July 1916.

Location:

Fromelles is a small village situated in the Nord/Pas de Calais region of Northern France, 22 kilometres west of Lille and 104 kilometres south east of Calais, close to the villages of Aubers and Herlies. The cemetery is sign posted from the main N41 Lille – La Basse road.

Australian Cobber Memorial

he memorial park is located approximately 200 metres (660 ft) from the V.C. Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, on the same road in the direction of the village of Fromelles. It lies at the point where the German lines crossed the road, and has several surviving battlefield fortifications. In comparison, the V.C. Corner cemetery and memorial is approximately at the point where the Allied lines crossed the road.

Cobbers is a prominent 1998 sculpture by Peter Corlett of Sergeant Simon Fraser rescuing a wounded compatriot from No Man’s Land after the battle. A replica of the sculpture is in the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne, Victoria. The title comes from a letter that Fraser, a farmer from Byaduk, Victoria, wrote a few days after the battle and that was widely quoted in Australia’s official history of World War I.

We found a fine haul of wounded and brought them in; but it was not where I heard this fellow calling, so I had another shot for it, and came across a splendid specimen of humanity trying to wriggle into a trench with a big wound in his thigh. He was about 14 stone weight, and I could not lift him on my back; but I managed to get him into an old trench, and told him to lie quiet while I got a stretcher. Then another man about 30 yards out sang out “Don’t forget me, cobber.” I went in and got four volunteers with stretchers, and we got both men in safely.

The Battle of Fromelles in July 1916 is significant as the first occasion on which the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF) saw action on the Western Front. The battle is widely regarded as a disaster for the Allies, and has been described as “the worst 24 hours in Australia’s entire history.” It resulted from a plan to divert German attention from the Battle of the Somme, but historians estimate that 5,500 Australians and 2,000 British troops were killed or wounded. The Australian losses were equivalent to the combined total Australian losses in the Boer War, Korean War and Vietnam War: although later World War I actions would be more deadly for the AIF, Fromelles was the only one to achieve no success

Ploegsteert – site of the Christmas Day Truce 1914

The Christmas truce – Weihnachtsfrieden – Trêve de Noël, was a series of widespread, unofficial ceasefires that took place along the Western Front around Christmas 1914, during World War I. Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve andChristmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.

The PLOEGSTEERT MEMORIAL commemorates more than 11,000 servicemen of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in this sector during the First World War and have no known grave. Most of those commemorated by the memorial did not die in major offensives, such as those which took place around Ypres to the north, or Loos to the south. Most were killed in the course of the day-to-day trench warfare which characterised this part of the line, or in small scale set engagements, usually carried out in support of the major attacks taking place elsewhere. The name of this small village, and of the nearby wood, is Ploegsteert, but to those who served here during the Great War it became known as “Plugstreet”.

The sounding of the Last Post takes place at the memorial on the first Friday of every month at 7 p.m.

Location:

The Ploegsteert Memorial stands in Berks Cemetery Extension, which is located 12.5 Kms south of Ieper town centre, on the N365 leading from Ieper to Mesen (Messines), Ploegsteert and on to Armentieres.