Memorable WW1 Battlefields to Visit in Europe

ANZAC Day is an emotional event for all Australians – especially those of us who have had parents, grandparents or other relatives serve during one of the great wars. If you have a personal connection to World War I or an interest in military history, the WW1 battlefields of the Western Front provide an incredibly touching travel experience.

Here’s a look at some of the most moving battle sites you can see on a trip to Belgium and France.

WW1 Battlefields in Belgium

Belgium hosted some of the fiercest battles of World War I, with key victories and defeats taking place along the western Belgian-French border.

In particular, the town of Ypres and the surrounding fields are now the resting places of thousands of fallen soldiers. These brave men came from around the world to assist in various defensive and offensive campaigns from 1916 to 1918.

There were 5 key ‘Battles of Ypres’, with the most well-known including:

  • The Second Battle of Ypres, which saw the German army use poison gas on a large scale for the first time
  • The Battle of Passchendaele, which claimed somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 lives – the greatest casualty count of the 5 battles
  • The Advance of Flanders (the Flanders Fields provide the setting of the famous poem In Flanders Fields by John McCrae).

Ypres itself has been carefully rebuilt after it lay largely in ruin following the war. The town features numerous reminders of its sombre history, including the Ypres Ramparts Cemetery, the British Empire’s Menin Gate Memorial, and the sensational Cloth Hall (where you can experience the interactive ‘In Flanders Fields’ Museum).

Menin Gate

The following memorable WW1 battlefields and related sites can also be found near Ypres:

  • The village of Messines, where the 1917 Battle of Messines ended in British victory and led to the Third Battle of Ypres
  • Hill 60, which was captured by the German army in 1915
  • Bruges, a lovely medieval city criss-crossed by canals, bridges, and cobblestone alleys
  • The 5th Australian Division Memorial in Polygon Wood
  • The Island of Ireland Peace Park.

WW1 Battlefields in France

Fromelles, Somme, Villers-Bretonneux, Bullecourt… numerous French locations on the Western Front hosted memorable battles during the Great War. Many sites are easily accessible for travellers staying at nearby Amiens, a charming city famous for its pretty canals and majestic gothic cathedral.

Fromelles

This is where Australian forces made their first big appearance on the Western Front during World War 1. The Battle of Fromelles in 1916 didn’t end well. The allied forces lost and suffered over 7,000 casualties, 78% of which were Australian soldiers. Many regard this battle as the worst 24 hours in Australian history, which makes this battlefield a particularly moving site to visit.

Australian Corp Memorial Park - courtesy of Albatross traveller B. Flanagan

Be sure to spend some time at:

  • Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery
  • The Australian Memorial Park
  • VC Corner.

Somme

Another tragic location from 1916, this battlefield saw 23,000 Aussie soldiers fall in the space of less than 2 months during the Battle of the Somme. This inconclusive conflict was also the scene in which tanks entered the fray for the first time.

Later, in 1918, a successful counter-offensive took place by the River Somme. The Australian Corps played a key role in this battle’s strategy, crossing the river under the cover of nightfall. One British army commander went as far as calling this move the greatest military achievement of the war.

Ulster Tower Memorial, courtesy of Albatross traveller D. Taylor

To fully understand the details and impact of the Somme battlefields, be sure to visit:

  • The Australian memorials at Pozières
  • The Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
  • The Ulster Tower Memorial
  • Newfoundland Memorial Park
  • Adelaide Cemetery.

Villers-Bretonneux

This village hosted 2 key battles during WW1, in which the German army respectively failed and then succeeded in capturing the area. However, the allied forces were able to swiftly retake the village, largely thanks to 2 Australian brigades that flanked and surrounded the township – once again using the darkness of night.

Australian Memorial, Villers-Bretonneux

While exploring Villers-Bretonneux, make time for:

  • The Australian National Memorial
  • The Franco-Australian Museum.

Bullecourt

Bullecourt Digger

Bullecourt was the setting for a scrappy attempt by the 4th Australian Division to claim some ground and key trenches. While initially successful, the ultimate outcome was disastrous: all the land won was rapidly taken back by German reinforcements and about 3,000 diggers were lost in the effort.

This WW1 battlefield is perhaps best known for the ‘Bullecourt Digger’, a bronze statue who gazes out contemplatively over the panorama. One can only imagine how it felt to stand in his shoes on April 11th, 1917, watching countless comrades fight and fall across the haunting landscape.

A second attempt to win this area a month later was successful, thanks to artillery support and the assistance of British divisions.

Experience WW1 Battlefields with Albatross Tours

To experience these sombre yet fascinating sites for yourself, you can:

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Julia Higginbotham

Julia Higginbotham is the Marketing Executive at Albatross Tours