When I travelled to Europe in April 2017 to tour the Western Front battlefields of both World War One and Two, it wasn’t my first visit. Back around the turn of this century, we took a couple of day trips to places, but also did a similar, if shorter, battlefield tour in April 2001. I thought it would be fun to take a look back at not only what these places looked like when I first saw them, but also compare to original views of these sites. How have things changed in the last 15-20 years, and how have things changed since the World Wars?
The biggest change I noticed since my first visit was just that people were actually visiting them. Even if we arrived at a location and had the place to ourselves, we saw evidence of previous visitors. There were many more flags, poppies and other mementos left behind than I remember from previous visits. This makes sense given the amount of people coming through the region for the Vimy centenary specifically, but the First World War centenary and 75th World War Two anniversary.
Western Front Battlefields – Then and Now
Vimy Ridge, France
The purpose of my trip was to mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. I first visited Vimy in 1998 and I remember thinking at that moment… I want to be here for the 100th anniversary. I don’t know why I thought that. Although I’ve always wanted to revisit the battlefields again (and want to return a third time), I never had an urge to attend an anniversary.
The national historic site and monument hasn’t chanced much in the almost 20 years since I last visited. I did notice that the United Kingdom joined Canada and France at the flag poles.
Arnhem, The Netherlands
You may have heard of the movie A Bridge Too Far. This bridge is the subject of the book and movie. We took a day trip there back in 1999, visited the bridge, memorials and cemetery. This year, we rented a car after we finished our tour and drove (via a quite circuitous route) to Ypres in Belgium. On the way, we stopped back in Arnhem. We did visit a few of the same things, but missed one of the memorials. We couldn’t find it. (Going through the older photos for this post, I think we were on the wrong bank!) We did get to visit a new museum, though. We just came across it as we walked along the river. There are so many musems and sites in this area, you could probably spend a week just visiting around Arnhem! This museum wasn’t just new to us, however, it had been open only three weeks when we visited!
When my family travelled to Normandy in 2001, we visited many different sites. The vast American cemetery near Omaha Beach, a striking German cemetery, museums, memorials around every corner, and more. Over the course of one day, we visited Britain’s Sword Beach, Canada’s Juno Beach, another of Britain’s landing sites at Gold Beach, and America’s Omaha Beach. The USA also had a second landing site – Utah Beach – but it was a bit too far to visit as we had to travel back down the coast to get back to our hotel. (Poor planning on my part.)
Of all the places we saw that day, the section of Gold Beach at Arromanches was the one that stuck with me through the years. You can still see parts of the mulberry harbours used in the landings scattered along the beach and water. You can walk up and touch them. Kids play in and around them. They are impressive reminders – or scars, depending on your point of view.
I didn’t notice much of a change on the beach. Up on the overlooking cliff, however, were a few additions. There was barbed and razor wire along the edge that wasn’t there before (as you can see in the photos below), and a few more displays outside by the museum.
I’ve heard that “The Brooding Soldier” was the runner up in the competition for the monument at Vimy Ridge. I’ve never been able to find anything to back up that claim, though perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough. It’s certainly a beautiful monument and one that brings forth a lot of emotions.
As you can see, not much changed since 2001. The shrubs grew higher. It wasn’t raining (at that time of day, anyway), but you can see that it doesn’t seem quite as forgotten as it did in 2001.
(The archive photo is not from St. Julien. I couldn’t really find one. The Canadian monument is specifically dedicated to those who encountered the first gas attacks, so I found a gas-related photo.)
I did find this on Wikipedia: the original design competition submission. I thought it was interesting.
The World War Two Dieppe Raid, a predominately Canadian battle, was a disaster. There are many Canadian memorial in the area including this small park just a few metres from the beach. You can see in the photo there is an information panel that wasn’t there before, but the rest is pretty much the same. The beach itself hasn’t changed much, either.
Hill 62 (Sanctuary Wood) is a little museum (and bar!) hidden away in the Ypres Salient. The area was most active during the summer of 1916 and was the first engagement of the Canadian Division. I’ve written before about my love for this site. I’ve been lucky that both of my visits were on rainy days (although I don’t think that’s a strange thing in this area). You are able to get just a tiny glimpse into the conditions the men fought in.
There really wasn’t much that’s changed. The museum has an eight euro fee. I don’t remember if we paid last time, but that was a long time ago!
I’ve already talked about about the D-Day landing beaches in this post. There are a so many memorials scattered along the coast, including around Canada’s Juno Beach. This particular memorial hasn’t changed much, if at all, but it was much more interested this year! These re-enactors were hanging out and being awesome. I wrote more about this experience last week. Also, like at St. Julien, you can see wreaths and things that weren’t there in 2001.
Also, this happened while we were there.
German Cemetery at Langemark
There aren’t a lot of German memorials and monuments around the Western Front, at least, not that I’ve come across, anyway. But there are cemetery. The death toll on both sides of the World Wars was so high, that it wasn’t really feasible to transport the fallen back home for burial, necessitating the War Graves scattered throughout the world. The German fallen may have been closer to home, but the same held true for them as well. They have cemeteries scattered throughout France and Belgium and their architecture, landscaping, and other design choices are much different than those of the French, Commonwealth, Belgian, etc. Some of this may simply be due to host nations ceding less land to Germany.
There are approximately three times the burials at this cemetery compared to the Commonwealth’s Tyne Cot Cemetery (next in this list), on just a fraction of the land.
You can see the landscaping of the mass grave has changed. There is also the hint of a wreath in the 2001 photo, one of the only times I saw evidence of other visitors in the photos I went through for this post.
Tyne Cot Cemetery (Passchendaele)
Britain’s largest war cemetery. Maybe it’s because we’re at the end of this long post, but I don’t think there’s much to say about this one. Not much has changed. There is a little museum, with a speaker going through the names of the men remembered here. I don’t remember this from my 2001 visit, and it does seem kind of modern, so I think it must be a new addition.
I actually did some actual shot recreations, so stay tuned for that! For more photos from my trip, just out Flickr.