Vicarious discovery – Day Two on the Western Front with students

I’m a Great War Geek.  That’s no big deal; we’re a dime a dozen in the interwebs. And it’s the kind of thing people expect and tolerate from historians – even if they don’t quite understand it. So of course I get a kick out of snooping about old battlefields and in museums.  But I’m quite conscious of the fact that it’s not for everyone.  Hence one of my major concerns about this little trip: would the sites we’re visiting resonate with the students?  Or would they (perhaps justifiably) find it all a bit remote and repetitive? The jury’s still out on the latter, but to my great joy the former has not been the case.

Our first stop on Day Two was the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont-Hamel. Our route to the park took us past the Thiepval Memorial and Ulster Tower.  The ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ began as we reached Thiepval and by the time we reached the southern limit of the park, where preserved trenches are visible from the road, the ‘wows’ started to bounce around the car.  We spent about two hours in the park and interpretive centre.  Despite intermittent downpours and work crews that prevented us from moving through the trenches themselves (usually a highlight of the visit) the enthusiasm level among our group remained impressively high.  They sponged up details about July 1 and November 13 and made really impressive connections between the topography and the battle, and between the fighting and the formation of the cemeteries within the park. 

It was particularly gratifying to see the way students linked little details we had discussed in class to what they were seeing and on the site and in the interpretive centre. All told, It was a great argument in support of this whole experiential learning thing.  The remainder of the day confirmed this initial impression.  The Thiepval Memorial to the missing of the Somme really shook some of the students.  To my eye there’s nothing beautiful about Lutyens’ design.  But then, I don’t think ‘beauty’ was his goal. It’s heavy and powerful, an imposing structure that dominates the landscape and visitors.  As one of my students noted, the weight of the structure, the sense of it pressing down even as it soars, is what gives the monument its psychological impact.

After spending many euros in the excellent gift shop at the Thiepval interpretive centre it was off to Ulster Tower for a picnic lunch.  Then we visited Connaught Cemetery on the northern fringe of Thiepval Wood.  From there we followed the route of the July first attack up the slope toward Schwaben Redoubt as far as Mill Road Cemetery – the most secluded and peaceful CWGC cemetery we’ve visited.  The location and the unique arrangement of graves made a deep impression.  I’m sure the Gothic weather helped. 

From Mill Road it was off to Albert via Authuille, Crucifix Corner and Aveluy.  We stopped briefly at Crucifx Corner, which is heavily treed.  A little exploration on the surrounding paths revealed century-old scars on the landscape – something that really caught the students’ attention. The presence of such remains within the present-day woods on the Somme was something I’d mentioned frequently in our discussions of the War’s environmental impact.

In Albert we visited the Somme 1916 Museum.  It’s housed in tunnels that run from the Basilica under the town’s main square to a riverside park several hundred metres away.  Being in the tunnels, which served as shelters during WWI and date in places to the 13th century, is a worthwhile experience in its own right.  The presence of an extensive collection of artifacts and imagery as well as life-sized dioramas illustrating life in the trenches makes it a must see for the Great War Geek.   In terms of curation it offers a real contrast to the more modern design of the Historial in Peronne. 

By the time we finished in the hall of heroes (which included a lovely display on George Butterworth, who gave his name to our Gite) and the gift shop it was six.  So it was back to Butterworth Farm in Pozieres.  We didn’t stray far for supper, patronizing a local bar/restaurant called ‘The Tommy’.  It’s run by a proper Great War enthusiast and is so unusual and fascinating that it deserves a post on its own. For now let’s just say that there were almost as many ‘wows’ at the end of the day as there had been at the beginning.

Bonus: Essential cultural experiences for the day included a visit to a Boulangerie in Albert.


About cahagerman

Dad, husband, writer, historian, recovering academic, and the Consulting Professor.
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2 Responses to Vicarious discovery – Day Two on the Western Front with students

  1. Jim Burns says:

    Wow, what an excellent day – full of incredibly interesting experiences. Thanks for the blog!

  2. Emma,
    We read your very moving blog this morning. As we sit here in Albion you transported us to the battlefield cemeteries and you created in us the same emotions you were feeling.Thank you for sharing so well your experience. Elaine Hagerman and MaryLynn Schira

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