07 June 2011

Three cemeteries in the Somme

We spent the day yesterday seeing military cemeteries. The area we are in right now is the valley of the Somme River and the site of one of the major battles of the Great War of 1914-1918. The Battle of the Somme took place in the summer of 1916, and it was mainly a British-German clash.

Yesterday we saw British, German, and French cemeteries. There are over 400 British military graveyards in the region, because the British decided to bury their dead where they were killed rather that repatriate the bodies. Some of the British cemeteries are big, and many are small. About 400,000 British soldiers died in the Battle of the Somme. Many of the bodies were never identified, and many have never even been found.

The British military cemetery at Delville Wood

The British cemetery we went to see, Delville Wood, contains about 5,500 graves. Two-thirds of those are the graves of unidentified soldiers.

The German military cemetery at Fricourt

We also went to look at a German cemetery. From the pictures in this post, you can see how different it is. It's dark and austere, where the British cemetery is bright and full of flowers.

We also saw the French military cemetery at Rancourt, the village where our hotel is located. It contains many thousands of graves, too, and is again a completely different style.

The French military cemetery at Rancourt

When this trip was planned, I thought the experience of visiting all these graves and cemeteries and war memorials might feel morbid. In fact, it didn't feel that way at all, even though the day was gloomy and gray, with a couple of hours of much-needed rain. The intensity of my own emotional reaction as I stood and surveyed the site of so much senseless violence and so many horrible deaths, on such a gigantic scale, took me by surprise.


  1. I know many Australians signed on for the adventure, and of course many not returning from the Somme.
    Is there any mebtion of the boys from Down Under?

  2. You're just up the road from where I'll be staying for work next week - Peronne. It's an interesting area, and one that I had never visited before getting this new customer there.

    And @Leon and Sue Sims - I haven't come across an Australian cemeteries in the area yet, but maybe they are part of the numerous British ones? But the center of Peronne actually has Australian flags everywhere, and I know there's a Franco-Australien museum not too far away in Villers-Bretonneaux.

  3. So many graveyards! Soon we'll be 100 years past the Great War, yet we haven't quit killing one another. When will we ever learn?

    All those dead in 1916 and then came the flu of 1918. Living in those days must have been tough.

  4. Two of my great uncles, two brothers, died within weeks of each other in 1916 and are buried in the same small cemetery within a few metres of the Somme. We visited their graves then found the memorial where the name of the third and youngest brother is inscribed - he was only 17 when he died in the early days of the war in 1914 and he had no grave, just his name and regiment amongst thousands of others. Out of the whole family only one brother survived and was to become my great grandfather.

    It was all very moving and I will never forget the experience.

    The saddest thing is that young men are still being sent to war.

  5. Leon and Sue, there is an Australian cemetery right in Péronne, and there's also an Australian memorial on the highway just at the edge of Péronne on the road to Rancourt and Bapaume. Most of the cemeteries are Commonwealth cemeteries, not just British, if you get what I mean.

    Sam, yes, the business I have here in in Péronne but the hotel is in Rancourt. There isn't a good hotel in Péronne, I'm told. This is about the best one around.

    Evelyn, you're so right.

    Jean, I'm not sure I knew about your family's war history. The cemetery experience is very moving.

  6. In case you ever go back, I stay at the Campanile at the edge of town. It's pretty good as far as French hotels go - the people are nice, the price is good (I paid 55€ last time), the bed is comfortable, and there's free wifi. Plus they always have free coffee/tea plus biscuits waiting for you in your room, which I think is a nice touch.

  7. My reaction to military graveyards is one of complete disgust and anger because the world hasn't learned a damned thing from all that carnage.

  8. Visiting these cemeteries is something I would like to be able to do during one of my visits to Paris. Shall have to work out what is available. I think my reaction would be awe and raw emotion, too. I can understand the futility but not the subsequent anger. All generations have to make their own decisions, which may not stand up to scrutint 100 years down the track. We should listen rather than criticise.

  9. My children introduced me to this area when they were going on school visits (almost all schools in SE England run trips as part of their history classes).
    There are so many interesting and moving places to see, but one not to be missed is the Menin Gate in Ypres (just over the Belgian border) where they play the Last Post every night at 8pm. The names of 54000 soldiers missing from the battlefield in the Ypres salient are written on the gate itself.
    If you get a chance to visit, I recommend a good guide book, such as those by Major and Mrs Holt.

  10. Used to teach an indepth study of WWI poetry. Always find the WWI cemeteries and battlefields very moving each time I visit. used to take students from the international school where I taught to preserved trenches, various cemetaries, the Menin Gate in Ypres and the excellent WWI museum in Peronne.
    BTW this year marks the 95th anniversay of the battle of the Somme.


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