Remembrance Tourism in Nord-Pas de Calais
From August 1914, the Nord-Pas de Calais found itself at the heart of the first hostilities. It would remain in the thick of the fighting until November 1918.It was here that a very large contingent of troops from the United Kingdom and its empire would take up their positions opposite the Germans.Their presence and the fighting that they engaged in have left us today with a rich yet little understood legacy: the military cemeteries, memorials and remains are silent but poignant reminders.
By inviting us to explore these sites, the Chemins de mémoire de la Grande Guerre en Nord-Pas de Calais “Roads of Remembrance of the Great War in the Nord-Pas de Calais” allow us both to understand these very important chapters of European and world history and to pay our respects to the men and women, who sometimes having come from the other side of the world, now have this region as their final resting place.
At the end of 1914, the hope of a quick victory was fading on each side. Running from the Belgian coast down to the Vosges mountains, the Front line stretched across the Nord-Pas de Calais like an immense scar between the Flanders and Picardy.
The huge number of military cemeteries reminds us of the range of nations represented in them, of the sheer extent to which this Great War was a conflict on a global scale.
For example, just 20km or so from Lille, lie the Australian memorial park of Fromelles, as well as the Indian memorial of Neuve-Chapelle which is right next to the Portuguese military cemetery of Richebourg.
Between Lens and Arras, the Artois Hills are home to many places of remembrance notably for the soldiers of the French Army who fell during the offensives of May and September in this part of the world. Thus, the National Cemetery of Notre-Dame-de-Lorette at Ablain-Saint-Nazaire with its 20,000 graves plus the bodies of a further 22,000 other soldiers in the ossuaries, remains the largest French military cemetery. Not far away, at Neuville-Saint-Vaast, the German cemetery of la Maison-Blanche was opened after the war. It is the largest of its kind in France, and is where the remains of more than 44,800 men who fell in the region’s battle fields are to be found.
In preparation for the battle of Arras which was to act as a diversion for the French offensive planned along the Chemin des Dames, the British Army built up a vast underground tunnel network, a part of which is today open to the public: the Carrière Wellington. On 9 April 1917, the assault was launched. To the north, the Canadians managed to take the Crête de Vimy (Vimy Ridge) an achievement which came to be considered as a major event in the history of their nation. It is at the summit of this ridge that stands one of the most beautiful commemorative monuments of the Great War: The Canadian Memorial of Vimy. Not far away one can also find the Newfoundland Memorial of Monchy-le-Preux and the Australian memorial park of Bullecourt, other sites which were the theatre of this British offensive on Arras.
On 20 November 1917, the British Army sent 476 tanks, which was an unprecedented number, as part of the offensive against Cambrai. The Memorial of the battle of Cambrai at Louverval is a reminder of the emergence of a new technical aspect to the war.
The invasion, the first German occupation and the liberation of the occupied territories
At the end of August 1914, having crossed Belgium and marching on Paris, the German Army found its route impeded by the place de Maubeuge (Maubeuge Square) which was surrounded by fortifications as part of the Séré de Rivières defensive organisation. The siege of the square lasted 10 days during which the forts and fortresses, including the Fort de Leveau which today is open to visitors, endured the wrath of the German artillery. The square officially surrendered on 8 September 1914.
After the failure of the first battle of the Marne and the “race to the sea”, the Front became static and the armies entrenched. The war about movement became a war about positions.
The German army occupied the captured territories which included Lille and its suburbs, a large part of the mining basin of the Nord-Pas de Calais and the southern part of the Nord département. A number of pockets of resistance sprang up in opposition to the laws imposed by the new military authority, only to be brutally suppressed. Le Mur des Fusillés lillois (The Lille Wall of the Executed Soldiers) is a reminder of the execution which took place on 22 September 1915 of the leaders of the Jacquet network, as well as the young Léon Trulin a few weeks later.
1918 saw the war starting to move once more. After the German offensives of the spring, the allied armies operating under the sole command of Marshall Foch launched a massive offensive in August which broke through the German defences. Consequently the 4 November remains an important date of commemoration: at the foot of the New-Zealand memorial of Le Quesnoy, the town’s inhabitants pay their respects with fern leaves to the troops who liberated them, whilst at the cemetery of the village of Ors, close to the Cateau-Cambrésis, the major work of the war poet Wilfred Owen who was killed on this very same day of 4 November 1918, is remembered.
The Coast, the rear base of the allied armies
In 1916, the General Head Quarters of the imperial British Army was based at Montreuil-sur-Mer and was to become the heart of an immense logistics area stretching all the way along the coastline of the English Channel.
Supplies as well as the troops themselves coming from all over the British Empire would make their way into France through the Channel ports, such as Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. After training at the huge camp in Étaples, the soldiers would be dispatched to the different zones along the Front which were under British control: the Flanders, Artois and the Somme.
The logistic operations were entrusted to groups of voluntary workers (the Labour Corps) who were made up of Egyptians, Indians, native South-Africans and Chinese, a number of whom are buried in the military square of the cemetery of Saint-Étienne-au-Mont to the south of Boulogne.
The Etaples military cemetery which is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in France, is a reminder of the work of the numerous hospitals which were set up along the coast in order to treat the wounded from the Front. The men who died there were buried at the cemeteries close by, as was the case of the Canadian poet John McCrae, author of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields” who was laid to rest at the Wimereux cemetery.
The reconstruction of the devastated areas
The decisions on how to rebuild the towns decimated by the war, were made in line with the decisions of local politicians and suggestions from architects. Arras was able to retrieve its rich heritage thanks to an exact reconstruction, identical down to the last details of the facades of the houses which once ran alongside its squares, its town hall and its belfry.
In the Flanders, towns such as Bailleul and Armentières, under the influence of the architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier, adopted a regionalist style. Just like Cambrai or Lens to give another example, other towns would go for a modern style by adopting the Art Déco style. As can be seen from the facades dominating its Grand’ Place, Béthune, for its part, succeeded in preserving a balance between regionalism and Art Déco.