There remains today a rich yet little-known First World War heritage in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Military cemeteries, memorials and wartime remains bear silent yet poignant witness to the events that caused this conflict.
The “Great War Remembrance Trails in Nord-Pas-de-Calais” offer visitors an opportunity to discover the sites, to understand these crucial times in European and world history and to pay homage to the men and woman, some of whom came from Antipodean shores, who lay down their lives in the region.
By late 1914, hopes of a quick victory were fading on both sides. Running from the Belgium coast right down to the Vosges mountains, the frontline spread through the Nord-Pas de Calais region like a huge scar between Flanders and Picardy.
The numerous military cemeteries which remain highlight the diversity of the nations represented, and the global nature of the war.
Between Lens and Arras, the Artois Hills are home to numerous memorial sites created to pay homage to the men of the French army who fell, particularly in the offensives of May and September 1915 in the region. Notre-Dame-de-Lorette National Necropolis in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, with 20,000 graves, and another 22,000 bodies of other soldiers in ossuaries, remains the largest military cemetery in France.
Not far off, in Neuville-Saint-Vaast, Maison-Blanche German War Cemetry was created after the war and is the largest necropolis in France, the laste resting place of over 44,800 men who died on the region’s battlefields.
Preparing for the Battle of Arras, which was to create a diversion for the French offensive planned in Chemin des Dames, the British army dug a vast underground network of tunnels, part of which is now open to the public: Wellington Quarry.
On 9 April 1917, the attack began. In the north, the Canadians succeeded in taking Vimy Ridge, a major chapter in the history of their nation. One of the most stunning commemorative memorials of the Great War stands on the top of this ridge: the Vimy Canadian Memorial.
Not far away are the Monchy-le-Preux Newfoundland Memorial and the Bullecourt Australian Memorial Park, other sites that witnessed the British offensive on Arras.
On 20 November 1917, the British army for the first time deployed a contingent of 476 tanks for its offensive on Cambrai. The Louverval Memorial of the Battle of Cambrai commemorates this new era in the arts of warfare.
The war of movement and the first german occupation
In late August 1914, after having crossed Belgium, the German army was stopped, on its march towards Paris, at the Maubeuge Stronghold, whose fortifications had been developed as part of the Séré de Rivières defence system. The siege on the town lasted 10 days during which forts of all kinds, such as Fort de Leveau which can be visited today, came under fire from German artillery. Maubeuge officially surrendered on 8 September 1914.
After the failure of the first Battle of Marne and the “Race to the Sea”, the front became paralysed and the armies dug in. Manoeuvre warfare turned into a war of attrition.
The German army occupied the territories it had taken, including Lille and the surrounding area, a large part of the Nord-Pas de Calais coalfield and the southern part of the Nord department. In the face of the rules imposed by the new military authorities, forms of resistance developed, but were harshly repressed. Le Mur des Fusillés Lillois is a commemorative wall that marks the execution of leading members of the Jacquet resistance network on 22 September 1915, and of young Léon Trulin some weeks later.
1918 saw a return to manoeuvre warfare. After the German offensives in spring, the Allied armies launched, under the command of Maréchal Foch, a massive August offensive that would break the German defences.
4 November has remained an important date of commemoration: at the foot of a New Zealand memorial in Le Quesnoy, the town’s inhabitants pay homage to the fern leaf troops (New Zealanders) who liberated them, while at the Ors Village Cemetery, near Cateau-Cambrésis, the great work of the war poet Wilfred Owen, also killed on 4 November 1918, is celebrated.
Coastline, the secondary base of the Allied army
In 1916, the headquarters of the British Imperial Army was established in Montreuil-sur-Mer, which was to become the heart of a huge logistical area that stretched across the entire length of the Channel coast.
Supplies and troops from all over the British Empire arrived through the ports, like those in Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer. After being trained in a huge camp in Étaples, the soldiers joined different Front zones under British control: Flanders, Artois and the Somme.
Logistical tasks were given to voluntary workers (Labour Corps) - Egyptians, Indians, native South Africans and Chinese, some of whom are buried in the military section of the Saint-Étienne-au-Mont Cemetery in south Boulogne.
The largest Commonwealth military cemetery in France, Étaples Military Cemetery also recalls the activity of the numerous hospitals established along the coast to care for those injured at the Front. The men who died there were buried in nearby cemeteries, including the Canadian poet John McCrae, author of the famous poem “In Flanders Fields”, whose grave can be found in Wimereux Cemetery.
Reconstruction of destroyed territories
In rebuilding the cities destroyed by the Great War, choices were made in line with the wishes of politicians and the ideas of architects.
In Flanders, cities like Bailleul and Armentières adopted a regionalist style under the influence of architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier.
Following the example of Cambrai or Lens, other towns chose a more modern style by adopting an Art Deco look. In the facades overlooking the Grand’ Place, Béthune managed to successfully blend the regionalist and Art Deco styles