When friends invited us to spend February half-term with them at their old farmhouse in Picardy in northern France, we jumped at the chance. My six-year-old son Joe would get to explore new territory and play football with their 10-year-old son, while I could indulge in good food and wine and enjoy some adult conversation around a roaring log fire. What could be better? Well, an unexpectedly educational and moving visit to some of the First World War memorial sites made it all the more special.
We set off for the Somme battlefields on a very cold and windy day. The boys’ interest, awakened by talk of soldiers and bomb craters, was soon rewarded when a couple of kilometres north-east of Albert we stopped to take in the Lochnagar Crater. This enormous hole in the ground – 90 metres across by 30 metres deep – was created by an underground mine set off beneath the German lines in the minutes before the Allied attack on July 1st 1916.
Next stop was the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial in Auchonvillers, 13 kilometres north of Albert, where a small visitors’ centre crammed with archive material and poignant letters illustrates the story of the Newfoundland regiment. A very friendly Canadian guide was on hand to answer any questions and direct us to the now grassed-over Allied and German trenches (there are guided visits in English May–Nov).
We ambled along the signposted zigzag trail recreating the soldiers’ route across ‘No Man’s Land’ during the attack. This was quite a history lesson, and we realised we had been lucky to have the place to ourselves when, as we left, a coach full of rather lively schoolchildren arrived.
Our last stop was Albert, a little town 30 kilometres northeast of Amiens, the epicentre of Somme battlefield tourism. We headed straight for the Somme Trench Museum, and had an amazing time there. The museum is made up of 250-metres tunnels that were once air-raid shelters running under the town. Again, a staggering amount of artefacts, film and a series of tableaux illustrating Allied and German life in the trenches fascinated us all. You could easily spend all day in here, if you weren’t with children in frequent need of refreshments and/or the toilet…
As you leave the museum, the last tunnel recreates a trench complete with noise and flashing lights that really brings the wartime experience to life. Once you’ve surfaced into the relative calm of the museum shop, you can buy an assortment of war souvenirs, from shell-cases to bayonets. Needless to say, Joe’s request to buy a deactivated gun was swiftly turned down in favour of an ice cream.
Other Picardy War Sites to Visit with Kids
• Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne. Occupying the city's medieval castle, this museum of the First World War is imaginatively conceived to get across the effect of the war on everyday life, including that of children. Objects on display include toys used as propaganda, while soldiers' uniforms of all nationalities are laid out on the ground and surrounded by personal possessions including letters from their parents to powerfully convey the human cost of the war for all parties.
• Thiepval Visitor Centre. A few minutes' walk from the hugely affecting Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme (listing some 72,000 names of those who have never been found), this newly expanded venue includes archaeological finds, multimedia displays and life-size installations including a replica of Charles Guynemer's plane.
• Clairière de l'Armistice, Forest of Compiègne. In the Oise region rather than the Somme, this is where the peace treaty was signed, and a small museum on the site has a replica of the railway wagon in which the historic event took place.
• Caverne de la Dragon, Oulches-la-Vallée-Foulon. In the Aisne region of Picardy, this small museum is centred on a quarry that you can visit by guided tour, where at one point German and French troops lived in makeshift undeground barracks, on either side of defensive walls constructed inside.