2018 will mark the close of four years of centennial events honoring the soldiers and civilians who perished during World War I, making this an ideal time to tour the battlefields, cemeteries, and museums dedicated to honoring their sacrifice.
As you make your way between these European WWI sites, you’ll pass through picturesque towns and lovely, peaceful countryside in both Belgium and northern France—once, quite unbelievably now, the scene of warfare that would scar a continent and its people for generations.
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The Christmas Day Truce Memorial
WHERE: Ploegsteert, Belgium
A true story so good it strains credulity, German and British soldiers laid down their arms on Christmas Day, 1914, to play a game of soccer in No Man’s Land, the area between entrenched armies, usually thick with gunfire. (The Germans won 3- 2.) Their unlikely truce is memorialized with a sculpture near where the game was played, in Ploegsteert, Belgium.
The Last Post Ceremony
WHERE: Ypres, Belgium
Buglers have gathered at the Menin Gate in Ypres to honor the soldiers who died nearby over 30,000 times since the first evening ceremony in 1928. At eight o’clock precisely, the “Last Post” bugle call is played, followed by “Réveille.” “Last Post” is the traditional salute to fallen members of the British military; hundreds of thousands of soldiers died near Ypres, many having begun their journey to the battlefield crossing out of the city by Menin Gate.
Hire a Tour Guide in Ypres
WHERE: The Ypres Salient, Belgium
Over a series of multiple engagements, battles near and around the Ypres Salient are regarded as some of the war’s worst, with a quarter-million British casualties over just one of them: the Battle of Passchendaele, also known as the Third Battle of Ypres. To get a closer look at the battlefields, hire a private tour guide through Ypres’s tourism office.
The Citadel of Dinant
WHERE: Dinant, Belgium
This 1000-year-old citadel above the River Meuse paid mute witness to a tragic civilian resistance. After losing the strategically valuable city to the Germans in the war’s early days, French and Belgian francs-tireurs remained at arms against the occupying force; eager to send a message, German forces assassinated 674 residents of Dinant in August 1914. A new exhibition space at the citadel recounts their story.
The Fort of Loncin
WHERE: Ans, Belgium
The “Rape of Belgium” stirred anger around the world, and it all began in Liège. Germany intended to pass through Belgium as quickly as possible on its way to Paris, only to be surprised by the ferocity of Belgium resistance, nowhere more notably than at this 19th-century fort. Its defenders never surrendered; the fort was destroyed when shells from Germany’s fearsome Big Bertha howitzer gun blew up its armory and killed most of the men guarding it. The fort is now both a museum and a military cemetery.
Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial
WHERE: Beaumont-Hamel, France
The countryside of northern France is dotted with military memorials; the one at Beaumont-Hamel is particularly poignant. This 74-acre site pays tribute to the members of Royal Newfoundland Regiment, essentially wiped out in one of the earliest conflicts in the Battle of the Somme. Visitors can walk along trenches, learn the history of the Danger Tree—a plum tree incongruously set in the middle of No Man’s Land—and see a moving bronze statue of a caribou, the regiment’s emblem, atop a pedestal of Newfoundland granite and plants indigenous to the province.
The Historial (The Museum of the Great War)
The Museum of the Great War works to tell the story of this sprawling conflict in a holistic way multiple sites, one in Péronne, the other in nearby Thiepval. Begin in Péronne with the wide-ranging permanent collection which includes propaganda posters, toys, trench art produced by soldiers, and a comprehensive show of 50 of Otto Dix’s nightmarish prints. The Thiepval satellite, which opened in 2016, focuses on the Battle of the Somme.
The Armistice Clearing
WHERE: Compiègne, France
An unusual site close to Paris, the Armistice Clearing in the Compiègne Forest commemorates the signing of the treaty in a railway carriage that brought the war to an end on November 11, 1918. It was also the signing of a less propitious arrangement just over 20 years later, when at Hitler’s demand, the same railway car was brought from its place in a museum and returned to the site on June 22, 1940, for the signing of the agreement that would solidify the German occupation of much of France.
Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
WHERE: Belleau, France
Around 53,000 American soldiers were killed in action in World War I, in contrast to over a million French deaths and nearly that figure for soldiers of the British Commonwealth. The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery will host a ceremony over Memorial Day weekend 2018 to commemorate U.S. soldiers killed 100 years ago, in the war’s closing months.
Canadian National Vimy Memorial
WHERE: Vimy, France
Many of the memorials and cemeteries in this region are striking, but perhaps the most beautiful is the Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge in France. Toronto sculptor Walter Allward labored on the memorial for 11 years, with two spent dedicated to determining the material (Seget limestone from Croatia, he eventually decided). Beneath two spires, 20 allegorical figures represent such qualities as justice, peace, and Canada Bereft.