Must-see World War I and II Remembrance Sites in France

Posted on September 30, 2019 by Gillian Thornton

The big anniversaries are over, but remembrance tourism has never been more popular.

Here’s some must-see sites to commemorate World War I and World War II, within easy reach of the Channel ports, all guaranteed to move and inform you.

World War I

The last British veteran is gone and the centenary over, but four years of commemorative events have inspired new generations to go in search of lost family members or just visit the locations that shaped our recent history.

The greatest concentration of Remembrance sites are in the Hauts de France region within an hour or two drive of Calais, so it’s easy to pack several into a short break or add them on to a touring holiday. You can download self-drive trails here.

One of the biggest shocks to first time visitors is seeing the number of nationalities involved, who today lie in cemeteries almost within shouting distance.

Not just Commonwealth, French and German, but Polish and Portuguese, Czechoslovakian and Indian. The inscriptions on headstones, the immaculate memorials, and the comments in visitors’ books are both humbling and uplifting.

Stop at the newly-opened CWGC Experience at Beaurains near Arras (www.cwgc.org) to find out how the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cares for the fallen of two World Wars across the globe. Arras also has one of the largest Commonwealth cemeteries and memorials.

For a good overview of the conflict, I’d recommend:

  • Lochnagar Crater at Ovillers-la-Boisselle in the Somme. The loudest explosion until Hiroshima was heard when British engineers blew up German fortifications here on 1 July 1916, marking the beginning of the Battle of the Somme for British troops.
  • The towering Thiepval Memorial, also in the Somme, that carries the names of 72,000 men with no known grave. The recently refurbished visitor centre is full of moving memorabilia, as is the Historial de la Grande Guerre at nearby Peronne.
  • The stunning Ring of Remembrance – L’Anneau de la Mémoire – inscribed with 580,000 names of all nationalities and opened for the centenary near the French National Cemetery of Notre Dame de Lorette, along with an excellent museum.

thiepval memorial the somme

World War II

2019 saw the last veterans gathered on the beaches of Normandy to commemorate the 75th Operation Overlord and it’s hard to believe that any will be left for the 80th. My father landed at Sword Beach in June 1944 aged just 20, the other British target being Gold Beach, further west.

But each of the five landing beaches has its own story to tell through museums, memorials and cemeteries – Omaha and Utah for the Americans, Juno for the Canadians. Today, the wide golden sands fringe low-key family resorts, a few still dotted with Belle Epoque villas that somehow escaped the shelling.

All are easily reached from Brittany Ferries’ terminals at Caen-Ouistreham and Cherbroug, but if you’re short for time, these would be my priorities:

  • Pegasus Bridge on the Orne canal between Ouistreham on the coast and Caen. Operation Overlord began here as British parachute troops landed from silent gliders under the cover of darkness.
  • Arromanches to understand the technical achievement involved in D-Day – Jour-J to the French. Visit at low tide to walk amongst the remains of the Mulberry Harbours, some of which still float offshore.
  • The American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. Hear the story of the battle for Omaha Beach at the visitor centre, then walk amongst the beautiful cliff-top cemetery set in the landscaped park.
  • Maisy Battery to the west of Grandcamp Maisy was a German gun battery captured by US Rangers but later hidden under earth and undergrowth. Excavated by British war historian Gary Sterne, it is one of the most authentic sites along the Normandy Beaches and rewrites the story of the battle for Omaha Beach.

arromanches d day beaches

Don’t forget Dunkerque, bordering Belgium, where thousands of Commonwealth troops were evacuated to safety in the early summer of 1940.

You can sail direct from Dover to Dunkerque with DFDS for a city break that combines maritime heritage with remembrance tourism.

Off to France on your next holiday? Remember your travel insurance for France, so you can relax on your travels with peace of mind.

Gillian Thornton

by Gillian Thornton

A member of the British Guild of Travel Writers, she is an award-winning freelancer and specialist in France. She also writes widely on the UK and Europe, plus a mix of far-flung destinations from Cape Town to Cambodia. Gillian is a regular contributor to France Today, Voyage (Brittany Ferries customer magazine), Woman’s Weekly, My Weekly, The People’s Friend, This England, and www.silvertraveladvisor.com.  So, look out for her articles on subjects ranging from holidays for the over-50s to ocean and river cruising, walking breaks to heritage days out.  And her favourite place?  ‘Usually where I’ve just been!’