Back to the front

Photographing the battlefields of Europe

We studied them in school, were enthralled by movies and TV shows about them, lost family members there and live lives changed by them.

The sites of the world’s most significant and famous battles are a memorable and moving living monument to selfless acts of heroism and sacrifice, and to the depths of suffering, power, egoism, stupidity and greed of war.

Over the years, I’ve visited numerous battlefields that mark turning points of history in Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, North America and Mexico. The timelines have ranged from ancient to medieval to modern. 

Some battlefields, like Gettysburg and Waterloo, are well-known, respectfully preserved and feature world-class museums. Others are known only by scholars or military history buffs like myself, and may be memorialized only by an obscure stone marker or brass plaque along the side of the road.

This spring I decided to join those gathering in northern Europe for the 100th anniversary of the of World War I.  European countries spruced up war memorials, cemeteries and refurbishing military museums in earnest preparation for the centennial of what came to be known as “The Great War.”

Armed with a pair of Nikon D610s and Nikon’s “holy trinity” of lenses (17-35mm f2.8, 24-70 f2.8 and 70-200 f2.8), I traveled in early May from Portland to Amsterdam and then spent three weeks alone driving around battle sites in Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France.

In my rented Opal Astra, without a cell phone or GPS, I successfully navigated narrow medieval lanes and super highways and dirt roads among the farms of northern France. Overall, I traveled more than 2,500 miles as I explored almost the entire length of the Western Front of World War I from Nieuport on the Belgian coast to the Swiss border and back to Amsterdam.

The First World War began on July 28, 1914 and lasted until November 11, 1918, with U.S. forces entering active combat in large numbers only during the last eight months of the conflict.

The war ultimately took the lives of 9 million combatants and 11 million civilians. Military cemeteries, maintained by the home nations of the fallen, dot the landscape along the Western Front in Belgium, France and Luxembourg. There are more than 280 British cemeteries on the Somme battlefield alone.

The most memorable for me was the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery near the little town of Passchendaele in southern Belgium, where nearly 12,000 soldiers are buried, including two recipients of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military decoration for valor.

  Located near Leper, Belgium, Tyne Cot is largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. Among its nearly 12,000 graves are those of two recipients of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor for valor.

Located near Leper, Belgium, Tyne Cot is largest cemetery for Commonwealth forces in the world, for any war. Among its nearly 12,000 graves are those of two recipients of the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honor for valor.

The Ypres Salient

My battlefield tour began in Leper.

Five major battles were fought in and around this once flourishing medieval trading center in West Flanders. When the First World War was declared in July 1914 the town was known by its French name of Ypres, which British soldiers pronounced as “Wipers.” Forming a bulge in the German lines, the area became famous as the Ypres Salient.

Leper was reduced to rubble during World War I by German shelling. After the war, citizens rebuilt their city, but the memory of the Great War is kept alive in a long list of museums, war memorials and battle sites.

 Vimy Ridge

One of the best places to see what a World War I battlefield actually looked like is Vimy Ridge, about 70 miles south of Leper. The site of a great Canadian offensive, the battlefield is maintained as a national park. Eighty percent has been left just as it was at the end of war, including thousands of unexploded artillery shells still buried in the ground. The area is cordoned off with an electric fence, and a herd of sheep graze on the battlefield to keep the grass down.


Vimy Ridge also features a section of restored trench you can walk through. A guide will take you on a tour of the tunnels Canadian miners dug under the German lines and then filled with explosives. You can still see the huge craters left by the blasts. 

The Canadian battlefield park at Vimy Ridge in northern France features a section of restored trench you can walk through. A guide will take you on a tour of the tunnels Canadian miners dug under the German lines and then filled with explosives.

The Somme

East of Leper in northern France is the Somme Battlefield, where 150,000 British solders went “over the top” on the morning of July 1, 1916, only to be mowed down by German machine gun fire. By the end of the day the British had suffered 50,000 causalities, including 20,000 dead, the largest single day loss of life in the country’s military history. Over the next five months, the British and Germans each suffered 1.2 million casualties, yet the front line shifted barely two miles.

The little town of Albert, France, is a good base of operations when touring the Somme battlefield.

Key sites include Delville Wood, where both sides incurred large casualties, Lochnagar Mine Crater and the massive Thiepval Memorial to the Missing. The latter sets on high ridge and can be seen for miles.

 Belleau Wood
Continuing east, I visited the World War I American battlefield of Belleau Wood, where U.S. Marines sustained high casualties as they advanced through a wheat field into machine gun fire. The shallow trenches dug by the Marines before the attack can still be found in the woods above the American cemetery.

 Verdun
A short drive from Belleau Wood is Verdun, site of the longest and bloodiest battle in the history of warfare. So many men were killed fighting over this odd and unsightly town, France entered the Second World War with a smaller population than it had at the start of the first.

  The Douaumont ossuary is a memorial containing the remains of soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in World War I.  It and the surrounding battlefield have been designated a "nécropole nationale", or "national cemetery.”

The Douaumont ossuary is a memorial containing the remains of soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun in World War I.  It and the surrounding battlefield have been designated a "nécropole nationale", or "national cemetery.”

The hills where most of the fighting took place have been left intact. Not one square yard of ground is level after being pounded day and night for 10 months by artillery. Plus soldiers from both sides expended a significant amount of energy digging trenches and tunnels.

Fort Douaumont, which fell to the Germans on the first day of the battle and cost about 100,000 French lives to retake, is the heart of the battlefield. Nearby is a well-kept graveyard with 15,000 headstones and the giant ossuary where the remains of 150,000 soldiers from both sides are kept.  Beyond is the famous “Trench of the Bayonets” where an entire company of 137th French Infantry Regiment was buried alive by an explosion that caved in their trench just as they were preparing to go over the top.  Only their bayonets remained above ground. A memorial shelter covers the site to prevent the bayonets from being stolen by souvenir hunters.

Other famous battlefields are near many of the World War I sites and are worth a visit.  They include Waterloo, where Napoleon was defeated in 1815, and Agincourt, fought by the English and French in 1415 and immortalized by Shakespeare in “King Henry V.”

  The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Leper, Belgium is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient during World War I and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Every evening at 8 p.m., members of the local fire department close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the "Last Post" bugle call.

The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Leper, Belgium is dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient during World War I and whose graves are unknown. The memorial is located at the eastern exit of the town and marks the starting point for one of the main roads out of the town that led Allied soldiers to the front line. Every evening at 8 p.m., members of the local fire department close the road which passes under the memorial and sound the "Last Post" bugle call.

Many World War II sites dot northern Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge, which was the largest and deadliest land battle ever fought by U.S. soldiers. It involved 1 million Allied and Nazi troops with about 80,000 U.S. casualties. Several museums and memorials associated with the battle are located in the little Belgian town of Bastogne.

While visiting battlefields, war memorials and military museums is interesting and educational, it can also be emotional. To lift your spirits, there is luxury shopping along The Grand Rue in Luxemburg City, great beer in Belgium, outstanding food and wine in France, charming B & Bs, picturesque scenery, and wonderful museums such as the spectacular Richsmuseum in Amsterdam, which recently reopened following a 10-year, $500 million renovation.  

 Travel tips

 Maps and guidebooks

A little preparation can make a world of difference to your understanding of the campaign whose battlefield you are visiting—and of course to your enjoyment of the overall trip.

“The First World War” by John Keagan provides a good overview of the major battles, while the “The Guns of August,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning classic, by Barbara Tuchman describes the critical opening month of the war.

If you have only a short time to visit the Somme, the best book to use is Major & Mrs. Holt's “Battlefields Guide to the Somme.” It contains several one-day driving itineraries, which have both distances and timings for each stop, plus clear directions and a useful map.

Detailed battlefield maps can be found in most bookstores, tourist offices and souvenir shops along the Western Front. For driving, I prefer the Michelin 1:150,000 scale maps available through amazon.com.

Car rental
Renting a car in Europe is generally more expensive and more complicated than in the United States, but can be a better value than rail tickets if more than one person is traveling. Plus you can enjoy the freedom to explore Europe at your own speed. For the best price, book in advance from home.  European cars are most economical when rented by the week with unlimited mileage. Daily rates are generally quite high; typically, the longer you rent, the less it’ll cost per day. Most rental cars in Europe have manual transmissions. If you need an automatic, reserve it well in advance.

 Automatics can tack on an extra $100 to $200 per week on the rental rate. Picking up a car at an airport sometimes costs more than picking it up downtown. A U.S. driver’s license is all you need to drive in most European countries. Some countries such as Spain, Austria, Italy and Greece also require you to carry an International Driving Permit, which are available for $15 at your local AAA office.

Canada's Canadian National Vimy Memorial is an impressive tribute to soldiers who gave their lives in the First World War. It overlooks the Douai Plain from the highest point of Vimy Ridge, about six miles north of Arras, France.