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From pitched medieval encounters to the twentieth century’s two World Wars, for over 600 years the countryside in France has borne witness to great battles that have claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of men. Many of these fields of battle have remained undisturbed and have become open-air museums with hundreds of memorials, war grave cemeteries, museums and trenches.
Many of France’s battlefields are found in the north of country, and along its border with Belgium, so the best way to reach them is on one of our car ferries to Dunkirk, Calais or Dieppe, or by sailing from Newcastle to IJmuiden and driving from there. Taking your car will also make travelling around a lot easier, as getting to some of the more rural spots can be tricky if you plan on using public transport.
Agincourt is situated 12 miles north-west of Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise in the Pas-de-Calais department of northern France. In 1415 the Battle of Agincourt saw 5,900 British longbowmen and knights led by King Henry V defeat a French army said to be more than four times its size.
Agincourt is probably the most richly documented of all medieval battles, but nothing beats visiting the battlefield itself.
If you head to the battlefield museum first, you can enjoy the interactive exhibits and videos, as well as relics that were recovered from the site. The museum will also supply you with a map and point you in the right direction of the battlefield, where you will find a monument and a guide to the battle, as well as fantastic views across the fields where the battle took place over 600 years ago.
The Battle of the Somme took place between 1 July and 18 November 1916 on both sides of the River Somme. It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front, and was fought by the armies of the British and French empires against the German empire. More than one million men were wounded or killed there, making the Somme one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Because the battlefield is so vast and there are so many cemeteries, museums and memorials in the area it is advisable to set aside a few days to make the most of your experience. The most popular places to visit are the battlefield at Gommecourt and the battlefield around the Sheffield Memorial Park. Other highlights include the famous Sunken Lane at Beaumont Hamel where the 1st Lancashire Fusiliers made their advance; Hawthorn Ridge Cemetery and the battlefield at Thiepval.
The Battle of Verdun, fought on the hills north of Verdun-sur-Meuse in north-eastern France between 21 February to 18 December 1916, was one of the largest and longest battles of the First World War.
The area around the battle site is rich in military history and you can explore forts, underground tunnels, gun positions, trenches and museums.
Key locations include Fort Douaumont, Fort Vaux and the huge Douaumont Ossuary, a cemetery that houses the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers.
You can also visit the newly refurbished Fleury Memorial Museum and the Voie Sacree, the Trench of Bayonets, Verdun Citadelle and the Froideterre fortifications.
Dunkirk is on the coast of northern France and is just six miles from the Belgian border. During the Second World War the German Army trapped British and French soldiers on the beaches around Dunkirk. In response, the British Army formulated Operation Dynamo to get as many men as possible off the beaches, and from May 26 1940, small ships transferred soldiers to larger ones, which then brought them back to safety in southern Britain. In the end 330,000 allied troops were rescued.
Start off your trip to Dunkirk by visiting Bray Dunes where it’s still possible to see shipwrecks of Operation Dynamo. Then take a trip to the Dunkirk Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery where many of those killed in the battle are buried. You should also explore the museum at Dunkirk with some interesting artefacts, photos and maps. Before you leave, visit Cassel, little hilltop town with panoramic views of the Dunkirk beaches.