Museums of the Somme and Belgium
By V. Kenneth

World Wars One and Two are considered the two most catastrophic cataclysms to occur in the 20th century. With 37 million civilians and soldiers dying in World War One and 61 million dying in World War Two, the first half of the twentieth century was one of the most horrific time periods ever. Changing the course of military and political history for years to come, we honor the memory of these wars by museums, monuments and a number of other such endeavors. In Belgium and France, the local population is especially respectful of the fallen. The author had the excellent opportunity to visit the historic battlefields of the Somme in northeastern France. The need for a British offensive to take the pressure off the French in their besieged Verdun fortress became apparent in mid 1916. On July 1st, 1916, 20,000 Commonwealth troops rose up out of their trenches, never to return home alive. Almost 40,000 were also wounded just on that day alone. Today the battlefields of the ferocious engagements are scattered around the Picardy region of France. Among them are cemeteries, memorials and some excellent museums. All are within thirty minutes of each other. The Somme River is around an hour’s drive from Lille, France and about two hours from Paris.

South African National Memorial and Museum

This museum was an excellent addition to the Delville Wood National Memorial. The area consisted of a British War Graves Commission cemetery, a memorial to all South Africans who fell in the First World War, a visitor center, and a castle-like enclosure that has a center courtyard. Within the side embrasures of this structure are displays of South Africa’s participation in the two world wars. Here, the firearm displays are of particular note. Included in the collection are, a Rieder automatic rifle, one of the few ever to be produced, two early manufacture Mausers, one a Portuguese and the other of pre-war manufacture. Along with these oddities were the usual Lewis and a Bren gun representing the First and Second World Wars, respectfully.

The enclosure lies within the original battle site of the South African’s offensive through Delville Wood occupied by the Germans during the grand 1916 Somme offensive. The fighting was extremely fierce and is one of South Africa’s most infamous combat actions of World War One. After the war, their government decided that the sacrifice of so many good men was worth the memorial, they bought that section of the wood to house the World War One memorial to South Africa. Because the wood had not been touched since the battle, many of the trench lines were intact. To this day visitors may stroll the wood, view and walk into recognizable trenches. It is one of the more beautiful, majestic memorials on the Somme with a grand grass walk-way leading to the memorial, flanked by evenly spaced-out trees. The entire experience is very sobering. Admission is completely free to any of the complexes. Hours are from 9 to 5 in the afternoon. It is located in the southwestern part of the battlefield.

5 Route Ginchy
80360 Longueval
Tel: 03 22 85 02 17

Museum of the Somme Battle 1916
Musée des Abris Somme 1916

Bisecting the 1916 Somme battlefield is the road between Albert and Baupame. Within Albert is a centuries-old church that has a huge underground cellar that served as an air raid shelter as well as a sort of Alamo in ancient times. The shelter has now turned into the second largest museum on the Somme today. At the entrance, there are some artillery pieces and machine guns on display. As one enters through the canvas enclosure, a long stairwell leads down to an equally endless corridor. This is packed with displays of battlefield equipment, posters and real life dioramas of scenes one would normally encounter in the trenches. As the tour proceeds, the visitor will encounter a mix of laid-out displays of equipment and dioramas. Towards the end, the visitor will pass through a simulated trench, complete with flares, artillery and artificial gun-fire on a night battlefield. Exiting into a well-lit room is the museum gift shop and a gallery of war art. Of special note are the display cases with the rifles and machine guns. Admission is six euros. Hours are from 10 to 5 in the afternoon. Albert is located at the extreme western edge of the battlefield, behind the British starting line.

Rue Anicet Godin
80300 Albert
Tel: 03 22 75 16 17

History of the Great War
Historial de la Grande Guerre

This museum is mostly dedicated to the history of World War One in general but has many exhibits about the Somme due to its proximity. It has a main room of displays dedicated to the work of a Great War artist who was a veteran and portrayed the war in a very realistic light in a comic strip published in the 1920s and 30s. Moving on, it has two large rooms that have charts and posters on the walls. But the most interesting feature is the arrangement on the floor. Within the wooden floor are square cut-outs. Laid within these recesses are complete uniforms and equipment arranged by their respective services and time periods during the war. These artifacts reflect the changing times and history of the war as it progressed. There are American, Australian, English, French, and German layouts. The rifles included are standard issue among their respective nations but show uniqueness, such as the German Geweher 98, which has a scope attached to a muzzle cap. The English SMLE is the grenadier variant with attached equipment. The French Lebel has an unattached scope beside it. The American doughboy has for once discarded the stereotypical Springfield 1903 for a more accurate representation in the 1917 Enfield. There is one large cut-out that has nothing but machine guns and small artillery pieces. The museum finishes up with a display of collected battlefield equipment and tools that is found during the “Iron Harvest” that occurs every year. Admission is seven euro. Hours are between 8 and 4 in the afternoon. It is located on the southeastern corner of the battlefield, well behind the German front lines of July 1, 1916.

Château de Péronne
BP 20063 80201
Péronne cedex
Tel: 03 22 83 14 18

Bastogne Museum Historical Center
Musée Bastogne Historical Center

On December 16, 1944, Adolf Hitler launched his surprise attack in the northern sector of the Allied line, catching American Forces by complete surprise. The Allied line fell back almost 100 miles to the rear. The German Offensive was almost successful in reaching its objective of Antwerp, Belgium. In this battle, one particular division and crossroads town are associated with each other. In Bastogne, the 101st Airborne division performed with extreme gallantry in the face of overwhelming odds. It is surprising, given the tactical importance of the town, that the Bastogne area does not have as many memorials or markers in the general area during the Battle of the Bulge. The visitor’s center and museum are excellent but admission is seven euros. One minor hindrance is that cameras are not allowed beyond the entrance to this museum. The displays are genuine with an entire wall of famous figures and depictions of the common soldier on both sides during the war. Visitors are issued electronic guides that have a keypad and an ear phone plugged into them. Each display has a tagged number next to it, which corresponds to a recording inside the device. English, German or French can be chosen as the narrator discusses the display item punched in through the keypad. The small arms room is possibly the best overall depiction of standard issue small arms used by German and American forces during the Second World War that the author has ever seen in one location. Of special note are two early FN automatics, an M1D, an MP3008, an ERMA MP and a GranatBusche 39. Of particular note here, and what is not usually seen at other arms museums, are the accessories on display: saddle cradles, blank rounds, various grenade launching devices and much more eye candy for the firearms enthusiast. In front is an M10 Tank Destroyer set up on a concrete mount at the museum’s entrance. Through a sort of dividing hedgerow is the American/Belgian memorial to the memory of the battle. It is a giant star with the names of all the divisions and auxiliary units that took part in the battle. There is a stairwell to the top of the star and from here the visitor is given various vantage points, from which to view the battlefield with markers pointing to the battles and dispositions of units during the month of December 1944 and January 1945. Bastogne is a 2 hours drive from Antwerp using the principal highways.

Colline du Mardasson
6600 Bastogne
Tel: 061 21 73 73

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review SAW (January 2013)
and was posted online on December 7, 2012


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