La Belle Francais

I have just returned form two weeks in France, the first of which was a tour of some of the Somme battlefields, with my undergraduate students whom I had taught a battlefield archaeology course to last year. We also went to Brittany as they had been taught about the pre-historic Atlantic fa├žade. The first few photos are from that part of the trip. Then the final week saw me joining the Somme Association Diggers Brigade for some excavation work in Thiepval Woods, part of an ongoing project I have been involved for the past ten years! Here is a selection of photos from both weeks of the trip!

On the way between the Somme and Brittany we stopped off at Rouen, this is the city's memorial to the Resistance:

The magnificent Rouen Cathedral:

Another, very short stop was at Caen, mostly to look at William the Conqueror's castle, but I also spotted the 3rd Division's Memorial:

Caen Cathedral:

We were really pushed for time to get to Brittany, but I managed to get a quick glimpse in the D-Day memorial museum foyer, which houses this lovely Hawker Typhoon:

And this Willy's Jeep:

And this Pak 40:

The rest of the time was given over to prehistoric visits, but I spotted the Heulgoat First World War Memorial:

Mind you, even the prehistoric stuff was amazing, these glacial rocks of chaos were mind blowing:

The giant mushroom lived up to its name:

And the Menhir de Kerampeulven looked just like one Obelix would have made:

The area was scattered with Dolmens such as this one:

And this one...

And this one...

And even this one...

Then we stopped off at Carnac and wondered at the thought processes that would go into creating such an enigmatic feature.

Then the biggest was saved until last, with this giant 20ft tall megalith at Locmariaquer.

I left the students to view other prehistoric sites and travelled by train back to the Somme just in time to join the excavations there. The project has been running ten years this October and I have been involved since the beginning, with nearly twenty visits to the site. The excavations have taken place on front line trenches in Thiepval Woods, which is where the 36th Ulster Division fought on the 1st of July 1916, with considerable success. The woods are now owned by the Somme Association of Northern Ireland and we have painstakingly tried to recreate the trenches as they would have appeared during the Battle of the Somme. Every aspect of the original trenches have been excavated and recorded according to modern archaeological techniques, then revetted and sections of the trenches opened to the public. In this sense, the site and project is unique in that visitors can see the original lines of trenches from the First World War.

When I was last in the wood we had worked on a section of front line, but had not properly understood the archaeology. So it was decided that we would investigate further to try to understand and interpret the remains. On arrival we were greeted with this:

Other areas of trench had previously been revetted but had fallen into a state of disrepair over the preceding year and this was how another section of front line trench looked:

It didn't take very long before we had all the leaves and twigs out of the trenches, then all that was left to do was replace some of the rotten sandbags with new ones.

One evening, one of my friends, Steve, had mentioned he'd seen some German pillboxes which he had not previously encountered, so we went to take a look.

Unfortunately they were on private land, so the fence line was the closest that we got to them!

But there was six in total, we thought they were probably a command position, maybe of battalion level or higher.

Back on site we continued the excavation of the front lines, as always there were the usual artefacts, from bullets, to shell splinters, even hand grenades (only one live one, thankfully! All ordinance is dealt with by an EOD specialist, who removes the potential threat to a safe place which is then picked up by French explosive demolitions teams). One interesting item was this indelible pencil pushed into a British .303 cartridge, probably to make it easier to hold when writing on maps and the like:

As I mentioned, all the remains are treated in good archaeological practise, with each section being drawn and photographed, with context sheets filled in to describe the various deposits. Here is a lateral trench section, you can pick out the various layers of backfill and even trample from the soldiers as they passed through the trench.

Also mentioned previously was the aspect of revetting and repair that has to go on in the features, here a communication trench is fixed up with corrugated iron and frames of expanded metal. Both of these items have been found during the excavations in the woods, so we can be fairly certain that this is a reasonable interpretation of the correct trench furniture.

And this is the result of all that hard work:

The front lines looked spick and span again!

And the communication trenches looked excellent:

Work was progressing well on the other front line areas, we had worked out what was happening archaeologically and were able to follow the line of the trench (despite a tree almost getting in the way!):

Dane proudly shows off the 5m of trenches that we cleared in about four days of work:

Once we had excavated the trench, all that remained was to clean the whole feature, ready for recording. This took a bit longer than we excepted as there was still a large amount of trample left in the base of the trench:

But we got there in the end, the sections were photographed and drawn for the archive:

And overall shots of the trench were taken. You can see that some the edges are not perfect, this is due to slumping or shell strikes. Also about half way along the right hand side of the trench is a dugout that we had encountered in a previous season but had yet to deal with. It had been made safe with sandbags.

However, it was not all work and we also took Dane (his first time on the Somme) out on a few sight seeing visits. Here is a German 77mm Gun outside the Albert museum:

I also took him to my favourite site on the Somme, the Beaumont Hamel Road and Sunken Lane, seen here from the lip of the Hawthorne Ridge crater:

Then Dane provided scale for a photo taken within the crater itself:

The Scottish Memorial at Sunken Lane looked magnificent with the removal of the trees from around it's base:

And finally, this picture of Serre Road Cemetery Number 2 is a reminder of the reason that we excavate the remains of the First World War: So that these men's endeavours should not be forgotten.


  1. There is also the memorial from Terre-Neuve, with a complete system of trenches. Worth a look if you don't know it.


    1. Thanks Seb, the Newfoundland Memorial Park does have trenches but they haven't been subject to archaeological work, plus they were also re-sculptured in the 1960s!

  2. That was pretty amazing, thank you. My own visit to France was pretty cool but this would have been even better I think. Would love to come over and see some of the megalithic sites and the World War battle fields. So... let me know if you need anyone with 10 + years of field experience and likes painting miniatures. Small world.

    1. Thanks, much appreciated, the megalithic sites are a good day's drive away from the battlefields. I will keep it in mind should we need more people on site!


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