It’s estimated that around 19 million soldiers died in action between the years of 1914 and 1918 during World War One (WWI) and a total of over 8.5 million people died as a direct result of this conflict, also called the Great War. It was dubbed ‘the war to end all wars’ but, between the years of 1939 and 1945, an estimated 50 million more people died in World War Two (WWII), the biggest armed conflict in history, involving more nations than any other war.
There are a number of significant WWI and WWII sites open to visitors, all serving as powerful reminders of the sacrifices made by those on both sides of the conflict. With everything on offer from preserved trenches to war cemeteries, choosing which areas are of most importance to you will depend largely on your nationality and whether your interest is war history or family history, perhaps retracing the steps of your ancestors. Listed below are some of the most frequently visited locations.
Lochnagar Crater, France
At 91 metres wide and 21 metres deep, the Lochnagar crater is described as ‘the largest crater ever made by man in anger’. It is a poignant reminder of the horrors of the Great War. The exploding of the mine by the British army on 1st July 1916 marked the start of the British defensive against the German army, and the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, in France.
Somme Battlefields, France
Over 150,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers died during the four and a half months of fighting in the Somme region, with 20,000 soldiers from the newly formed British volunteer army killed on the first day of battle and at least another 40,000 injured. It is estimated that more than three million soldiers fought in the Somme with the number of casualties reaching at least 1.2 million, including the many who became the MIA or missing in action.
Thiepval Memorial, France
There are a growing number of memorials in the Thiepval area, each commemorating a specific regiment or notable individual for their efforts in a particular battle location. In the village of Thiepval, the names of over 72,000 British and South African soldiers declared missing in action between 1916 and 1918 are carved into the stone pillars of the impressive 45 metre tall Memorial to the Missing.
Churchill War Rooms, UK
Buried deep under the streets of London are the rooms from which Winston Churchill, Britain’s war-time Prime Minister, directed the war and took shelter during the blitz. Everything from the map room to the telephone room to Churchill’s bedroom has been preserved just as it was on the day that everyone left the bunker for the last time, 16th August 1945.
Bridge Across the Rhine, Holland
In the space of little more than a week in September 1944, at least 11,000 British soldiers were killed at the bridge across the Rhine in Arnhem and another 6,000 were taken prisoner. The story of Operation Market Garden, an attempt to secure a number of bridges across the Rhine, has since been immortalised in the film ‘A Bridge Too Far’, in which many of the scenes were filmed on location.
Many thousands of Allied troops were forced to retreat to the coast as German troops gained ground across France. Hundreds of ships and small boats were used to evacuate 338,226 men and carry them to safety in Britain across the English Channel. The rescue of so many soldiers from Dunkirk undoubtedly influenced the outcome of the war.
Australia became a nation after the signing of the constitution in 1901 but, when Britain entered WW1, many loyal Australians still chose to help protect ‘the motherland’ by joining the Australian and New Zealand Army Corp, a newly formed volunteer army known as the ANZACs. On 25th April 1915, the ANZACs went into battle for the first time in Gallipoli. At the end of that day, more than 2,000 ANZAC soldiers lay dead, with a great many of them gunned down before they even set foot on the shore. The Gallipoli Campaign ended eight months later with an evacuation from the area and a death toll of over 44,000 Allied troops, including more than 8,500 Australian and 2,700 New Zealand soldiers.
Australian National War Memorial, France
The veterans of Gallipoli were sent to fight in France where they were joined by many more newly enlisted men from Australia. In total, 331,000 Australians enlisted and served in the ANZACs overseas. Of that number, 61,720 were killed in action. The Australian Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux commemorates all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium during WWI.
VC Corner Australian Cemetery and Memorial, France
In July 1916, hundreds of Australian soldiers were killed during two days of fighting in Fromelles, France. The bodies of 410 ANZAC soldiers were discovered three years later when the battlefield was cleared but, as they could not be identified, they were buried together at this site. The memorial commemorates the 1,206 Australian soldiers who died or were recorded as missing in action at Fromelles.
The Hellenic-Australian Memorial Park, Crete
In Rethymno, on the Greek island of Crete, the 17,125 Australian servicemen who helped to defend Greece as part of the British Army in 1941 are commemorated at the Hellenic-Australian Memorial Park. A total of 594 Australian soldiers were killed, 1,001 were wounded and 5,132 became prisoners of war.
Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, Thailand
Thousands of Australian and Allied prisoners of war were put to work building and maintaining the Burma-Thailand railway during WWII. Working conditions were extremely harsh and many of them died there. Visitors to the museum can learn about the hardships faced and walk along a trail that follows the path of the original railway line.
St Sever Cemetery Extension, France
The town of Rouen in France was a hospital centre for Commonwealth servicemen during WWII. Many of those who died in hospital were buried in St Sever together with those who died as prisoners of war. The cemetery extension contains the graves of 789 Australian soldiers who died during WWI and WWII.
Involving about one million American soldiers in France, the battle of Cantigny was to become the first major American battle in WWI and the first of many successes, giving the Allied forces a much needed morale boost. Many American monuments and memorial sites are located in the Cantigny area.
Somme American Cemetery and Memorial, France
Situated near Bony, the Somme American Cemetery contains the graves of 1,884 American soldiers who died in action, including the 199 who died in the battle of Cantigny. Another 333 names are listed on the chapel walls, all of them American soldiers declared missing in action.
American Cemetery, France
The cemetery at Argonne in France is America’s largest war cemetery in Europe, containing 14,246 graves, including those of 486 unknown soldiers. The names of a further 954 soldiers declared missing in action are listed on the chapel walls.
Omaha Beach Museum, France
On 6th June 1944, Allied troops launched the D-Day invasion into Normandy. The Omaha Beach assault, headed by American troops, was the largest of the Normandy landings. An estimated 6,036 American soldiers were killed or wounded that day, and the story of the invasion is told through the exhibits on display in the Omaha Beach Museum located in the town of St Laurent Sur Mer.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, France
The Normandy American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach and contains the graves of 9,387 American soldiers, including the many who died in the Normandy landings. Inside the garden grounds, the names of a further 1,577 soldiers declared missing in action are listed on a semicircular wall.
National WWII Memorial, USA
Located in Washington, DC, the National WWII Memorial commemorates the 16 million who served in the American armed forces and the 400,000 who died during WWII.
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