A photo of a British trench. One soldier is peeking over the edge. The trench conditions look grim and dirty

Important Historical World War I Sites and Monuments You Should Visit

Soldiers sitting and standing in a trench before battle. The photo highlights the muddy and overall horrible living conditions of the trench in World War I.
British soldiers awaiting combat in their trench. Source: History.com

World War I was one of the most devastating and cruel wars in human history. Over nine million soldiers perished, along with more than seven million civilians dead. Millions more were wounded, either by bullets, shrapnel, or mustard gas. The survivors suffered from PTSD, known at the time as shell shock. The ferocious combat also forever scarred the battlefields; farmers in Belgium and France continue to unearth unexploded artillery shells. With so much death and devastation, countless monuments remembering the dead have been created. Some former battlefields have been transformed into museums or heritage sites. This article will list some of the World War I sites or monuments you should visit if you want to fully understand the legacy of the terrible conflict. First, this article will give a brief overview of World War I.

Historical Context

World War I lasted from 1914 until 1918, and it spanned the entire globe. Soldiers fought in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and on the open seas in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The war began when Gavrillo Princip assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This assassination set off a chain reaction of events among the European countries. Bound by various treaties, each country chose a side and declared war on their enemy. The main combatants of World War I were the Allied Powers (chiefly France, Britain, Russia, and America) against the Central Powers (principally Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

Soldiers preparing to go over the top and attack enemy positions. Some soldiers are already out of the trench, while others are waiting their turn.
Soldiers going over the top into no-mans-land. Source: History.com

The Trenches

Arguably, World War I is most famous for trench warfare. In this style of combat, both sides dug deep trenches into the battlefield. Soldiers lived and fought in the trenches. Living conditions were miserable. The trenches were infested with rats, which brought lice and other diseases with them. In addition, the trenches were usually damp, cold, and muddy. If that wasn’t bad enough, soldiers lived in constant fear of artillery bombardment or enemy assaults.

But the most dreaded order was for the soldiers to “go over the top” and attack the enemy trench. To do this, they would have to travel through no-mans-land: the area between two enemy trenches. The area was riddled with shell holes, barbed wire, and dead bodies. As the soldiers reached the enemy trench, heavy machine gun fire greeted them, killing or wounding many men. Trench attacks achieved very little; attacking soldiers only captured a small amount of ground. Often times, attacking soldiers were forced to give up their newly gained territory. Very soon these futile and bloody assaults turned the war into a static one. Up until 1918, soldiers huddled in their trenches, waiting to meet their fate in No Man’s Land. To many men, going over the served as their death notice. 

New Weapons

World War I introduced new weapons that greatly increased bloodshed. As mentioned above, new machine gun models and precision artillery killed on an unprecedented scale. Hand held explosives such as grenades added a new element to the soldier’s arsenal. World War I also introduced the tank to modern warfare. Generals on both sides intended to use tanks as a way to break the stalemate of trench warfare. These massive hulks of machinery left many soldiers frozen with terror. But the most terrifying invention was mustard gas.

A line of blinded soldiers holding on to each other to guide them. These soldiers had been blinded by poisonous gas. Bandages cover their eyes.
Soldiers blinded by poisonous gas are guided by hand to an aid station. Source: Wikipedia

Mustard gas is essentially liquid chlorine gas. The weapon got its name from the green-yellow cloud it travelled in. Mustard gas was first used by the Germans at the Second Battle of Ypres. The effects were devastating. The gas burned skin, lungs, and blinded many. Those who survived either had severe burns on their skin or respiratory problems in their lungs. Using poisonous gas broke international law, deemed by some as a war crime. The 1899 Haque Convention banned the use of gas to poison soldiers. However, every nation ignored this and used the deadly connection in World War I.

Armistice 

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 1918, World War I came to an end. A battered and starving Germany signed an armistice with Allied Forces. Suddenly, the war was over and millions of soldiers could go home. However, more death would follow. The 1918 Spanish Flu emerged during the war’s last months and went on to kill between 20 and 50 million people. The pandemic eventually ended in 1920. 

In 1919, a series of peace treaties officially ended the war. They are known as the Versaille Treaty, signed by Germany and the Allies. The Treaty of Versaille is controversial because of the demands imposed on Germany. Among the demands included: Germany accepting sole responsibility for starting the war, the disarmament of German forces, and payment of war reparations. These demands combined to cripple Germany economically as well as humiliate German society. The shame of the Versaille Treaty embittered many Germans. Later, Adolf Hitler would exploit this bitterness as he and the Nazis rose to power. A whole new generation of German children were raised to loathe the Versaille Treaty. Hitler stoked the flames of revenge; Germany had to avenge the disgrace of the Versailles Treaty.

A painting of the signing of the Versaille Treaty. The painting is set in the hall of mirrors. Several world leaders are featured in the painting, such as U.S. president Woodrow Wilson.
A contemporary painting of the Versailles Treaty. Source: History.comWWo

World War I Repercussions

World War I had many repercussions which were felt worldwide. Firstly, the war ended several great empires, like the Austro-Hungarian, German, and Ottoman Empires. In Russia, the monarchy of Nicholas II was overthrown by a communist revolution led by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Only the British Empire survived the War unscathed. 

The globe enjoyed two decades of peace until World War II erupted. No one wanted war again; the nightmares of the recent conflict were fresh in peoples’ memories. However, Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany once again brought war to the world. What was thought to be the “war to end all wars” did not live up to its name.

Important Monuments and Sites

Now that we’ve taken a brief look at the history of World War I, let’s examine some of the monuments and sites that commemorate the war and its victims. While France and Belgium arguably contain the most World War I sites and monuments, the following list attempts to cover places all over the world. Regardeless of origin, here are some World War I sites and monuments you should visit.

Canadian National Vimy Memorial: France

A crowd of visitors qued beside the Canadian National Vimy Memorial
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial. Source: Macleans.ca

This memorial stands at the site of the most significant battle fought by Canadian forces: the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Fought from April 9-12, 1917, Canadian forces were tasked with capturing the ridge that overlooked Allied lines. The area was heavily fortified by the German soldiers. The Canadians would be assaulting the ridge over open country; they would be easy targets for German artillery and machine guns. The fighting was gruesome, with over 10,000 Canadians killed or wounded. However, the Canadians proved their worth, capturing the ridge on April 12. The victory was an important one for Canada. It demonstrated that the Canadians could fight on their own, without the help of the British or French.

The large marble white sculpture was erected in 1936. The sculpture is inscribed with the names of the 11,285 Canadians killed during the entire war, not just at Vimy Ridge. These fallen soldiers have no known graves. The monument survived World War II and continues to be a poignant reminder to the fallen Canadian soldiers. The sculpture also serves as a testament to all those that perished in the great war.

The Latin Bridge: Sarajevo, Bosnia

A shot of the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The photo shows people crossing over the bridge from both sides.
The Latin Bridge marks the inciting incident of World War I. Source: Viator

The Latin Bridge is located where Gavrillo Princip fired his fateful shots at Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. The significance of this site is substantial: it is here where the igniting event of World War I occurred. During the 1990s, Balkan rivalries once again emerged, threatening the Latin Bridge. The structure survived a 1,425 day siege that left thousands of Sarajevo citizens dead. Nowadays, tourists from around the world gather to cross the bridge or visit the museum located near the site. The museum marks the spot where Princip killed the Archduke.

For those who want to learn more about World War I’s inciting event, the Latin Bridge in Sarajevo is the perfect spot.

Przemsyl: Poland

A contemporary photo of Przemsyl. The photo shows the ruins of the fortress town after the siege was lifted.
The aftermath of the Przemsyl siege in 1915. Source: Military History Matters.

People tend to mention the fighting on the Western Front (trench warfare in France and Belgium) when discussing World War I. However, World War I also had an Eastern front. On that front, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire fought the forces of the Russian Empire and their allies. The fighting on the Eastern Front was equally brutal, with millions on both sides being killed or wounded.

At the time, Przemsyl was an Austo-Hungarian fortress town lying on the border with the Russian Empire. In September of 1914, Russian forces moved in and sieged the city. This led to the longest siege of the entire war at six months. Eventually, Austro-Hungarian defences crumbled, and the Russians captured the city. During the siege, citizens lived through starvation and disease. Accounts from found diaries also reveal racial tensions boiling over, mostly towards Jewish people. When the Russians entered the town, Cossack soldiers whipped and beat Jewish people, forcing many into hiding.

The City Today

The city has now been transformed. Visitors can stroll through the remnants of the fortifications which stretch across the entire city all the way to the Ukranian border. There are also four cemeteries that provide the final resting place for Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Finally, the statue of The Good Soldier Svejk stands in the city’s main square. Svejk is a character in the anti-war novel The Good Soldier Svejk by writer Jaroslav Hasek. Svejk symbolizes the ordinary soldier, unwillingly dragged into fighting for his empire.

Prezmsyl offers a fascinating insight into what the fighting looked like on the often neglected Eastern Front of World War I.

Langemark German Cemetery: Belgium

A shot of the three crosses at Langemark German Cemetery in Belgium
Some of the graves at Langemark German Cemetery. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Across Belgium lie many cemeteries containing the remains of fallen soldiers. Visiting one of these cemeteries is a moving experience for veterans and tourists alike. This is true for the Langemark German Cemetery. Located at this cemetery are the remains of 44,000 German soldiers who perished during the First Battle of Ypres in 1914. The soldiers were inexperienced volunteers, some of whom were high-school or university students. These fresh-faced volunteers were mowed down by Allied machine guns as they attacked the enemy positions.

Taking a stroll among the graves is a sombre experience. The stone crosses serve as a reminder of the horrors of war. It also demonstrates how World War I killed an entire generation of young men from all over the world.

Farnbourough Airport: England

Aerial combat truly came into its own in World War I. At first, airplanes were used to observe enemy positions, take intelligence photos, or bomb enemy trenches. However, most plans had flimsy designs. They were not intended for ariel combat. As the war progressed, new and better fighter planes emerged. These new planes had sturdier designs along with new weapons, such as forward firing machine guns. A new type of combat soon emerged: the dogfight. In a dogfight, two enemy planes duelled each other with the intention of shooting the other fighter down. By 1915, French skies were filled with swirling fighter planes.

A replica French World War I biplane in flight at the Farnboruough Airport Airhsow.
Replica World War I planes are featured at the Farnboruough Airport airshow. Source: Flickr

Five or more kills made a pilot an ace. These pilots became celebrities in their home countries. The most famous of these was Manfred von Richtoffen of Germany. von Richthofen garnered the nickname the Red Baron for his noble Prussian heritage and bright red fighter plane.

From July 18-20, Farnbourough Airport in the United Kingdom, holds the Fairbourough Airshow. The show features World War I replica planes reenacting dogfights between German and British forces. For any lover of World War I aerial combat, attending the Farnbourough Airshow is a must.

Claire de l’Armistice: Theodes, France

As its name suggests, this site is where Germany surrendered to the Allies. The site is a clearing in the Compeigne Forest just north of Paris. French commander and Commander of Allied Forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, chose this area as the place for Germany’s surrender. German Generals travelled to the forest and signed the armistice in Foch’s private railway car.

The grounds at the Claire de l'Armistice in France. The area is massive square surrounded by trees.
Claire de l’Armistice was the sight of Germany’s surrender to the Allies. Source: Wikipedia

After the war, the French government transported the carriage from the clearing to a museum. However, the carriage returned to the clearing in 1940. It was in this year that Adolf Hitler conquered France in World War II. Hitler wanted to recreate the armistice signing, down to the smallest detail. Except this time with Germany victorious. Hitler had other French World War I monuments stored away or destroyed. After Nazi Germany was defeated, the lost French monuments were either returned or restored. The monuments were later returned to the clearing.

Today, the clearing holds an important purpose. It is a place where visitors can reflect on the two most devastating wars of the 20th century.

Conclusion

A field of bright red poppy flowers outside a French World War I monument
The red poppy flower of Belgium has come to symbolize World War I. Source: Smithsonian Magazine.

From 1914-1918, World War One devastated the world. France, Britain, Russia, and the United States fought Germany, Austro-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire on battlefields around the globe. In this carnage, nine to eleven million soldiers died. Many more were wounded. Civilian deaths were also high: approximately six to thirteen million people perished. The war introduced new methods of killing and maiming. These included tanks, fighter planes, grenades, and poisonous gas. World War I also brought forth trench warfare, a horrifying form of combat which killed or wounded millions of men.

With so much death and devastation, sites and monuments were created to remember the fallen men. As this article demonstrates, sites and monuments come from many different countries. Some are giant sculptures, others are entire towns. Whatever the case may be, the sites and monuments listed above serve as a constant reminder of the horrors and tragedy of all wars, not just the First World War. Hopefully, this article inspires you to visit some of the places listed.

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