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Picardy: From war zone to peaceful paradise

A region of contrasts

Picardy, lying north of Paris and encompassing the placid rolling plains of Champagne and the bleakly beautiful marshes on the English Channel or La Manche, is a region all too unfamiliar to many Brits.

This is not because it is these days part of the new Hauts-de-France region, part of the geo-political shake-up of 2016. No, it’s mainly because the temptation for most Brits is to disembark from a cross-Channel ferry and, in the overwhelming desire to reach our holiday destination further south, we speed south or west without pausing to get to know this wonderful region.

The peaceful present 

The Picardy landscape is one of gently rolling fields with pockets of woodland and dotted with little villages and historic market towns. In vast stretches it seems there are precious few trees, certainly not of any great size, and this emphasises the feeling of wide open spaces, big skies and distant horizons.

Picardy is comprised of three départements: the Oise, the Aisne and the Somme, each with its own character. All three are sprinkled with characterful old towns which have somehow retained much of their original charm and architecture, despite some bearing the brunt of German bombardment in 1914-1918.

Picardy was the birthplace of Gothic architecture – Amiens cathedral, the largest in Europe, is a supreme example. It could swallow up the Notre Dame de Paris twice over and is visible from afar across the endless fields.

Over on the coast, the Baie de Somme is a starkly beautiful wetland at the mouth of the Somme and is officially designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible natural splendour and importance to wildlife as a sensitive habitat. The Parc du Marquenterre, to the north, is spectacular and the tourist steam train, the Somme Bay Railway, that runs along the coast is ideal for exploring the region’s spectacular bays. 

The war-torn past 

For all the tranquillity of today’s landscapes, Picardy has a long and bloody history of war and bloodshed. And it’s not just the Great War of 1914-1918 for which it is renowned. As long ago as 1346 the battle of Crécy was fought here and the region has always seemed to be in a pivotal strategic position within western Europe.

For the visitor today, the quietness and sense of peace belie the horrors of the Great War. Countless cemeteries and monuments big and small are constant reminders of the war-torn history of this region and the silence often only serves to highlight the incessant sounds of war only a century ago.

For all the natural bucolic beauty there are countless names of battles and places of conflict that seem to scar the landscape. Places like Neuve-Chapelle, Hill 60, Arras, Cambrai, Le Cateau, St Quentin, Delville Wood, Thiepval, Albert, Vimy.

But there are countless small cemeteries where men were buried more or less where they fell. Regardless of size, these cemeteries are every bit as immaculate and dignified as their more illustrious and better known larger counterparts. Somehow, on a smaller scale, the pristine white headstones and beautifully tended grounds of a small corner of some foreign field are even more poignant than the industrial-scale cemeteries. 

Find out more about the Battle of the Somme: 141 days of horror.

By Geoffrey Malins - This is photograph Q 70168 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 6409-05), Public Domain

Explore this little known and under-rated region