The Northern French town of Arras and its surrounding territory of Pays d’Artois not only boasts excellent accessibility from the UK via Eurostar, Eurotunnel or ferry, but also 10 key memorial sites commemorating WW1’s Battle of Arras in 1917. The strong and poignant link between Remembrance and rugby make this year – when neighbouring Lille will host four matches as part of the Rugby World Cup, two of which are England games – a fitting year to visit.
What’s the link between Arras’ Remembrance tourism and rugby?
On 6 March 1918, the New Zealand Tunnelling Company won the rugby tournament of the 4th British division. Since the start of 1918, the company had been in charge of mending and maintain the vast underground network of tunnels in Arras, for use in the case of a German attack. Quickly losing motivation as they worked on the same tunnels, the 4th division’s British officers planned a rugby tournament to boost morale. To players as well as spectators, these moments of fun allowed the men to forget about the war for a while.
The New Zealand Tunnelling Company won each and every game up to the grand finale against a team of gunners, played on the field in Faubourg d’Amiens in Arras.
Three key rugby players who went on to fight in the Battle of Arras
John ‘Jack’ Harrison VC MC was born in Hull in 1890. Joining a star-studded Hull team, he scored a ‘record number of tries in a season’, 52 in 1913-14, a record that still stands today. He was selected to tour Australia in 1914 but the tour was cancelled due to the start of the war, which saw Jack undertake a very different and more deadly tour. During the Battle of Arras in May 1917, the Hull brigade were to attack the German lines at Oppy Wood and Jack’s platoon were heavily involved. Jack fell while throwing a hand grenade in the direction of the machine gun post. His wife was presented with his Victoria Cross by King George V in March 1918.
Captain Thomas Arthur Nelson was born near Edinburgh in 1876 and educated at Edinburgh Academy, where he became a rugby player. He went on to Oxford University where he befriended John Buchan and played for Oxford University RFC, and was capped for Scotland in 1898. John Buchan novel The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated to Thomas. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of Arras while serving as Captain attached to the Machine Gun Corps and is buried in Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery near Arras, grave reference VII.G.26.
William Ramsay Hutchison was a Scottish international rugby union player and was capped for Scotland in 1911, making an appearance at Twickenham in the same year. Eight players of that Scottish team were killed in Arras – in March 1918, the havoc that befell the 59th Division caused chaos, with their forward brigades destroyed by midday. William was killed in action aged 29.
Arras’ top 10 Remembrance sites
1/ The Carrière Wellington (Wellington Tunnels)
Memorial to the Battle of Arras and gateway to Remembrance tourism in Hauts-de-France, the Wellington Tunnels reopened in November 2021 following major renovation. Compelling museography conveys the historical context – Arras in torment, the engagement of the British Empire, the underground war, the commitment of the New Zealand tunnellers – while new technologies enhance the sensory and emotional experience, with video mappings projected directly onto the chalk walls and 3D audio techniques. Visits can be guided or audio-guided and end with a new historical film.
2/ The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)
The CWGC Experience is a unique interpretation centre offering the visitor an insight into the behind-the-scenes work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in nearby Beaurains. This organisation honours the memory of the military service of men and women of the Commonwealth countries who fell in the two World Wars, maintaining their graves and memorials in over 150 countries and territories. The CWGC Experience highlights the work of the organisation’s craftspeople, offering visitors the opportunity to watch them at work in their carpentry, metalwork and mechanical workshops.
3/ The Canadian National Memorial at Vimy
Starting point of the Battle of Arras in 1917 and dominated by the statue of Mother Canada, the National Vimy Commemorative Park honours the Canadian soldiers who lost their lives during WW1. The Battle of Vimy Ridge remains a key page in the history of the young Canadian nation, with 200,000 visitors descending into the reconstructed trenches every year. The monument is printed on today’s Canadian 20-dollar note, surrounded by poppies.
4/ The Ring of Remembrance at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette
Fifteen minutes north of Arras, the Ring of Remembrance is an essential monument on the Great War’s memory trail, shaped as a vast ellipsis engraved with 580,000 fallen soldiers’ names. After the war, France built vast national cemeteries so that visitors could appreciate the scale of the sacrifice that had been made for their nation. In May 1915, French troops established a small cemetery on a plateau near Ablain-Saint-Nazaire where a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Loreto stood before the war.
5/ Bullecourt 1917: The Musée Jean et Denise Letaille
The result of a lifetime spent collecting military objects gleaned from the fields around Bullecourt, the moving Jean & Denise Letaille Museum draws us into the personal stories behind the Battle of Arras. Here, History is made tangible through the personal effects on display, turning into strong emotion when presented alongside the British and Australian soldiers who perished on Artois soil. The golden voice of Jean Letaille himself accompanies the visitor in this emotionally charged place.
6/ Monument des Fraternisations at Neuville-St-Vaast
The ‘Monument to the Fraternisations’ is a central site memorialising the Great War in the Pays d’Artois. Inaugurated in 2015, it owes its existence to the determination of Corporal Louis Barthas, who was involved in fraternisations with the enemy at this very spot in 1915. Bunkered in their respective trenches and exhausted by the cold and fighting, French and German soldiers left the safety of their shelters and fraternised with their adversaries. Thousands of truces were declared at Christmas, when the men sang together and swapped tobacco and drinks: a powerful symbol of humanity.
7/ Maison Blanche, the German War Cemetery at Neuville-St-Vaast
The largest German War Cemetery in France, this is the final resting place for 44,833 German soldiers, of which 8,040 were never identified and buried in a common grave. Most of the soldiers died in the intense fighting in Artois, on Lorette Spur (1914-1915) and Vimy Ridge (1917-1918). The Treaty of Versailles of 1919 provided for the shared maintenance of war cemeteries and so, in 1922, France granted her ‘ex-enemies’ who fell on her soil the right in perpetuity to a grave.
8/ The Faubourg d’Amiens Cemetery and Arras Memorial
Faubourg-d’Amiens already had a military cemetery when the British Army relieved the French at Arras in 1916; however it was later removed and today, only the Commonwealth one remains. In all, 2,650 Commonwealth soldiers and several German prisoners were laid to rest there. At the entrance to the cemetery stands the Arras Memorial which bears the names of the 34,785 British, New Zealand and South African soldiers who fell in the area and whose bodies were never found.
9/ The Point du Jour Cemetery
On the first day of the Battle of Arras, the soldiers of the 9th Scottish Division liberated the village of Athies – and in honour of their sacrifice, this memorial cemetery was built close to the main road connecting Arras with Douai. The memorial is made from blocks of Scottish granite assembled in accordance with Celtic funerary tradition, bearing the names of all the battles fought by the Scottish Division during the Great War. The monument is encircled by 26 stones which represent the units of the division.
10/ The Bourlon Wood Canadian Memorial
This second Canadian war memorial commemorates the actions of the Canadian Corps during the final months of the war, a period also known as Canada’s Hundred Days. Particularly celebrated are the Canadian Corps crossing of the Canal du Nord, their flushing the German forces from Bourlon and Bourlon Wood and the ‘Pursuit to Mons’ through Cambrai, Denain, Valenciennes and into Mons on 11 November 1918. It is situated adjacent to the town of Bourlon, half an hour’s drive south east of Arras.
How can I tour the Remembrance sites of Arras?
Arras-Pays d’Artois Tourism offers visitor experiences linking various memorial sites together. In collaboration with the Lens Liévin Tourist Office, ‘Collines et Plaines d’Artois’ (‘Hills and Plains of Artois’) is an initiative that follows the traces of the Great War, combining history, gentle walks and memorable experiences. The Front Line passed through both territories during the war and 13 of the 36 major sites on the Remembrance Trails lie between Loos-en-Gohelle (to the north of Lens) and Serre-les-Puisieux (to the south of Arras).
Love cycling? In summer 2023, for the second consecutive year, Remembrance bike tours will be organised, allowing visitors to take to two wheels for a day-long guided tour. Along the 35-kilometre route, the guide will tell the stories of these moving sites. A lunch stop at a friendly restaurant offers the chance to sample local produce.
Matches scheduled in Lille as part of the Rugby World Cup 2023
France v Uruguay: Thursday 14 September, 21:00
England v Chile: Saturday 23 September, 17:45
Scotland v Romania: Saturday 30 September, 21:00
England v Samoa: Saturday 7 October, 17:45
Browse the 2023 press kit
Visit the Arras-Pays d’Artois website
+44 (0)20 7061 6635
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