Tim Hughes explores the battlefields of northern France

The view from Vimy Ridge must surely rank among the finest in northern France. From sweet-smelling woodlands carpeted in wild flowers, the land falls away steeply, to a patchwork of rolling farmland punctuated by church spires – the pastoral heartland of the Artois.

Things were not always this calm. This peaceful hilltop is one of the most heavily bombarded patches of land on God’s earth. Up here, in April 1917, in a devastated landscape of deep mud, barbed wire and shattered trees, the men of the Canadian Expeditionary Force captured this crucial strategic position from the occupying German Sixth Army.

Under a ‘creeping’ barrage of artillery, the men advanced across the ridge in the face of heavy enemy fire, taking the high ground and holding it.

The battle, the opening phase of the British-led Battle of Arras, was a success, but at a terrible cost. Almost 3,600 people died and 7,000 more were wounded.

Uniting all four Canadian divisions, it has gone down as a symbol of national sacrifice and a founding moment in the country’s identity.

More than 250 acres of the ridge – horribly pock-marked with craters cut through with the remains of trenches and tunnels and harbouring unknown quantities of unexploded ordnance, remain as a national memorial, flying under the Canadian maple leaf flag and topped by a soaring monument: two pillars of white limestone.

Beside it, cemeteries sprawl across the plateau; a forest of graves surrounded by manicured lawns. The number of dead, made tangible in white stone, is sobering, upsetting – choking.

It’s the same story in the valley below at the Cabaret Rouge British Cemetery, in Souchez, where 7,655 stones carry the names and regiments of Commonwealth servicemen. Again, the scale is shocking, yet the details are moving. Collecting a laminated book from the gatehouse, we searched for the resting places of relatives – men of the Yorkshire Regiment, some dressed with flowers and poppy crosses.

Between the named graves are stark reminders of the reality of the carnage of battle – the graves of thousands of unknown warriors – almost half of all graves – stones simply bearing the words ‘A Soldier of the Great War... known unto God’.

On another ridge, overlooking lovely Arras, at Notre Dame de Lorette, is the French National Necropolis. Here fields of simple crosses stretch to the horizon on a hilltop crowned by a sombre, echoing stone basilica.

It’s a chilling place – a sense of national mourning built in stone. Here it is always Remembrance Day – the sense of grief compounded by the fact that these men died on their own soil. Even on a warm early autumn day, the wind blew cold, flapping the 'tricolors' around which old servicemen in starched jackets and armbands, and berets stood, heads bowed. The only sound was that of cawing crows.

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Beside the cemetery are the remains of trenches, not restored nor lined with concrete sandbags like those at Vimy, but muddy and edged with rusty barbed wire. Of course this is a sanitised version: the reality would have been unimaginably worse, but it does, at least, give the smallest sense of what it may have been like a century ago.

Scattered around are the rusty and broken remains of field guns, smaller artillery pieces and piles of shells, which still litter the countryside of the Artois – weapons of death now unearthed by farmers ploughing the fields around sleepy villages.

Other Great War sites tell similarly moving stories – Fromelles, where the bodies of thousands of Australians are still being identified; Armentières where the belfry clock stopped at 11.30 under German bombardment; and the tunnels of Arras are all essential.

Places to pause, think... and to remember.

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Arras: Architectural gem has risen phoenix-like from the rubble of war

For lovers of grand architecture, history and great food and drink, the city of Arras is unmissable.

This capital of the Pas de Calais is a gem of Flemish architecture, which grew rich on the wool trade and was once part of the Spanish Netherlands.

Being on the frontline of the First World War battle which bears its name, it was shattered in fighting between the British and German armies, its cathedral, stunning city hall and landmark belfry destroyed and burned.

It received a further battering in the Second World War.

Its centre, however, bears little trace, rebuilt to the point where you could be forgiven for thinking nothing had happened here since medieval times.

Climb the belfry, listed a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for a view over the restored Grand Place, with its pretty shops and merchant’s houses, and sit in a pavement cafe and drink hot chocolate while basking in its floodlit buildings.

As winter sets in, Arras comes into its own, with fairs and a Christmas market, and its cosy inns offer a respite from the crisp northern French weather (invariably better than ours, still).

To really see Arras though, head underground.

During the First World War, hundreds of metres of medieval tunnels beneath the city were linked and expanded by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company, working in awful conditions. They allowed more than 20,000 allied soldiers to launch the largest surprise attack of the war, in the Battle of Arras – the anniversary of which is commemorated next April. Explore from Wellington Quarry. Details from carriere-wellington.com

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The details

* Get there: Sail Dover-Calais by P&O Ferries. Go to poferries.com

* Go to Pas de Calais Tourisme for information on visiting significant sites in the Artois, along with Arras and the Opal Coast. There is also a great interactive map. uk.pas-de-calais.com

* For information on the Artois and neighbouring attractions, such as the Louvre Lens, go to aroundlouvrelens.com

* For sites in the Nord, with Lille and Dunkirk, go to tourisme-nord.com

* Stay: For Arras, try the Holiday Inn, 3 Rue du Dr Brassart, 6200 Arras. holidayinn.com

For Lille: Hotel Mercure, 27 Rue des Tours, 59800 Lille. Go to mercure.com

* More on travelling in France from Atout France uk.france.fr

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