The First World War was fought on both sides of the River Somme and today one of the best ways to slowly explore the former battlefields is by boat.
Short cruises can vary from a few hours with meals on board to extended overnight stays, and the choice of vessel includes electric or canal boat, barge or houseboat – either self-guided or hosted.
The average cruising speed along the river is 6km per hour, the perfect pace for taking in the military sites and pre-war cultural heritage of the river—such as the floating gardens of the Hortillonnages and the refurbished lock keeper’s house at Lamotte-Brebière.
The River Somme was canalised from 1770-1843 to provide an outlet from Saint-Quentin to the English Channel. It passes through lakes, marshes, and gravel pits and is ideal for pleasure cruising.
Former lock keeper on the Canal de la Somme, Marcel Cointe, says a Somme boat trip is ‘the perfect remedy for stress’.
“When customers return they’re all amazed and say much the same thing, as they land: ‘I have no idea how long I’ve been out on the water.’”
The relaxing atmosphere and abundant wildlife are in contrast to the war scenario of a century ago. The vast tidal area of Saint-Valery features vibrant bird reserves and seals in the bay.
Onshore, the scenic views include beautiful cathedrals and majestic castles.
Many operators offer transfers to and from public transport and they can arrange visits to the battlefields, war cemeteries and memorials closely connected to the river and canals.
Here is a sample itinerary of a Canal de la Somme cruise:
Day 1: Arrive in Amiens and take in the sights, including Notre-Dame Cathedral, the Hortillonnages, and author Jules Verne’s house. Dine in a restaurant and visit the cathedral illuminated at night.
Day 2: Leave Amiens and enjoy two hours’ cruising to Lamotte-Brebière. Go walking or cycling. Lunch and dinner on board.
Day 3: Cruise to Corbie (two hours) and visit Villers-Bretonneux – the location of the Sir John Monash Centre, the Australian National Memorial, and the Franco-Australien Museum in the Victoria School. Options from the boat are walking, cycling or taxi.
Day 4: Cruise to Froissy (4½ hours) and pass the château in Méricourt. After lunch, take in the narrow-gauge train museum and perhaps ride the Little Train of the Upper Somme which offers panoramic views. The line was built in 1916 to transport soldiers to and from the front line. Afterwards, a short taxi ride to the town of Albert allows a visit to more First World War sites, including the Leaning Virgin (as dubbed by soldiers during the war) and the former underground hospital, now known as Albert, 1916 Museum. Dinner in a restaurant.
Day 5: Walk from Froissy to the small village of Bray-sur-Somme where German flying ace, the Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen), was shot down by Allied ground troops in 1918. Cruise on to Eclusier-Vaux (1½ hours) and stop for lunch in the village of Suzanne. From the Châlet Belvédère, take in breathtaking views of the entire Somme Valley and its lakes.
Day 6: Three hours’ cruising to Péronne and the cruise leaves the winding Canal de la Somme and enters the large Canal du Nord, scene of an Allied offensive in late 1918, but now busy with commercial traffic. Péronne is known for its ancient ramparts and amazing war museum, Historial.
Day 7: Depart by taxi for the train station at Haute-Picardie.