Centre d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18
(formerly Lens’ 14-18 Museum)
This museum opened its doors as recently as in 2015, so was a year late for marking the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 (when many new exhibitions were opened, on-site as well as elsewhere, e.g. at the IWM
), but it was more or less on time for the anniversaries of the Battle of Notre Dame de Lorette and the First Battle of Arras.
Very little can be found out with regard to how the museum came about except that the building was designed by the established architect Pierre-Louis Faloci and that the exhibition was put together by an international team of academics, from France
Remarkably, the museum in its short period of existence already changed its name. Originally it was called “Lens’ 14-18” with the subtitle “War and Peace History Centre”. When the change of name was made and why, I cannot say.
To confuse matters more you can also find this place referenced as “Memorial 14-18 History Centre” or “Memorial’ 14-18 – Notre-Dame-de-Lorette” – even the official website (“memorial1418.com”) uses the latter designation as well as the official new name “Centre d'Histoire du Mémorial '14-18”. To confuse matters even more still, the website “lens14-18.com” leads to a hotchpotch site that shows a different building but in one section still refers to the museum as “Lens’14-18” but otherwise is mostly an assortment of blog posts about casinos (yes, indeed – including a section about how to deal with gambling addiction!) as well as selected war museums around the world.
What there is to see: The museum building is quite striking and very modern: a cluster of six interconnected rectangular blocks (referred to as “chapels”) all clad in black plates and glass, making for a very stark contrast to the surrounding lands.
All texts are in four languages: French plus English, German and Dutch translations of mostly good quality (as far as I can tell – my French and Dutch are quite limited). You can use an audio guide (for a small fee) but I declined, so cannot say anything about the quality of the narration.
The main exhibition is subdivided mostly chronologically but in places also thematically. The dark design of the exterior continues inside as well, with displays contrasting with black walls, floors and ceilings. The displays, however, are well lit. This includes the main text panels of mostly white text against a black background. An animated screen shows the changes of the Western Front line at different points in time. Artefacts on display are not amassed as in some other WW1 museums (see e.g. Hooge Crater Museum
), but very selective and presented in a very “orderly” fashion. These include provisions, toiletries and other more personal items as well as hand grenades, pistols, mortars, rolls of barbed wire, gas masks, trench coats and boots and, most chillingly, fragments of bones found in trenches or no man’s land. There are also a couple of models, e.g. of a British tank and a of a cut-open dugout.
The main characteristic of the exhibition, however, are the numerous large photographs displayed. Some are almost life-size and convey a good impression of the war scenes depicted. The famous image of soldiers blinded by poison gas walking in single file, all with bandaged heads/eyes and arms on the shoulders of the man in front, is one of the most enduring images here.
Thematically the exhibition begins with the beginning, the German invasion of most of Belgium
and parts of north-eastern France
, the war of movement, the siege of Maubeuge, the flight of civilians from the war zones, the German atrocities against civilians (cf. also In Flanders Fields Museum
) the capture of Lille, and the beginning of trench warfare.
Military changes are well presented too, from the first use of chemical warfare, to tanks and planes, but the principal weapon of this war, and the one that was responsible for the majority of deaths, was artillery. How the war went increasingly underground is another major factor portrayed; that was both defensively, in the form of dugouts and the use of old quarries (see Arras
) for protection from above-ground shelling, as well as offensively in the form of mines exploded in tunnels dug under enemy lines.
Daily life of the soldiers in the trenches is another focus of the exhibition, covering the lack of hygiene, unwholesome provisions, the mud and water, vermin like fleas, lice and rats, new diseases such as the infamous “trench foot”, but also stressing the friendships formed, courage and obedience … the latter sometimes contrasting also with discontent up to open dissent and desertion. The military command’s reaction to that tragically took the form of “shot at dawn” executions in several hundred cases (cf. National Memorial Arboretum
The plight of civilians is emphasized too, especially in the German-occupied territories of France
. One aspect I had no idea of before was how the Germans already back then used POW
s for forced labour, in particular Russians, who in the winter of 1916/17 were sent to construct the so-called Hindenburg line of defences. This can be seen as a clear precursor of what would happen on a much larger scale later in WWII
under the Nazis
. Acts of resistance are highlighted as well, especially the case of the French spy Louise de Bettignies (see Notre Dame de Lorette
). Another individual given special mention here is Wilfred Owen, the fabled British war poet (see Wilfred Owen trail
The final sections are about the return of the war of movement in 1918, the final Hundred Days Offensive that led to Allied victory and the subsequent efforts at reconstruction, remembrance and also archaeology, e.g. of funeral practices during battles (one case highlighted is the discovery in 2001 of a group grave of 20 British soldiers near Arras
), as well as the construction of large war cemeteries after the conflict, alongside the various memorials and monuments.
Finally there is a so-called “Memorial Room”, featuring several computer stations where visitors can search through the files for all the names of ca. 580,000 dead soldiers listed on the Ring of Memory at Notre Dame de Lorette
All in all
, I found this a fairly good exhibition, striking a good balance between manageable amounts of information through text and visual aspects through photos, video footage and a careful, and restrained, selection of original artefacts. The latter is worth emphasizing, since so many older WW1
museums are little more than jumble-room-like amassments of objects with little background and context. This museum is especially strong on context and also on covering aspects many other exhibitions barely mention, such as the civilian side and the treatment of POW
s. So on balance this is a worthy addition to the already wide range of WW1 museums along the Western Front.
at the foot of the hill of Notre Dame de Lorette
at the northern end of Souchez village a good 4 miles (7 km) south-east of Lens and about 8 miles (13 km) north of Arras, in the Artois region of Pas-de-Calais, northern France
. The official address is 102 Rue Pasteur, Chemin de Lens, 62153 Souchez.
Access and costs: relatively easy only if you have your own means of transport; free
Details: To get to the museum you need your own vehicle (or bike), as there doesn’t seem to be any public transport.
Coming from the A26 motorway take exit 6.2 to the north, get on the D301/A21 heading west and immediately get off again at the next exit and take the first exit at the roundabout to get on to the D937 going south (Route de Béthune). The museum is on your left after ca. 3 miles (5 km) directly opposite the access road to Notre Dame de Lorette
. The museum has its own large car park, accessed from the street Chemin de Lens that branches off the D937/Rue Pasteur just south of the museum building. Parking is free.
Opening times: between 1 April and 11 November Wednesdays to Fridays 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 6 p.m., as well as Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 2 to 6 p.m., rest of the year (except January) Wednesdays to Sundays only from 1 to 5 p.m.; closed Mondays and Tuesdays as well as all of January.
Admission free, but a fee of 3 EUR is charged for the use of an audio guide (available in four languages: French, English, German and Dutch).
Time required: minimum about an hour, but if you want to go through all the interactive and audiovisual extras you’ll need longer.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously this museum combines best with the Notre Dame de Lorette National Necropolis
and the new Ring of Memor
y (plus an older private war museum next to the cemetery) – the access road up the hill starts right across the road opposite the museum (Rue Pasteur/D937).
Driving further south on the D937 and then turning left on to the D49 and carrying on along the D55 takes you to the most significant Commonwealth memorial complex of the area, the Canadian Memorial
at Vimy Ridge
Carrying on further south on the D937 instead takes you to Arras
, which is home to the Wellington Quarry
tunnel system and museum.
For more yet further afield see under France
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
See under Vimy Ridge
- Lens 1 - black building
- Lens 2 - quite dark inside too
- Lens 3 - guns and mortars
- Lens 4 - trench coats
- Lens 5 - ceremonial helmet
- Lens 6 - field medicine
- Lens 7 - dug-out model
- Lens 8 - tank model
- lens 9 - a little more light towards the end