More background info:
in general see under The Somme
Albert came close to the front line quite early in 1914, and was even briefly reached by the Germans. In January 1915, the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Brebières tower was hit by a German shell, and the golden Virgin Mary statue at the top was left hanging almost horizontally from the top but didn’t break off. A legend amongst the British developed that said that whoever made the statue fall would lose the war. As it turned out that was the Germans. In the Spring Offensive Albert was largely destroyed, including the church tower, in April 1918 (the statue was never recovered).
Albert was completely rebuilt after the war, and the Basilica was faithfully reconstructed according to the original plans, including a new golden Virgin Mary statue at the top of the same design as the original.
The Somme 1916 Museum is located right by the Basilica, or rather partly underneath it, as it is mostly inside a 750 foot (230m) long underground passage, over 30 feet (10m) below the surface. This tunnel was used as an air-raid shelter in WWII
The decision for creating a museum paying tribute to the soldiers of WW1
was made by the municipality in 1991, and its exhibition first opened to the public in July 1992. It was expanded in 2011, and is still being added to and modified today.
What there is to see: Even before you get to the entrance, directly adjacent to the side of the big basilica, there are some open-air exhibits, namely two pieces of field artillery (which probably wouldn’t have fitted into the underground space of the main exhibition), as well as a bronze statue of a soldier. Peeking into the entrance pavilion’s glass front window you can see a diorama of a wounded soldier mannequin recuperating in bed, a woman in a wheelchair and a soldier with a machine gun.
Inside the entrance pavilion at the top of the stairs are a row of further mannequins in a range of uniforms and even a life-size stuffed horse. A giant Union Jack is on the wall and from the ceiling a scale model blimp is suspended on wires.
Then you descend the 62 steps to the underground tunnels that house the main part of the museum. Parts of the exhibition look a bit like a dugout itself, with sandbags lining the walls or wood panelling. The interpretative texts are also on wooden board (in French and English). There is a booth where you can watch a short 3D film, (the prerequisite glasses are available at the entrance ticket desk); otherwise audiovisual elements and touchscreens are absent in this rather old-school exhibition.
Numerous display cases contain amassed artefacts such as handguns, rifles, shells, name tags, medals, bottles, hand grenades, tinned food items, helmets, gas masks and so on. The labelling is rather rudimentary. The approach here is more that of letting the displays speak for themselves.
This is particularly true for the fifteen “alcoves” off the main tunnel which are life-size dioramas peopled by soldier mannequins. These are really what sets this museum apart and I would regard them as the highlight and main reason for coming here. Scenes depicted include soldiers in trenches before going “over the top”, trenches in winter (drenched in bluish light), inside a dugout, German soldiers gambling, entertainment off the front line, a field kitchen, and the most gruesome of all: a field hospital where a hand amputation is under way. The attention to detail includes two little bugs in a bloodied medical tray (a ‘kidney dish’), illustrating the less than perfect sanitary conditions in these underground operating theatres.
One of the alcoves contains raw, rusty battlefield debris
as it would have been found, before being cleaned and prepared for display. This also comes with a warning sign that such items, when happened upon today in the lands of the Somme, can still be dangerous, especially of course unexploded ordnance (UXO – cf. Vimy
!). So you are not to touch them, but note the location and inform the relevant authorities or police.
Towards the end of the circuit through the museum comes a separate exhibition, added in 2011, that is about a set of individual “heroes” whose stories are retold (and here some flat screens and audio stations do actually feature). These individuals include artist soldiers such as German painter Max Pechstein, English composer George Butterworth and John McCrae, the Canadian medical officer and war poet who penned the famous “In Flanders Fields” (see Ypres).
You resurface at the exit, which is at the end of the tunnels, so in a different location to the entrance, namely in a public park and arboretum, where there are also a couple of soldier statues.
It is also here that you can find the museum’s large shop
. This sells not only the usual souvenirs such as coffee mugs with poppy prints, postcards, brochures, books and so on, but also real war relics, such as authentic soldiers’ helmets. Such items do not come cheap though. The price tag on one Ulster regiment soldier’s helmet stated 695€! Also on sale are various items of trench art in the form of spent brass shells, polished and with various more or less arty engravings. These cost around 40€. My wife and I bought one with a deer on it that we found endearing (sorry for the pun). It’s now on our living-room window sill and can be used as a vase. But that was the only WW1
souvenir we bought on the entire trip through the Ypres Salient
, The Somme
and environs, and Verdun
Outside the museum shop is a sign that shows you the way back to the entrance (in case that’s where you parked). Just outside the park exit take note of the large wall mural that depicts three soldiers and the smoke-engulfed Basilica tower with the Virgin Mary statue at the top hanging sideways at over 90 degrees. In the background you can see the rebuilt real church tower with the new, upright, golden Virgin Mary statue at the top (see above
All in all
, the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert can be recommended especially because of those really well-made life-size diorama alcoves. The rest is a bit cruder and generally rather old-school, but the items are well presented so that it doesn’t feel quite so jumble-room-like as it can in some other, private WW1 museums (such as at Sanctuary Wood / Hill 62
in the centre of Albert, northern France
, right next to the large Basilica Notre-Dame de Brebières, on Rue Anicet Godin.
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: relatively easy to get to, not really cheap, but not too pricey either.
Details: One of the few places in the Somme region that can easily be accessed without the need of having one’s own means of transport. From within Albert, if you’re staying there and using it as the base for your explorations, it’s even walkable. From the train station (with regional TER train connections, e.g. to Amiens) it is also just a short, five-minute walk down Avenue Georges Clemenceau and straight on via Rue Gambetta and Place d’Armes in front of the large Basilica. Turn left just behind the Basilica, i.e. on its eastern side, and a few steps onwards is the entrance to the museum.
If coming by car the main issue is finding a parking space – if you’re lucky you can find street-side parking right by the entrance, if not there are more spaces in front of the cathedral or by the train station. Make a good mental note of where you’re parked, especially since the exit of the museum is in a different location, inside a public park some 250m away from the entrance. Leave the park in a northbound direction, cross the road and Rue de Bordeaux will take you back to the Basilica.
For accommodation, if you want to make Albert your base (alternatively see e.g. Auchonvillers
), the town offers a small range of hotels (some chain hotels and a couple of independent ones) as well as self-catering options, and also various eateries.
Opening times: daily at least from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (can also be 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), last admission half an hour before closing; closed altogether from mid-December to end of January.
Admission: 7.50 EUR (children (aged 6 to 18) 4.50 EUR, people with disabilities and veterans 6.50 EUR). Glasses for watching the 3D film cost 0.50 EUR.
Given the 62 steps to get down to the underground passage (and the absence of lifts), this museum is not suitable for wheelchair users.
Time required: about 45 minutes.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
See under The Somme
. Albert is well located to make a good base for exploring the whole region.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Albert has some (reconstructed) pretty enough architecture, including not only the Basilica but also the city hall and the train station, and the park around the museum exit is quite pleasant too (and includes some pens for pigs and poultry), but otherwise Albert doesn’t have so much to offer in terms of mainstream tourism. As in Ypres
, the focus here is pretty firmly on WW1
- Albert 01 - museum entrance
- Albert 02 - by the church
- Albert 03 - displays by the stairs down
- Albert 04 - the museum is mostly underground
- Albert 05 - in long tunnels
- Albert 06 - hand guns in a display cabinet
- Albert 07 - various hand grenades
- Albert 08 - helmets
- Albert 09 - gas masks
- Albert 10 - shells
- Albert 11 - shells made into decorative items
- Albert 12 - tunnel with booths containing life-size displays
- Albert 13 - in the trenches
- Albert 14 - in a dug-out
- Albert 15 - under gas attack
- Albert 16 - grinning gambling Germans
- Albert 17 - trench life in winter
- Albert 18 - amputation
- Albert 19 - not under clinically clean conditions
- Albert 20 - carrier pigeon
- Albert 21 - medals
- Albert 22 - off-front-line entertainment
- Albert 23 - more trench-like tunnels
- Albert 24 - rusty raw war relics
- Albert 25 - additional exhibition about selected individuals
- Albert 26 - museum shop
- Albert 27 - shop and exit
- Albert 28 - soldier statue in the park
- Albert 29 - in the town centre