Visit major World War I battlefields in France and Belgium before next year’s centenary crowds you out

French and Commonweath graves at the Thiepval Memorial

AUGUST 2014 MARKS the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what came to be known as the “war to end all wars”—a reference that is now used ironically, because the devastation was soon overshadowed by the near-Armageddon of World War II.

When the first war ended, some nine million combatants were dead, and in the parts of eastern France and western Belgium that made up the Western Front it can seem like every road leads to a cemetery. But it is also a beautiful region, with gently flowing rivers, picturesque villages and noble Gothic cathedrals.

The areas where some of the most famous fighting took place—Verdun and Somme in France and Ieper (also known as Ypres) over the Belgian border—can easily be toured by car over a week, with side excursions to Champagne houses in Épernay and cathedrals at Amiens and Reims. Starting next year, big commemorations will be held, perhaps for the last time. Go soon to avoid crowds, or at least start planning—many hotels in the Somme are already booked for July 2016, the anniversary of the Somme offensive.

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