Canal holidays in France have long been popular with those seeking to explore this rich country at a more leisurely pace. As you float by gently rolling fields and quiet villages, it’s easy to forget that this country saw enormous violence and strife during the last century. |
The story behind France’s idyllic countryside is one of the reasons why history-themed canal holidays in France have become so popular. Given the recent one hundred-year anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, interest in wartime history is stronger than ever. And the manmade waterways of France provide the perfect path through the past.
The Canal du Nord is one such cruise destination. Stretching 60 miles through the northeast corner of France, it has seen some of the most dramatic moments of World War One.
The Canal du Nord was originally built to help French coal-mining companies transport coal more quickly and efficiently, in order to compete with English and French companies. Construction work began in 1908, but was forced to a halt by the outbreak of World War One.
The war caused serious damage to the structure, and the waterway was not fully finished until the 1960s. Now a popular waterway for canal holidays in France, it is hard to believe that the Canal du Nord was once an active battlefield.
The unfinished, dry canal proved to be of enormous strategic importance during the First World War. Running from Pont-l'Évêque to Arleux, it was positioned very near to the border with what was then German-occupied Belgium.
In the era of trench warfare, when troops hunkered down behind field works for shelter from enemy fire, the waterway bed served as a massive, 180-foot wide front, marking off the border between the German and British armies.
Bridging the Gap
When the Battle of Canal du Nord broke out in the autumn of 1918, the British offensive needed a way to bring supplies and reinforcements over the canal bed. The New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company, a unit of military engineers, was tasked with bridging the gap.
As the battle raged on, the engineers worked from dawn to dusk over a week to build the iron skeleton of the bridge on the west side of the gap. Meanwhile, on the east side, two wooden towers were constructed to pull the bridge over the passage and into place.
The successful installation of the bridge was one of the First World War’s most amazing feats. Building a bridge in a week is a tall order in any situation, let alone during battle. Thanks to the military engineers, the British offensive was able to make the crossing and push back the German defenders.
Exploring the Canal Today
Today, you can still see tangible evidence of the Battle of Canal du Nord. The bridge built by the New Zealand Engineers still spans the waterway, just outside the town of Havrincourt. Many WWI itineraries for canal holidays in France will pass under this bridge, now a (slightly rusty) tribute to amazing feats of military engineering.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury canal holidays in France and a range of other cruises in Europe. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.
Related Articles -
Canal, holidays, in, France,