Russell Maclennan-Jones visits the Somme battlefields, and finds a sobering contrast to nearby Paris.

As we continue to mark the World War I centenary, it's the perfect time to visit some of the battlefields and cemeteries to gain an insight into how dreadful the war was and pay our respects to the people unlucky enough to have fought it.

France had the misfortune to play host to huge armies for more than four years and paid a mighty price in blood.

A modern traveller visiting Paris has the chance to see how close the capital was to some of the fighting - and what a strange contrast there must have been between its cosy restaurants (many of which are still open for business) and the bleak fields of conflict.

I went on a day trip to the Somme battlefields, about an hour north of the city, where millions of men fought in a fairly featureless landscape.

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One of the first things you notice is that the villages that dot rural France are rather lacking in charm in this area. That's because all the villages on the battlefield were obliterated, and rebuilt in the 1920s when few people had the energy to create anything but utilitarian farms and houses.

Cemeteries are everywhere.

A big one with a commanding memorial commemorates the Australians who died in the battle, but on a chilly morning with lingering fog I was not able to appreciate its scale and grandeur.

There's a New Zealand memorial as well, but on a smaller scale.

From some of the ruins, it is clear the Germans had the chance to dig in and the Allies tried to break through using massed infantry. All they managed was mass death. The British bore the brunt of the Allied effort. Their memorial at Thiepval has engraved on its walls the names of those men who disappeared on the Somme and have no known grave.
All 75,000 of them.

You can visit villages such as Villers-Bretonneux, near where more than 1200 Australians died. The school there was rebuilt using donations from schoolchildren in Victoria. "Let us never forget Australia", the French children are told.

Online maps can guide you through the battlefields and museums, but it is probably easier to take one of the many tours available from Paris or Britain.

Remnants of trenches are still there, grassed over now, but it is possible to get an idea of what it must have been like to go over the top.

What's missing, of course, is the scream and blast of huge guns. It is almost impossible to imagine these on a peaceful autumn day.

We finished our trip with an hour at the Peronne museum, a fine collection of artefacts, uniforms and weapons that gives an insight into how the war was fought and how soldiers and civilians survived the horrors.

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Getting there

Singapore Airlines

flies from Auckland to Paris, via Singapore, with return Economy Class fares from $1870 for travel in March.