Vignacourt 14-18: A poignant photographic insight into WWI

‘Serendipity’ – the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way. Andrew Morris discovers extraordinary images.

Amiens – Venice of the North

In September last year, some friends who live in France stayed with us. They were singing the praises of Amiens, the Venice of the North, and in particular its 13th century Gothic cathedral, the largest in France and approximately the size of two Notre-Dames in Paris. Zut alors!

In October, Gill and I were exploring the cobbled canal-side streets of this charming city, capital of Picardy’s Somme region. We also enjoyed a visit to Jules Verne’s house and museum, ate some interesting local cuisine and yes, we marvelled at the scale and structure of the famous cathedral.

Amiens canal and cathedral

The Western Front

We had always also wanted to visit some of the World War 1 battlefields and Amiens is the perfect base from which to experience the horrors of the Western Front, just 40km away. Our hotel had a few tourist brochures about ‘The Somme Circuit’, highlighting the famous Lutyens Thiepval memorial, the Lochnagar Crater at La Boisselle and the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont-Hamel, amongst others.

We would go to all these, but something else jumped off the page….

Le Centre d’Interpretation Vignacourt 14-18. ‘During the war, Vignacourt found itself behind enemy lines. Louis and Antoinette Thuillier took photographs of thousands of soldiers during this time. The Interpretation Centre enables you to discover this unique collection’.

Vignacourt 14-18

So on a quiet autumn day in northern France, we drove into this unassuming town and eventually found the entrance to the Vignacourt 14-18 exhibition. Tumbleweed wasn’t quite blowing across the internal courtyard, but nobody else was around and we weren’t even sure if the Centre was open.

Vignacourt 14-18 courtyard

Almost three hours later, we left Vignacourt feeling emotional and privileged. During that time, we were lucky to have the undivided attention of Valérie Vasseur, Director of the Centre and a lifelong resident of the town. Her passion for the remarkable story behind this important photographic collection, so nearly lost forever, shone through every expressive sentence.

Louis and Antoinette Thuillier

Louis and Antoinette ran a farm machinery business from their courtyard. Louis had fought in the early stages of the Great War but had been discharged on medical grounds. The couple owned a glass plate camera, rare at this time, and Louis taught his wife how to use it.

They set up an impromptu photographic studio in the courtyard and over the next few years took more than 4,000 photographs of soldiers and civilians, often using a distinctive backdrop. Vignacourt was used as a logistics centre, as well as a place for R&R, so the town was a busy place. The Thuilliers charged a small fee and would create a postcard from the portrait, which the soldiers could send to loved ones around the world.

Lost and Found

The original glass plates were tucked away though, in three wooden trunks, gathering dust in an attic above the courtyard for nearly a century. They might never have been found, but Ross Coulthart, an Australian journalist, and Peter Burness, an Australian war historian, tracked them down in 2010, with help from local people and remaining members of the Thuillier family.

The Vignacourt 14-18 Interpretive Centre is a very special collaboration between Australia and France. All 4,000 photographs have been digitised, and the quality of the images is remarkable. Wander around the courtyard and inside the Centre to see physical versions of some of the portraits. Faces from different regiments and countries stare at the camera. Most are smiling but look closely and you’ll see the horrors of war in young eyes and faces.

Some of the soldiers have been identified, but it remains an ongoing challenge to identify more.

The Great Escapations film project

The Vignacourt 14-18 story captured my imagination to such an extent that I went back there in December, with my Great Escapations film-making colleague Mark Melling. We interviewed Valérie, and assistant Director Alice, at the Centre; we shot footage of some of the portraits; we trod carefully up to the precarious, dusty attic where the glass plates were tucked away all those years; and we filmed war graves and old trenches at the haunting Beaumont-Hamel site, a key and fatal location on July 1st, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

You can watch our short film here. I hope it captures some of the key elements of this emotional photographic story from World War I, but I also hope it might encourage you to drop by and see the Vignacourt 14-18 story for yourself. And you never know, perhaps one of your own relatives is even in a portrait taken by Louis or Antoinette all those years ago….

‘A place of memory where the little story allows you to have another look at the big story’

How you can get there

We hopped on Eurotunnel le shuttle with the car, crossing from Folkestone to Calais in a mere 35 minutes and costing around £200 return off-season in October and December.

The drive to Amiens from Calais takes 2 hours, with a stop at either Boulogne or Le Touquet a nice lunch option.

In Amiens we stayed at the Hotel Mercure Amiens Cathédrale in October for 135€ per night, and at the Hotel Le Prieuré in December for 95€ per night, both perfectly situated for the Cathedral and within walking distance of all the other attractions in the city.

The distance from Amiens to Vignacourt is around 20 km. It costs just 5€ to visit the Vignacourt 14-18 Interpretive Centre. It’s a further 40-50 km from Vignacourt to the main WWI Somme Front Line sites, including the Thiepval Memorial, the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial and the Lochnagar Crater.

Sadly, there are too many WWI cemeteries to list, but they are all beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

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Andrew Morris

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