Remembrance, revelry on the Western Front
By Felicity Long
This year marks the official centennial of the U.S. entry into World War I, the gru- eling four-year battle that gained so little and cost so
many millions of lives.
During a recent tour of France’s Western
Front, I was able to relive — at least a little
— the horrors of the trench warfare, hear
the fallen soldiers’ stories and learn about
the combination of disastrous mistakes and
unselfish bravery that characterized the war.
It’s important to note that a Western
Front tour, which in our case encompassed
the important battle sights of Verdun and
Somme, is not for history buffs alone. Our
itinerary also included Champagne, Reims
and Amiens, for example, charming cities
that are also known for beautiful architecture, world-class tipple and stunning art.
Our tour began in Meuse, which we
reached from Paris via France Rail in under two hours after an overnight flight
on Air France. On our way to the Chateau des Monthairons ( www.chateaudes
monthairons.fr/com), where we spent our
first night, we drove along the Voie Sacree,
or Sacred Route, that was used to transport
troops and supplies during the war.
To get a sense of the staggering numbers
of casualties in the famous battle of Verdun,
we visited the Verdun battlefield Ossuary,
which contains the bones of 130,000 unknown soldiers and offers a 20-minute documentary about the battle every half-hour.
The recently expanded Verdun Memorial nearby features 2,000 artifacts as well
as photos and interactive displays that re-create some of the noisy, claustrophobic
conditions of the battle.
Because World War I represented a different kind of warfare, relying predominantly on artillery, the French army learned
quickly that traditional methods of defense
were no longer effective. The fall of Fort
Douaumont ( www.verdun-meuse.fr) to
the Germans on day three of the Battle of
Verdun was a game changer, and today’s
visitors can explore the fort, its observation
terrace and gun turrets, which now overlook a serene countryside.
As with all wars, soldiers were not the
only victims in this region. There are nine
so-called Destroyed Villages in the region — Beaumont, Bezonvaux, Cumieres,
Douaumont, Fleury, Haumont, Louvemont,
Ornes and Vaux — that were never rebuilt.
Our guides told us that the casualties were
so heavy that the land was too contaminated to be used for farming after the war.
One of the most evocative sites of our
visit was the underground Citadel (www
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. citadelle-souterraine-verdun.fr) in Verdun,
a former logistical center, where we boarded a tiny train to traverse the dark, chilly
galleries that use audiovisuals and anima-tronics to offer a glimpse into the frightening daily lives of the French soldiers.
While in Verdun, it would be a shame to
miss some of the more cheerful attractions
of the city, which include shopping for
dragees (candied almonds that date from
the 13th century) and admiring the Notre
Dame cathedral in all its Baroque glory.
We overnighted at Les Jardins du Mess
( www.lesjardinsdumess.fr) on the Quai de
la Republique, whose location was perfect
for enjoying an alfresco sunset cocktail or
shopping in one-of-a-kind boutiques.
We also took in the American Monument at Montfaucon d’Argonne (www
. abmc.gov), which offers a viewing platform of the former battlefields and the
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery,
which features a new interpretation center
and is the largest cemetery of American
soldiers in Europe. Both sites are cared for
by the American Battle Monuments Commission, a U.S. government agency.
Boats along the Meuse
River in Verdun, France.