A Few Days In

History Is Alive at the World War I Sites in Northeast France

by Liza Foreman
Meuse-Argonne The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Photo courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission.

We're one year away from the hundred-year anniversary of the end of World War I, but commemorative celebrations are already underway. British journalist Liza Foreman steps back in time to tour the historic battle sites in northeast France.

MEUSE, France – It's not every day that you get to spend three days in the trenches of World War I. So when I was invited to spend Veterans Day weekend this past November exploring the key historic sites and learn about American participation in the Great War in the Meuse and Lorraine regions, I readily accepted.

The highlight of the trip was to be the first candle-lighting ceremony on November 11 at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, where more than 14,000 American soldiers are buried, victims of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the biggest in US military history, lasting 47 days until Armistice Day in 1918.

I was also curious about these northeast French regions – the fabled cuisine, the cultural attractions, the pools (I like to swim every day, even when traveling). Because while I have spent a lot of time in France, I had never been to either region, even though they are both just over an hour from Paris by train.

The view of the river Meuse from Les Jardins du Mess hotel. Photo by Christel Rigolot.

From London to Metz

It took just over four hours from London (by Eurostar) and Paris (by TGV) to reach Metz, the capital of Lorraine, where our journey into history began. The neo-Romanesque train station, one of the most beautiful in France, was designed by the German architect Jürgen Kröger in the early 20th century, when the city was annexed by Otto von Bismark. (Metz remained under German control until the end of WWI.) The city is so rich in architecture and history that it is on track to be named to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Our introduction to the wealth of attractions both old and new was the nearby Centre Pompidou-Metz, designed by the Franco-Japanese team of architects Jean de Gastines and Shigeru Ban. This may explain why the featured exhibition was “Japan-ness. Architecture and Urbanism in Japan since 1945,” a showcase of urban proposals and contemporary design from top Japanese architects, many of whom traveled to Metz to give talks during the run.

From there, we marveled at the beautiful stained glass windows created by Marc Chagall at the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Stephen of Metz, one of the tallest in France. An organ player entertained the smattering of tourists with music that plunged through the vast interiors. We wandered along the old city walls and cobbled streets, passing antiques shops and a covered market selling local produce.

We spent the night in Verdun at Les Jardins du Mess, a newly renovated hotel with vast suites overlooking a canal. The tub in my room was so large I almost opted out of swimming at the nearby Aquadrome Verdun, but the the architecture enticed me: The vast pool complex is housed in a vast modern glass structure built onto an old façade that serves as the entrance hall.

After a sumptuous breakfast buffet, the morning got off to a sweet start at the legendary Braquier sugared almond factory. We inspected the machines used to make the sweets, saw now-defunct tools in the on-site museum, and got our fill of assorted almonds in the shop before we took a more serious turn into the battlefields.

From Meuse Tourism, a video of World War I sites.

Into the Battlefields

It was, appropriately enough, rainy and muddy when we arrived at Butte de Vauquois, a forlorn patch of countryside that was once home to a village that was razed during the war. After inspecting a monument to fallen French soldiers, we went underground to visit a trench that contained photographs of the French or German men who had braved these airless interiors for the battles of the Western Front. Some of the trenches were as deep as 90 meters.

We were not the only ones heading to Romagne ‘14-‘18, the restaurant attached to the museum of the same name, to warm up for lunch. Several guests were dressed as soldiers in commemoration of Veterans Day. The museum contains some of the 200,000 objects that owner Jean-Paul de Vrees dug up on the former battleground. Among his discoveries were bodies of American soldiers, and de Vrees made a point of finding their families. As well as spades, coffins, and grenades, on display are photographs, letters, and keepsakes sent to him by the families of the men who lost their lives here.

After lunch, we headed to the Pennsylvania Monument in Varennes-en-Argonne, a nearby village that was liberated by soldiers from Pennsylvania. This small town is rich in history: Louis XVI was arrested here along with Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution when he was trying to escape France, dressed as a beggar.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
A sea of white crosses at Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Photo courtesy of American Battle Monuments Commission.
The crosses during the Veterans' Day ceremony. Photo by Christel Rigolot.

As the light began to fail us, we continued to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, for the moving ceremony. Some 28,000 American soldiers were once buried here, many of whom have been repatriated. As dusk fell, 3,000 candles placed atop 3,000 graves marked by white marble crosses were lit in their memory. Several hundred spectators stood in the pouring rain as the soldiers’ names were read over a loudspeaker. The candles flickered in the darkness, and the grassy graveyard turned to a muddy sludge. A much bigger ceremony is planned for 2018, to mark the hundred-year anniversary of the end of World War 1.

We continued by bus through darkened lanes to spend the night at a family-run Hostellerie du Château des Monthairons surrounded by large gardens and the Meuse River. A gourmet dinner culminated in a rich chocolate dessert and a zesty cheese plate. The chef has an on-site vegetable garden that added to the quality of the meal.

Inside and outside Douaumont Fort. Photos by Christel Rigolot.
"This tower is offered to the great dead of Verdun by their American friends." Photo by Christel Rigolot.

Getting off to a slow start the next morning, we set out through the rain to inspect more battle sites, stopping first at Ossuary Douaumont, where the bones and skulls of 130,000 unknown soldiers are buried. The tombs inside are arranged according to the home villages of the known soldiers.

We skipped a planned visit to the actual battlefield of Verdun to avoid the cold made way for our last stop, Memorial Verdun, the museum dedicated to the Battle of Verdun, the  longest and bloodiest fought in WWI. Lasting 300 days and nights, from February 21 to December 18, 2016, the incursion claimed more than 714,000 casualties, almost evenly divided between the French and German forces.

The museum reopened last year after a two-year extension and renovation. More than 2,000 artifacts are on display, including flags, artillery, and clothing, along with film footage of the battles. From the balcony, we could see the Egyptian-style ossuary and battlefields through the rain.

I returned back to London from my experience in the trenches with a feeling that our first-world problems are nothing, and with a deeper understanding of why my English mother has always been so grateful for the Americans who saved us during two world wars.

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