Champagne-Ardenne prepares for WW1 Centenary
Anticipating a big increase in visitors to WW1 sites in its region, the Champagne-Ardenne Tourist Board is preparing to welcome Britons during the next four years of the Centenary commemorations.
Best known for its sporting and outdoor activities, fine wines and historic cities of Reims, Troyes and Langres, Champagne-Ardenne, comprising the départements of Ardennes, Marne, Aube and Haut-Marne, has a vast range of battle sites, museums, cemeteries and memorials.
While The Somme is synonymous with great battles involving British and Commonwealth troops, it’s the Champagne-Ardenne region, where American, Russian and Portuguese troops fought alongside the French and whose sites are less-well known, which aims to attract more British visitors. During WW1 the Ardennes and the north of the Marne were under German occupation with the heavily fortified Front Line running through the north of the Marne and the Argonne Forest, often occupying steep hillsides. The static trench warfare and fierce battles here have left many battle scars on the landscape. After the war, the land was cleared for agriculture and the trenches and make-shift military buildings were simply covered over and forgotten. But where the ground has never been ploughed, relics remain just below the surface.
Today, nearly 100 years on, groups of enthusiastic military archaeologists are uncovering sites which have been long forgotten and fascinating discoveries are coming to light.
From original maps and documents and using the latest methods of ground surveying, two amazing German sites have been revealed. On a hill-top near the village of Massiges , where The Front Line remained static from September 1915 to September 1918, a huge German trench system is being excavated. This area, La Main de Massiges is yielding a vast amount of military objects buried in the intricate network of fortifications. 6 bodies (5 French soldiers and 1 German) were discovered in 2012 and 2013 and have since been buried in local military cemeteries. A team led by Eric Marchal bought the land 10 years ago to preserve this important historic site. Opened in 2010, the team welcomes visitors and new members who wish to take part in the ongoing excavation work.
Another equally fascinating location is the German rest camp at the Vallée Moreau. Here trenches, tunnels and buildings have been restored by the Franco German Committee when work began in 1966. The rest camp designed to hold several hundred ‘off duty’ soldiers, is open Saturdays for visitors to experience the daily life of the troops. Started in 1915 the construction was supervised by a young junior officer called Rommel – the future WW2 Field Marshall. Visitors can walk through the trenches, underground shelters, see the power station, canteen and washrooms, a miniature railway, sleeping huts and consult maps and photos. Many such camps existed in the Argonne Forest, where around 200,000 soldiers died, and await discovery. Recently a German blockhouse hospital was found concealed in a hill side.
Other spots well worth a visit in Champagne-Ardenne include the Orientation Centre in Suippes. Here you will get a good understanding of the battles and discover the human side of the conflict with film, photos, documents and military objects. Using biometric terminals of fingerprints, visitors can follow the destiny of an assigned person involved in the war.
Near Reims is the Fort of La Pompelle built in 1880 as one of a ring of defence points for the city. During four years of heavy shelling during WW1, it was the only citadel around Reims to remain in the hands of the allied forces (French and Russian troops), thus maintaining the defence of the city. The museum houses an impressive display of artillery and a collection of over 500 Imperial German Army helmets that is unique in the world.
The Russian church and cemetery at St -Hilaire-le-Grand is dedicated to the 6,100 Russians who were sent over by the Czar and died aiding the French. At Dormans, one of France’s four French national memorials looks out over the River Marne and vineyards. Completed in 1931, the towering monument commemorates the battles of the Marne in 1914 and 1918, both of which were supported by the British Army. The Allied victory in the Second Battle of the Marne was the turning point that was to lead to the end of the Great War. In the ossuary are the bones of 1,500 soldiers of whom just 11 were identified.
Between Dormans and Reims, the British cemetery at Marfaux contains the graves of 1,114 British soldiers and 15 New Zealanders. The cemetery is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The historic City of Reims makes an excellent base from which to explore the WW1 sites. It offers a wide choice of hotels and restaurants, has several museums, including the Second World War Surrender museum. The Cathedral, where French Kings were once crowned, is magnificent and the Champagne Houses welcome visitors who wish to sample the famous wine. Reims can be reached by train from Paris in less than an hour but a car is essential for touring the battlefields and monuments. From the P&O ferry at Calais it’s a three-hour motorway drive to the city.
For information on the region, visit champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk.