The last time I saw the Picardie region of France was in 1978. I was visiting an old family friend, who suggested we take a road trip to see the chateaux and cathedrals that dot the landscape there and nearby in Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine, all of which are an easy drive from Paris. Off we went in her Peugeot 504 and at some point I became lost (this was in the days before GPS obviously) and decided to make an illegal U-turn through a break in the median. “Georgie don’t!” Nan cried. “The gendarmes are very strict! It could be a big fine.” (She still calls me Georgie, but she’s known me since I was 4 so she gets a pass).
Gendarmes? What gendarmes? “We haven’t seen another car for miles,” I assured her with the full confidence of youth. But soon after completing the maneuver, I noticed a vehicle lurking on the overpass ahead. You know where this is going. “Perhaps they’ll be lenient,” Nan shrugged oracularly as I pulled over for the flashing blue lights. “They still remember here.”
Remember? I had no idea what she meant; but before I had time to ask I was handing over my passport and Massachusetts drivers license.
Eventually I learned what Nan was alluding to: folks in these parts, which saw some of the most brutal fighting as the Great War reached its horrific climax in 1918, remember the thousands of young Americans, most no older than I was at the time of my traffic infraction, who sacrificed their lives in the trenches and in the fields nearby.
But my education was only completed this year on the 100th anniversary of the war’s end in the autumn of 1918. This past Memorial Day weekend, I traveled throughout Picardie, Lorraine and Champagne, especially in their Oise, Aisne and Meuse departements, where a visitor can remember and learn thanks to dozens of ceremonies, monuments and museums memorializing the war and its aftermath.
Meuse, an area in eastern Lorraine, offers many opportunities to experience the war to end all wars. The recently renovated Verdun Memorial museum, built on a former battle site, exhibits over 2,000 World War I artifacts, along with absorbing audiovisual materials, on three levels. Nearby, I was fascinated by the eerie Fort Vaux, a subterranean military labyrinth built in the late 1800s. German troops captured the fort from the French soon after the start of the war and today it’s partly a mausoleum, the final resting place of hundreds of Germans who died in an accidental munitions explosion underground. Their comrades had no choice but to entomb them where they died.
Also in Meuse, the somber Douaumont Ossuary contains the scattered remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers heaped into piles. Oddly, this funereal display is only visible if you crouch down to peek into the dimly lit basement through its small windows, a design decision I found puzzling. If these bones are meant to bear silent witness to the horrors of war, then why not allow visitors to experience them up close, in the same way the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., confronts visitors with piles of shoes that once belonged to victims of Nazi Germany’s “final solution”?
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The Armistice Memorial Museum near Compiegne commemorating the end of fighting on Nov. 11, 1918, is worth a look if you’re in the area; it exhibits a replica of the private train carriage where Marshall Petain, et al. signed the Armistice (the original was destroyed by German troops in the Second World War). In Lorraine, the Romagne 14-18 Museum, conceived by local resident Jean-Paul de Vries, who has spent a lifetime gathering war relics found on and beneath nearby battlefields, now displays his collection. This detritus evokes the hell soldiers went through in the trenches.
Then there are the remains of obliterated villages, and the fields once planted with wheat but now densely forested, since the ground, riddled with trenches and scarred by craters, is still too toxic for agriculture.
I also visited the surreal cemeteries, rows and rows and rows of white crosses mingled with Stars of David and Muslim crescents, the electric-green, well-trimmed grass, the miniature red-white-and-blue U.S. and French flags fluttering at each grave. No photograph prepares you for experiencing them in person.
On Memorial Day 2018, as they do every year, American and French soldiers, dignitaries and thousands of grateful or curious citizens from near and far, remembered the 2,289 soldiers buried at the 43-acre Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Chateau-Thierry, where a decisive battle began 100 years ago.
Although I know no one who has fought in a war, much less died fighting one, the speeches, delivered by dignitaries and soldiers from the U.S., French and German forces, aroused emotions I didn’t know I had. I tried to fight back tears, which only made the lump in my throat bigger. Others were crying, too, so I just let go. I knew no one buried here. Was it the ages of the dead? Many had just emerged from boyhood. Or was it their sheer number?
This was the first year that German army units were invited to attend the event although only the French and American units marched onto the field accompanied by military bands. When it came time for the national anthems to be played, the Marine band performed the Star Spangled Banner and then quickly followed with the German anthem. Even with the passing of a hundred years, it might have seemed indelicate for the German army to march onto French soil playing its own anthem, so a compromise was reached.
There will be other events commemorating the war throughout 2018. On the evening of Sept. 23 over 14,000 candles will be lit on the same number of gravestones at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery (the largest military cemetery in Europe) near Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, in remembrance of all fallen American soldiers.
On Nov. 11, Veterans Day will take on special meaning since it will mark the 100th anniversary of the signing of the armistice that ended fighting (Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day in the United States).
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So yes, this part of France contains some somber reminders of the horrors of war; and yet, the monuments and museums dedicated to the war exist side by side with the same chateaux and cathedrals and Champagne cellars that Nan and I went in search of 40 years ago. Champagne Pannier, founded in 1899, still offers tours of their medieval cellars, originally dug out in the 12th century to “harvest” limestone, as does Champagne Taittinger near Reims, a city famous for its beautiful cathedral where many French monarchs have been crowned (bring a sweater when visiting these cellars, you’ll be far below ground and it’s chilly even in summer). And yes, that’s a lighthouse in the middle of the vineyards. Le Phare de Verzenay en Champagne is a museum about, what else, Champagne, that also offers tastings from 16 vintners (over 60 different types) and sells bottles at the same price offered at the caves, so it’s an easy way to sample many options in one place.
In L’Oise, the opulent Compiegne Palace, a royal residence built in the 18th century, has been beautifully restored. The Chateau de Chantilly, parts of which date from the 16th century, is worth a trip in itself (both earn the Michelin Green Guide’s highest three-star rating, “worth the voyage”). Also in L’Oise, the unabashedly photogenic Chateau de Pierrefonds might have been designed by Walt Disney (it does resemble Cinderella’s Castle). Begun in the 14th century, it was partially destroyed in 1617, bought by Napoleon for a pittance in 1810, and renovated by Napoleon III in the 1850s in high neo-medieval style, which perhaps explains why architectural purists scoff while cinematographers love to put it in the movies.
When it’s time for something more lighthearted, take a guided tour of the Dragees Braquier factory, founded in 1783. Here you’ll see how these famous scrumptious Italian almonds are covered with a sugar shell and painted in festive colors (this is where M&M’s got the idea from). The bright green ones filled with a liqueur made from mirabelle plums, native to the Lorraine region, are addictive. At the end of your tour you can eat as many as you like.
If you’re wondering about Nan’s prophesy, it proved accurate. “Americain,” one gendarme informed the other as he handed me back my passport and license — actually, he tossed them into my lap — and drove off. I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment or an insult or something else entirely but Nan knew exactly what had happened. “I’m sure his parents or grandparents told him how America saved France during the first war.” Collective memory of my compatriots’ sacrifice in the Great War, Nan concluded, had spared me a hefty ticket or worse.