If you are a military history buff coming to France to see the D-Day Normandy Beaches, why don’t you take a few extra days for another private tour where our expert guides will take you to see other great battlefields here in western Europe?
World War Two sites of course, such as for the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium and Luxemburg, or the Canadian 1942 Operation Jubilee at Dieppe in northern Normandy, and even Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden in Germany…
World War One also offers in various regions of France a whole range of sites, even though lesser-known : battlefields, fortifications, cemeteries, memorials, etc.
Visit the sites of the battle of the Bulge in Eastern Belgium where Hitler launched the last German offensive of World War Two in a desperate gamble to bring the Western Allied Armies to a compromise peace. Follow the route of Battlegroup Peiper, the spearhead thrust of the First SS Panzer Division. Go past the crossroads south east of Malmedy where on the 17th of December 1944 86 men of the 285th Field Artillery Observation Battalionwere murdered by SS soldiers. Follow the steep, winding lanes to the site where only a few American soldiers managed to stop the capture of a fuel dump by German panzers by pouring a river of burning fuel down the road. Then go on up to the village of La Gleize where Peiper’s tanks were finally brought to a halt. Here you will find beside the local museum a King Tiger Tank which still bears the scars of the anti tank gun shells that failed to penetrate its frontal armour plate. On the way down to Bastogne you can pass through the village of Houffalize where Patton’s 3rd Army was meant to meet with Montgomery’s offensive coming down from the north to cut off the German advance. Here you will find one of the Panther tanks left behind by the German Army as they retreated in January of1945. The World War Two museum in Bastogne, the town where the 101st Airborne division was encircled for five days at Christmas in 1944, is also a good place to visit with an audiovisual presentation of the battle as well as artefacts and photos of the fighting. There are also the fighting positions that were used around the town and you can visit the village ofFoy, just to the north of Bastogne where Easy Company from the television series “Band of Brothers” fought and froze and you will see why the whole 101st Airborne Division earned the nickname “The Battered Bastards of Bastogne”. You can also visit the American Military cemetery in Luxembourg, just south east of Bastogne where GeneralPatton lies with over 5,000 soldiers, many of whom died as part of his 3rd Army as they fought north to relieve the beleaguered soldiers in Bastogne.
Operation Jubilee was the attempted landing of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division on the 19th of August 1942 at Dieppe on the coast of France 100 miles north east of the D-Day Landings nearly two years later. This landing was carried out mainly owing to political rather than military pressure. It was intended to seize and hold a major port for a short period, both to prove it was possible and to gather intelligence from prisoners and captured materials while assessing the German responses. The raid is generally considered to be a near complete disaster, with few objectives achieved and over 4,000 of the 6,000 men who made it ashore becoming casualties. Here there is to see the German Bunkers and positions set into the cliff at the eastern-most point of the landing zones, Yellow beach. The ships transporting the men of No. 3 Commando had run into the tail end of a Germanconvoy on the way in and several of their crafts had already been sunk. Only 18 men of this assault force made it in to engage the enemy. At Blue beach, 6 miles further west, is the site where the Canadian soldiers found themselves under very heavy and accurate machinegun fire, only 33 men out of the more than 500 who came ashore there making it back to England. The town of Dieppe itself, where the main assault took place but none of the 29 tanks put ashore made it off the sea-front and the soldiers not much further. On Green beachtwo miles further west where the Victoria Cross was awarded to the Commanding Officer for his selfsacrificing bravery while organising the defence of the beach to allow the evacuation of his men. And Orange beach, the most westerly of the beaches where No. 4 Commando under Lord Lovat came ashore and carried out what was probably the only properly successful assault of the Dieppe Raid where the Gun batteries ofVarengeville were captured and their guns destroyed before the Commando’s withdrew, suffering only 45 casualties in all. There is also the Canadian cemetery of Dieppe where nearly 950 soldiers lie buried, most of whom died in the raid of August 19th, 1942.
Come and see the fields north of the Somme river valley where British and French armies fought side by side against the Germans in the summer, autumn and winter of 1916. Allied artillery fired over 3 million shells at the German lines in the six days leading up to the first attack on July 1st. See why the attack failed so badly that morning with nearly 60,000 casualties falling, most of them in the first two hours of the attack. Visit the 300foot wide crater at La Boisselle where British engineers had dug a tunnel under the German lines and placed 22,000 pounds of Ammanol explosives to be blown up as the attack started. See the memorial at Thiepval which is built on the 1916 German front line and has carved on it the names of over 72,000 British soldiers who have no known grave. The village of Pozieres, two miles behind the front line, which was captured by the Australians, has been rebuilt and is a good place to get lunch. The village café has the garden made up as two opposing lines of trenches, complete with machine guns, artillery shells, rifles, helmets, bayonets and all the other paraphernalia that made up the armies During World War One. Most of it was found in the Area of the café. Beaumont Hamel, where the Newfoundland Regiment went over the top on the first of July and lost 808 menand officers out of a total of 897, and where the German and Allied trenches are preserved so that you can see exactly the layout as it was on the day, as well as the “Danger Tree”, less than a third of the way to the German lines across no mans land but which very few men passed on that fateful day in 1916. There is also a monument there to the Black Watch of the 51st Highland Division, the regiment that finally captured Beaumont Hamelfour and a half months later.
The site where on Easter Monday in 1917 in less than 24 hours the 1st Canadian Corps under the command of General Byng managed to capture and hold what was widely regarded as the strongest German position on the whole of the western front. Vimy ridge had defied French and British attempts at capture over the previous two years, these attack costing more than 300,000 Allied casualties at no net gain. The Canadians suffered “light casualties” of 10,000 during the successful assault. Huge preparations had been made, with the Canadians determined not to repeat the mistakes made on the Somme nearly a year earlier. Miles of tunnels, some as much as 30 feet underground, had been dug to transport troops to the front in safety and security, and sections have been preserved and are open to guided visits during the summer months. The opposing front lines at the mouth of the tunnels have also been exceptionally well preserved, and here the trenches lie less than 100 feet apart, separated by a row of mine craters up to 30 feet deep. The shell and battle scarred terrain leading up to the crest of the hill has also been preserved and at the top the Vimy Memorial comes in to view out of the trees. This memorial, unveiled in the 1930’s, has inscribed on it the names of over 11,000 Canadian soldiers who have no known Grave. This is one of the best-preserved World War One sites on the Western Front.
In Flandres, Ypres, “Wipers” to the British soldiers fighting there during World War One, was the last large Belgian town still held by the Allies by Christmas 1914. The Germans held the ridgelines running around the town in a semi circle from the north, sweeping around the east and coming back under the south. Haig the British commander in Chief from 1915 onwards, was convinced that this was the only place that a breakthrough could be exploited by “rolling up the German line from the north”. Despite four years fighting around the town, which was completely destroyed during the battles, no breakthrough was achieved. From the first battle of Ypres at the end of 1914, through the second battle in early 1915 when the German Army used poison gas for the first time, to the battle of Messines Ridge in early 1917 when the British exploded 19 huge mines buried under the German lines to aid their advance, to the Third battle of Ypres, more commonly known as the Battle of Passchendale in the autumn of 1917. There are many remnants of these battle still to be seen around Ypres, such as Hill 60, where the Allied and German lines were as close as 30 to 50 feet for most of the war and there is one of the German pillboxes still there, converted by the British to a machine gun post after the successful capture of the position during the Battle of Messines ridge. The craters made by the mines are still visible today. There is also the Menin Gate, one of the largest Memorials to the missing of World War One on which is inscribed the names of nearly 55,000 men who fell during the Great War and have no know grave. The Last Post, the bugle call played at British Army funerals, is still played under the Menin Gate every evening at 8pm in honour of the soldiers who fought. Tyne Cot cemetery, one of the largest British cemeteries in the world is established around a captured German pillbox that was used as an advanced dressing station by British medics during the fighting, with four other pillboxes to be found in the cemetery. There are also still present the bunkers built by British engineers at the aid station where John McRae composed his poem, “In Flanders Fields”, which has come to epitomise the life and death of the fighting men.
It can be hard to believe, standing in this calm and peaceful forest clearing, the momentous historical events that took place here. This is the exact spot where the Armistice that ended after four long years, the First World War was signed in November 1918 in a railroad carriage. At the terrible cost of over 8 million lives, this was supposed to be the war to end all wars ! The signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and the creation of the League of Nations brought hope for peace in the future…
Unfortunately, the heavy war reparations and the loss of territories left the Germans humiliated and seeking for revenge ! So 20 years later, when in 1940 the German Armies conquered Western Europe, Hitler was ready to get even and specifically demanded that the same railroad carriage was taken out of the museum to have the French Armies sign their surrender here. The museum recounts all these events and because the actual train carriage was destroyed later in the war, a similar one is now there to make it all more realistic.
The Marne river , tributary to the Seine river and running east-west, and the surrounding area remained at the center of the fighting during four years. In September 1914 , the German armies rushed through this area considered the possible entrance to Paris from theeast . The first battles here allowed the French armies to stop the German advance toward the capital and push them back a few miles east of Reims. The “ war of movement ” subsequently turned into a “ war of position ” in the trenches with horrendous human cost for almost no military strategic gains. When the German armies launched their bigattacks in the spring of 1918 , the Marne resumed to be critical. The US Marines held their ground at Belleau Wood in June and from July 1918 on, the US forces fought bravely and started to push the German armies back north of the Marne river.
Monuments are found in Chateau-Thierry with the American Memorial Church and the American Monument on Hill 204 . The Aisne-Marne cemetery has the graves of 2.289 American soldiers and commemorates the names of another 1.060 Missing in Action.
The old capital city Reims of the world-famous Champagne region had been bombarded and largely devastated, including the beautiful gothic Cathedral where the Kings of France had been coronated. Incidentally, in 1945 General Eisenhower , Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces, had his headquarters in a highschool building in Reims, when the German armies got defeated and the German generals came to sign their surrender , on May 7, the day before V-E Day !
Arguably the best-known First World War American battlefield is the Argonne. Here, just a few miles west of Verdun, the United States Army and Marines went into action during the last year of World War One. During the German spring offensives, the Americansoldiers found themselves badly off in the fighting against the better trained and much more experienced German Army, but proved themselves quicker to adapt to modern warfare tactics than the other allied Armies had been before them. Here there is the position where Sgt York earned the Medal of Honor in 1918 when during an attack with his platoon he killed 32 German soldiers and captured 132 others as well as knocking out 35 German machine guns, completely overtaking a German controlled hill. There is also the the World War One American Monument at Montfaucon, an impressive granite tower over 200 feet tall which can be climbed and gives a very impressive view over the battlefield. The monument tower is built on the ruins of the pre World War One village of the same name, which served as an observation post for the German Army and was captured by the 79th Division on the second day of the battle. Seven miles north is the Meuse-ArgonneAmerican cemetery, which with over 14,000 graves holds the largest number of American dead in Europe. Most of those buried here gave their lives during the Meuse-ArgonneOffensive of World War One. To the west there is also the site of the Lost Battalion where, during an attack on the third of October 1918, a battalion of the 77th Infantry Division advanced too far and found itself cut off behind enemy lines. The battalion’s position was under siege for five days but despite repeated German attacks the battalion managed to hold its position until French counterattacks relieved them. While cut off the soldiers were re-supplied by airdrop for the first time in the history of warfare.
Verdun is often referred to as the “the French Army’s Somme”. In February of 1916 the German Army under General Falkenhayn launched an attack in Lorraine at the fortress of Verdun, the right flank anchor of the French lines and the symbol of French fighting spirit and the freedom of France. The last fortress town to fall to the Prussians in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71, Verdun’s fortifications had been significantly boosted in the 1880’s to withstand further attacks. In addition, its status as an important fortress since Roman times guaranteed recognition of the name ‘Verdun’ to most Frenchmen. In short, it was of greatervalue symbolically than strategically. Falkenhayn counted upon this. The Germans knew that the French government would collapse if Verdun fell, and probably the French Army, too. It was therefore decided to “bleed France white”by assaulting an objective that the French would have to protect, no matter what the cost. The fact that Verdun formed a French salient into German lines only served to help Falkenhayn, since it meant that it was open to attack from three sides at once. The fighting continued for ten monthsuntilDecember 1916 making the battle of Verdun the longest continuous battle of World War One. The remains of the massive outlying forts built to protect the town itself, such as FortVaux and Fort Douaumont, still show the scars of the artillery and close quarters combat that raged in the area over ninety years ago. The French Army Douaumont cemetery, holds more that 15,000 graves and has an Ossuary, or bonedepositary, containing the remains of more than 130,000 unknown soldiers whose bodies have been found on the battlefield. There is also the “Bayonet Trench”, where an advancing German unit came across a very shallow French trench along the length of which protruded rifles with bayonets attached. On excavation, the body of a soldier was found beneath each rifle. They had been buried in the ferocity of the German artillery barrage. Also worth a visit is the underground citadel and tunnel system that run under thetown itself. It is now a museum, with maps, artefacts, photographs, etc, with explanations and an English language audio-visual presentation about the battle. Verdun is only 15 miles east of the Argonne, where the American Army were fighting two years later.