Champagne-Ardennes bears witness to the static trench warfare and fierce battles of world War I and World War II in north-west France. History has 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, more than 100 years on, groups of enthusiastic military archaeologists are uncovering sites which have been long forgotten and fascinating discoveries are coming to light.
Ardennes historic battlefield sites
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 trench system has been unearthed. This area, La Main de Massiges, has yielded a vast amount of military objects buried in the intricate network of fortifications. Several bodies have been discovered and have since been buried in local military cemeteries. And the work is ongoing.
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 sites 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.
Battlefield sites in Champagne
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. Phase 1 of a complete reorganisation has now been carried out with new displays and information in three languages.
The Russian church and cemetery at St -Hilaire-le-Grand is dedicated to the 4,000 Russian soldiers fallen in France during the Great War. Tsar Nicolas II sent over 4 infantry brigades of 44,000 men after the 1915 agreements with France, of which 2 brigades were stationed along the front line in Champagne. Built in the 15th century orthodox style, the chapel was inaugurated in May 1937 and the peaceful cemetery contains 915 bodies.
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 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.
4 divisions of British and Commonwealth soldiers were deployed in the Aisne (Chemin des Dames) and the Marne. 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.
Join a battlefield tour of Champagne and Ardennes with Sophie’s Great War Tours, bespoke and exceptional WWI and WWII tours which deliver immersive, unforgettable travel experiences. Find out more and book at: sophiesgreatwartours.com
For information on the region visit: www. champagne-ardenne-tourism.co.uk