Planning the best battlefield pilgrimage ever… (hopefully)

By Randal S. Gaulke

Organizations throughout Europe are busily preparing for the Centennial Commemorations of World War 1. The famous Ossuaire de Douaumont, outside of Verdun, and other memorials are being cleaned; signage and brochures are being refreshed; and reenactments and commemoration ceremonies are being planned. This is a perfect time for Americans considering a visit to the battlefields or a pilgrimage to their ancestor’s war to plan a trip. While it might seem a daunting task initially, the reader might just find that it is the journey, and not the destination, that brings the most pleasure.

Planning a battlefield tour requires several skill sets including knowledge of the sites and events that the reader wants to explore; some knowledge of the language and culture, and some knowledge of the local area. With the help of the Internet and translation tools it has never been easier to piece together the details needed to plan a meaningful trip “Over There.”

Before looking at each skill set, the planner should understand the limiting factors: What is the tolerance of one’s travelling companions? How much time can realistically be planned? What are the priority sites to be visited? Answering these questions can reduce the stress that inevitably arises when it takes longer to find the town, trench line, cemetery, etc. – or when one heads 100 kilometers in the wrong direction.

What is the purpose of the trip? Is it to survey the major battlefields of the war, visit a specific battle in depth, or retrace an ancestor’s wartime experience? There are scores of books and websites available on the war, covering the full range of topics. The trick is finding the resources that are most helpful. The best overall book for visiting American battlefields is “American Armies and Battlefields in Europe,” first published in 1938 and re-published in 1992. Its suggested one- and two-day tours are just as valid today as when they were first published. If more detail is needed, select a book or two on a specific battle, a regimental or divisional history, and a good biography or two.

The Internet can help guide planners; and don’t forget the used book sites www.abebooks.com and www.choosebooks.com. Scanning bibliographies and link pages can also alert the planner to other relevant materials.

It is highly recommended that the planner should gain at least some basic language skills and some understanding of the culture. Taking a French-for-Travelers course or an introductory-level Berlitz course will ease the frustration level of trying to communicate. Understanding foreign culture is equally important. The author takes a quick read through Polly Platt’s (somewhat dated) “Savoir Flair! 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French” before every trip. Rick Steves’ publications and videos also offer solid advice for the independent traveler.

Planning the itinerary comes next, and again the Internet can be a great starting point for finding lodging, exploring sites to visit, etc. Google Maps helps one plan routes and appreciate distances between sites. For driving, the Michelin Orange Series 500 (1, 200,000) maps are recommended. Traveling from Paris to the Meuse-Argonne and Verdun requires map numbers 514 (Ile-de-France), 515 (Champagne-Ardenne) and 516 (Alsace, Lorraine.) The maps can be ordered easily online, or they can be purchased at the many oasis (Aires) on France’s Autoroutes. For battlefield exploring, the IGN Blue Series (1, 25,000) maps the most useful — after one has learned how to read them. They can be ordered on line (www.ign.fr), or they can be purchased at the Maison de la Press in larger French towns.

The most important tip: Bolster the research by taking advantage of the many experts. Who are these experts? They are authors, armchair historians, tour guides, battlefield enthusiasts, etc. Where can they be found? The Internet is the best place to look. Two associations that come to mind are the U.S.-based World War One Historical Association (www.www1ha.org) and the U.K.-based Western Front Association (www.westernfrontassociation.com). Both of these organizations have websites, publications, local branches and knowledgeable members experienced in visiting battlefields. Many French towns and Departments (i.e. states) have tourism websites, too, including the Department of the Meuse (www.meusetourism.com/en). Finally, many individual enthusiasts or associations have knowledge on very specific areas, and they are often glad to share that interest with others.

Tower of the Ossuaire at Verdun by jameswberkThis is the tower of the Ossuaire de Douaumont, where bones found on the battlefield around Verdun were gathered and laid to rest. Nearly 300.000 French and German soldiers went missing during the 10-month battle.

 

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