Planning the Best Battlefield Pilgrimage Ever…(Hopefully)
It is 2013, and 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 start planning 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; to visit a specific battle in depth; or to retrace an ancestor’s war-time 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 alone 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 on line; 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. If time is more precious than money, consider hiring them. The going rate is generally costs €250 to €300 per day. If that is not in the budget, they can often provide initial guidance and suggestions. In many cases, the experts are Europeans with good command of English and the advantage of living close to the battlefields. A partial list of tour guides and authors includes: German, Markus Klauer (www.weltkriegsbuch.de/pages/index2.htm); German, Michael Prisille (www.verdun14-18.de/en/) Belgian, Wim Degrande (email@example.com); and Englishwoman Christina Holstein (Christina.firstname.lastname@example.org). Americans, too, have developed very specific expertise. For example, Rob Laplander has researched the Lost Battalion extensively; and Steven Skinner has researched the life of Aviator Frank Luke.
The benefit of experts is best illustrated in this example: A friend knew that his great uncle served in the (Imperial German) Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 87; and that he was buried in France. He wanted to retrace his great uncle’s footsteps; but he had no knowledge of traveling in France. So he turned to the author for assistance. The author’s first research step was to obtain a copy of the German regimental history—all 400+ pages—from a German friend. This was followed by a search of the German War Graves Association database (www.volksbund.de) that identified the cemetery, burial plot, and the date of death. Cross-referencing this date with the regimental history narrative yielded the front line held in June 1918. A browse through the regimental history and a reading of Alistar Horne’s “The Price of Glory” also revealed that IR87 played a key role in the initial assault on Verdun. Vacation time and budgets were worked out; and it was determined that three days would be available to retrace the uncle’s steps. This meant a very narrowly-focused trip: It was decided to visit the cemetery grave and the area of line held at the time of his death in June 1918 on one day; and to follow the regiment’s advance in the Verdun sector for two days. IGN Series Blue (1:25,000) maps were purchased for both regions. This was an extremely successful trip, where years of experience, determination and luck all came together. The experience was in the form of understanding and appreciating the information in the German regimental history—especially the detailed maps. The determination was in the form of driving down a narrow, dirt farm lane in a rental car to get to the German front line position and walking through about 30 meters of crops to enter a wooded ravine where there had once been a headquarters. The luck was in the form of finding the wooded area largely undisturbed; complete with shell holes and a few unexploded shells that the farmer removed from the field. Similarly, the combination of IGN maps for Verdun and the regimental history’s maps made it easy to follow the Great Uncle’s advance.
The battlefields of World War 1 are still there to be explored. The internet and the information age continue to make it easier; but it takes effort and determination on several levels to make a truly rewarding trip. Bon voyage!
About the Author: Randal S. Gaulke is an armchair historian and battlefield tourist. Since 1994 he has been focusing on the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; with an emphasis on the German side of the battle. He enjoys sharing his interest with others and he can be reached at email@example.com.