The Modern Times in France
Museum of the surrender room
In this place on the 7th of May 1945 at 2:41 in the morning, the German Army Chief of staff, General JODL, signs the unconditional surrender of the entire Armed forces of the Third Reich bringing an end to the Second World War in Europe. The news is announced in the capitals of the Allied Powers on the 8th of May 1945 at 3 p.m. The Signature room which happened to be the Top Military staff room has been since classified as Historical Monument.
It has been kept in its exact original condition and it is enriched by a museum outlining the role played by Reims at the end of the Second World War. Here you will discover mannequins from the different belligerents then present at Reims, and objects, documents, souvenirs and models linked to the local History from the German Occupation to Liberation through the French Resistance.
Reims cathedral also called the cathedral of Notre-Dame at Reims, the Gothic art masterpiece where the kings of France were crowned, was one of the first monuments registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The 1914-1918 war caused severe damage to the built heritage, the German army having bombed and even blasted buildings in order to demoralize French people. Reims suffered an almost incessant bombing throughout the entire German occupation in the North of France from the 3rd September 1914 to the 5th October 1918.
Its cathedral appears as the symbol of the destructive barbarism of the Great War. The bombing that Reims suffered highly symbolizes the German military strategy as from 1914. On the pretext that the terrace connecting the towers might be used as an observation post, the German army shelled the attic spaces. The roof structure started burning and spread fire to the scaffoldings raised against the North tower which soon was turned into charcoal. In total, 350 shells were fired at the building, breaking down the vaults over the nave and maiming 70 statutes.
Fort of the Pompelle
Classified as Historical monument since 1922, the Fort de la Pompelle is one of a number of forts built around Reims after the defeat of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 as part of a fortification belt round Reims. It symbolizes the heroic resistance of the French soldiers on the Eastern front. The Fort was occupied by German troops without a shot being fired. During more than four years, the German Army multiplied unsuccessful assaults against the Fort: infantry attacks, intensive bombing, gas attacks, mine explosions, tanks attacks…
It is the focal point for the Great War in Champagne-Ardenne. Patriotic ceremonies commemorating the battles of 1914-1918 are regularly taking place in this historic site together with military parades.
It has been now turned into a museum. It houses rich collections which outline the ups and downs of the fighting to heroically defend Reims with period documents, everyday items in trenches, arms, equipment, uniforms, mannequins and artillery pieces. You will admire the most astonishing and unique collection in the world comprising 560 items of headgear that belonged to the German imperial army (the former Charles Friese collection) and numerous other items.
The Butte de Vauquois
Major site of mine war, the Butte de Vauquois is the laboratory of mine warfare. The village of Vauquois was destroyed as soon as February 1915 after harsh battles which radically transformed its landscape. It was then erected at the top of a hill which made it a significant observatory. Today, the ground of the Butte overlooking the formidable craters caused by the explosion of mines along with examples of restored trenches are free open to the public. There is nothing left from the village, neither from the top of the hill. The “Butte” has become termite mounds.
The German camp of Vallée Moreau
Due to its East-West orientation of the valley, a series of reserve and rest camps were installed here during the First World War. Located 3 km from the trenches, the Moreau vallée camp was to become a rest camp for the duration of the war, which was particularly well laid out and partly sheltered from French artillery fire. This exceptional site, faithfully restored offers visitors the opportunity to experience at first hand the daily lives of soldiers in the Argonne, by means of a series of structures (delousing station, huts, cinema, underground galleries, washhouse, latrines, railway, mess, etc.).
The trenches of Main de Massiges (Hand of Massiges)
When they retreated in September 1914, the Germans took refuge on this natural hillside located at the junction on the Champagne and Argonne fronts. Its shape is looking like a hand and each of its fingers was used as a bastion in this natural fortress. Myriad tunnels were dug by the Germans and the French. The front-line soldiers known as the “poilus” (slang word meaning “brave”) who moved ahead passed in FRONT of the status of the Holy Virgin in the village. As it was exposed to projectiles, a bullet struck its left breast and a swarm of bees found shelter in the hole. The soldiers impressed by such a rebirth, christened the statue the Bee Virgin. The area of the Main de Massiges has remained in its former condition, with its mine craters together with the war trenches from 1914-1915, that the Association de la Main de Massiges completely restored. The site also offers beautiful panoramas over Argonne, the Meuse and the Ardennes. The old trenches have been re-grooved, cleared out, inspected with due care through a real work of military archeology. They have been propped up and reconstructed with their crenels, shelters, fences and barbed wire networks. Numerous items (arms, ammunition, and personal belongings) have been extracted from chalk and then cleaned and identified. A soldier’s body has even been rediscovered last year.
The Russian Cemetery at St. Hilaire le Grand
Located between the Ferme (Farm) de L'Espérance (Hope) and Mourmelon-le-Grand, Saint-Hilaire-le-Grand place has been chosen to honor the Russian soldiers who were killed on the battle fields in Champagne to commemorate the Franco-Russian military alliance sealed before the First World War and celebrated during Tsar Nicolas II’s visit in Champagne in 1896, which was renewed in 1901 for the second time.
The American cemetery of Varennes
Within the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France, which covers 130.5 acres, 14,246 Americans who gave battle during the First World War, were buried here. It is the cemetery counting the largest number of military dead in Europe.
The fortified castel of Sedan-Ardennes
This impressive citadel of the 15th century is the largest fortified castle in Europe to have been classified as a French historical monument. It is an outstanding tourist site in the French Ardennes.
The complete visit of this castle, with its « 1000 years of history » leads you to the discovery of its 4 defensive bastions, the round walk on its rampart walls, and invites you to imagine the clever techniques used which made this castle an invincible fortress. In the courtyard of the castle, you can see the foundations of the Benedictine priory which was at the origin of this site (by 1306). Numerous cultural entertainments take place all year-round, among which is the” Knightly tournament” which lasts throughout the summer.
This formidable fortress which also was a princely residence, stands in what has been known as “the Sedan Gap” since May 1940, a passage that all invaders from Attila to Hitler used, once they had crossed the broad Meuse valley right here.
Marechal of Turenne was born in the castle’s city in 1611. He will be one of the greatest military leaders of French history. He was one of the best generals of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. He distinguished himself during the Thirty Years War during which the series of intense fighting which broke out in Europe from1618 to 1648 tore it apart.
The French army will own the castle during more than three centuries. The town of Sedan took it over in 1962 to one symbolic franc.
Museum of the Last Cartridge (La Derniere Cartouche) in Bazeilles
In this house, an old inn, one of the glorious battle of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 that gave it its name, took place. The troops of the “Blue Division”, the name of a division of the French Marine Infantry Regiment, also known as “marsouins” (porpoises), stubbornly resisted for hours on until the last cartridge available and sparingly fired. The last one was fired by a captain in command of the few men who were retreated into this small shelter. Survivors were saved by a Bavarian officer that their courage impressed. But Bavarian troops undertook massacres in the village being infuriated by the resisting “marsouins” and French civilians who actively participated in the battle and fired on them.
A little time after the War, the owner of the inn created a first souvenir space in this highly symbolic place of memory.
The great puppeteer clock in Charleville-Mézières
The main attraction at a stone’s throw of the “Place Ducale” of Charleville is this monumental automaton clock created in 1991 and designed by the French artist, Jacques Monestier and commissioned by Jacques Félix, the founder of the World Puppetry Festival at Charleville-Mézières, France.
Embedded into the façade of the International Marionette Institute, every hour daily, the 10-meter high figure of the giant brass puppeteer that only the head and legs can be seen, plays out an episode of 12 scenes from the Ardennes epic poem of the 13th century, “The four sons of Aymond” which tells us the very pleasant and goodly story of the four legendary knights: Renaud, Allard, Guichard, and Richard, riding their unique horse, Bayard which, under the guidance of the enchanter Maugis, is, despite the weight of its load, moving as fast as he wind all along their great ride caused by their opposition to Charlemagne.
The puppet museum in Charleville-Mézières
These puppets which represent the four Aymon sons and are from the collection of the Museum of the Ardenne at Charleville-Mézières, the World capital of the Puppet. Looking at them serves to remind us that puppetry is a universal heritage property. The same way as there is no single people without stories and legends, there is no people without puppets. That of the Pulcinella, (chicken’s beak in Italian), the famous character who appeared in the second half of the 16thcentury in the Commedia dell’Arte and from Naples became known over the Mediterranean basin and beyond, can be given as the best example. What a great shared heritage when we know that this Neapolitan Pulcinella is present in the culture of many countries where he represents a different character with a different name while always being at the service of the common cause, that of mockery and the grotesque in vividness.
We can mention Karagös in Turkey, Karaghosis in Greece, Kasperl in Germany, Punch in England, don Cristobal in Spain, Petrouska in Russia, and at last Polichinelle in France! What an exceptional harmony to remind, through the monumental scale, the measurement of a logical order which does not disregard transcendence!
The Cavern of Dragon (Chemin des Dames)
War 15 meters below ground… During the First World War, from early 1915 onwards, German troops invaded a stone quarry that had been exploited starting in the 16th century, on the Chemin des Dames in the Aisne Department. The cavern was more than just a makeshift shelter. As a matter of fact it quickly became a strategic military location.
One of the legends that may have inspired the Germans to call it the Dragon's Cavern is the presence of weapons at each of the seven entrances, ready to breathe fire like a seven-headed dragon.
Combining secular underground galleries and contemporary scenography, the Caverne du Dragon highlights the elements of a past steeped in memories. Using modern animation techniques, objects, sound and image archive material and video footage, the Caverne du Dragon gives visitors an inside look at the hellish daily lives of the “poilus” soldiers on the front and the soldiers on the enemy lines in the opposite.