France Today is honored to work with tourism partners in France to bring readers up to date with news, innovations and events from the country’s many war memorial sites. Covering both world wars and from Calvados in Normandy down to the Meuse in Lorraine, here’s a roundup of new picks and signatures including museums and cemeteries.
SECOND WORLD WAR
June 2022 marked the 78th anniversary of the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast that sparked the Battle of Normandy to force the endgame to Hitler’s German occupation of France – within a year the war was over. Allied forces suffered nearly 10,000 casualties; more than 4,000 died, including 2,499 Americans.
Every year fewer and fewer veterans – all now in their 90s – make it to France to honor their fallen comrades, but French authorities continue to recognize the bravery of Allied soldiers with the greatest reverence and gratitude.
As every year, many tourist offices in the region came together this summer to coordinate the D-Day festival, which stretched from the Pegasus Bridge to Sainte-Mère-Église (where nearly 13,000 American paratroopers landed under the full moon, including the famous Private John Marvin Steele landing on the steeple), through Ouistreham, Arromanches, the Pointe du Hoc and the five emblematic landing sectors (Utah Beach, Omaha Beach, Gold Beach, Juno Beach and Sword Beach). Although it had a commemorative feel, it was more of a celebration of liberation, with parachuting, parades, concerts, historical re-enactments, exhibitions and lots of fancy dress. Visit the festival’s Facebook page for images and videos, including a flyby of the elite French Air Force, La patrouille de France.
There are many excellent museums to explore on a D-Day memorial visit – too many to list here. But among our recommendations is the Utah Beach Museum, built on the exact spot where American troops landed on June 6, 1944. The first beach stormed by the Allies was chosen as a bridgehead in the Cotentin region to facilitate the capture of the port of Cherbourg. The museum tells the story of D-Day in ten sequences from its preparation to its successful conclusion, including the amphibious assault, primarily by the US 4th Infantry Division and the 70th Tank Battalion.
Another is the excellent Airborne Museum at Sainte-Mère-Église, which shows the airdrops and valiant battles of US paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Those planning a trip to the D-Day beaches next year, as well as for what promises to be a massive 80th anniversary commemoration in 2024, should think about their trip now – event planning is already well underway .
Other events in Normandy this summer included a moving gathering at the British Normandy Memorial in Ver-sur-Mer. The memorial, which opened a year ago, records the names of the 22,442 soldiers and women under British command who fell on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy in the summer of 1944.
With the public able to attend for the first time (due to Covid restrictions), negotiations began precisely with retired Wing Commander Steve Dean, project manager for the British Normandy Memorial, and Myles Hunt, Head Gardener, raising the Union Flag at sunrise as the first troops would have landed 78 years ago.
Wreaths were laid, D-Day veteran and Trust Ambassador Joe Cattini was in attendance for a live BBC interview, there was a memorial service, a Spitfire flyby and music by the Yorkshire Regiment band with the Jedburgh Pipers, all the presence of veterans and their families as well as the British Ambassador to France, Dame Menna Rawlings.
In other developments in Calvados, a new D-Day museum will open in March 2023 in Arromanches-les-Bains, home of the famous Mulberry prefab port. Construction is in full swing, the concrete frame is in place and will soon be covered with glass. The building is 44 m long and 28 m wide and will be completed in October this year. The second phase – including the demolition of the current building, which will close to the public on November 1 – is scheduled to be completed in January 2023. The €10 million museum will use state-of-the-art technology to bring the artificial harbor back to life, but honor will also be given to the current showpiece – an original 1954 model explaining the construction, transport and operation of the artificial harbour was built by British engineers to allow the landing of men and equipment after the establishment of the bridgeheads on the Normandy front.
Meanwhile, the German battery at Longues is getting a spectacular facelift, due to be completed shortly, to better welcome visitors. The old wooden huts that housed the tourism office and sanitary facilities are getting a €2.8 million upgrade in the form of a huge new reception area with glass walls. Finally, in May 2021, the Wings Museum opened in the historic aircraft hangars in Caen-Carpiquet. It delves into the role of D-Day aircraft and the daring missions of their skilled pilots. It has an educational and fun ethos – youngsters can climb into cockpits and play sniper. The museum has just received a Beechcraft 18 (a C-45 in military jargon).
Contacts: We recommend adding these regional tourism offices to your internet favorites to keep up to date with all events and travel opportunities:
FIRST WORLD WAR
The sheer scale of death and destruction brought upon the people, landscapes and of course the serving soldiers of both sides throughout northern and eastern France (including the Somme and Verdun) during the First World War is unimaginable. There is an ever-growing and ever-improving list of museums, cemeteries, and more to bring the heat of battle, historical context, and personal stories of bravery, tragedy, and hope to life in memoriam.
Focus your plans on the Pas-de-Calais, Somme, Meuse, Aisne, Ardennes and Marne departments, always plan ahead and try not to fit too much in – there are dozens of things the French ‘untouchables‘ (essential), so it’s important to research your preferences. Key players, offering wide-ranging contextualization and visceral intrusive technology and noise, include the Musée de la Grande Guerre (Meaux, Seine-et-Marne); History of La Grande Guerre (Péronne, Somme); and Memorial de Verdun (Meuse).
In the latter, until December 31st, the exhibition “Art/Enfer – Creation in Verdun 1914-1918” shows works of art created in the hell of battle or behind the front, with paintings, sculptures, music, writings, drawings and more by French and German soldiers.
We also recommend the Musée du Chemin des Dames in Oulches-la-Vallée-Foulon, the most visited museum in Aisne; and the Caverne du Dragon, an underground tactical fortress from which to explore the Chemin des Dames Memorial Trail. In Arras, Pas-de-Calais, don a hard hat and descend the impressive Wellington Quarry, dug by Kiwi pioneers.
On later trips, you may decide to venture further off the beaten path to visit smaller museums, often passionately curated on a minimal budget, or drawn from personal, intimate collections of memorabilia and artifacts. These include the Somme 1916 Museum in Albert, Somme.
New in Meuse is Les Poilus de Verdun, Museum of the Guard, a museum about the poilus (nickname for simple infantrymen from peasant backgrounds), housed in the former guard house in front of the underground citadel of Verdun. Visitors discover Camille Tridon’s private collection: drawings, photographs, objects and costumes of the poilus. A military antiques shop will be available as well as a small restaurant.
Among the many vast and poignant cemeteries where you can pay your respects to the fallen are some spectacular sights: the famous Vimy Ridge near Lens (Pas-de-Calais), built to honor Canadian soldiers; Douaumont Ossuary in the Meuse, a stone memorial containing the unidentified remains of at least 130,000 French and German soldiers killed at Verdun, and in the Somme, the Thiepval memorial honoring the 72,194 British and South Africans.
However you choose to honor the heroes of WWI, this region of France has sites dedicated to every nationality that served.
Find out more:
Pas de Calais: visit-pas-de-calais.com
From France Today magazine
Lead Photo Credit: The Verdun Memorial © Jan Vetter