The First World War centenary is already boosting tourism to European battlefields. But trying to trace each offensive of even the Western Front is a daunting task. Where to start? Why not the beginning?
Then: Aug. 2, 1914
It was here, on an idyllic morning, that the first two official deaths of the war were registered. Lieutenant Albert Mayer, a German cavalry trooper, and Corporal Jules-André Peugeot, a French soldier, were killed the day after a small patrol of German cavalry shot up a French customs post. France formally declared war against Germany on Aug. 3.
Now: At the small memorial in this town of 1,021, nestled in the verdant wine country of Alsace, the episode is largely forgotten. What draws most people to the area of Haute-Marne – where Jonchery is located – are fine white wines and to-die-for patisseries. Close to the western bank of the Rhine, about half an hour east by car along curvy two-lane roads, the area is known as the world’s foremost producer of cabbage. Grey-green serried ranks of them march down to the river, contributing their one-of-kind fragrance to the air.
Then: Aug. 4, 1914
Liège was once considered impregnable because of its fortresses. Though Belgium had been declared “neutral” by an 1839 treaty, that neutrality got short shrift when Germany’s Schlieffen Plan was launched. The German solution to overcoming the concrete fortifications was simple: build bigger guns. They developed siege cannons that were so gigantic they had to be broken into three sections for transport, each of which had to be hauled by teams of up to 34 horses after being offloaded from purpose-built railway cars. Each “Big Bertha” shell weighed about a tonne, and the muzzle blast from the cannon alone would break windows for blocks around.
Now: Liege is touted as the home of the Belgian waffle (gauffre) – and while the matter is up for debate, they remain a staple for the hungry tourist looking to fuel walks up the steep hills that straddle the Meuse River. Topped with your choice of a stunning variety of artery-clogging creams and sweet fruit compotes, this is the place to go to ruin your diet. And we haven’t even mentioned the classic Belgian snack of frites – topped with everything from mayonnaise to chopped onions – and a Stella. Raise a glass to the friends we never made.
Then: Aug. 7 to Aug. 10, 1914
Eventually, the Mulhouse area became an ancillary focus of the Schlieffen Plan. Alsace, which has felt distinct and separate from either Germany or France since the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, became part of the horrific Battle of the Frontiers, which took place in many locales around Mulhouse, including Belfort and Épinal. By September, 1914, casualties totalled 430,000 on both sides.
Now: Land at Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg airport and you can see firsthand how far international relations have come in 100 years. Straddling Germany, Switzerland and France, this is the world’s only tri-national airport. Beyond, nestled in the foothills of the Vosges Mountains, Belfort and Épinal form part of the Alsace wine tour route. And walking in the forested areas to the northwest can expose you to the detritus of war: The network of signed footpaths often parallel old trench lines, and there’s even the occasional concrete pillbox.
Then: Aug. 12, 1914
German forces rolled through the city with a large cavalry presence en route to Brussels. The battles spread throughout rural villages; Belgian resistance was unexpectedly and stubborn. One of its cavalry units even managed to overwhelm German fixed lines bristling with artillery, in what is acknowledged to be one of the world’s last mass cavalry actions.
Now: Halen is a roughly circular town that straddles the Albert Canal. Even with a GPS, you can become delightfully lost and stumble upon a number of markets. Much of recent military history is also within a day’s drive, including recognizable names from the Second World War, such as Bastogne (Battle of the Bulge) and Eindhoven (A Bridge Too Far). For more peaceful explorations, the Ardennes mountains feature towns such as Spa, which lives up to its name with relaxing hot mineral baths.
Then: Aug. 23, 1914
The name Mons resounds through British military history. It was the British Expeditionary Force’s first major engagement after having landed on France’s shore, and it ended in defeat. But the outnumbered Brits fought well, and from the battle sprung the Angel of Mons legend.
Now: Other famous names associated with the period, such as Cambrai, Le Cateau and Amiens, are short drives away. If you want to see as much as possible in relaxed style, take the regional (D-series) or national (N-series) roads. For real fun take the tiny laneways that checker virtually every agricultural area . These allow equipment access to all the fields, but also allow for interesting views.
Then: Aug. 29, 1914
St-Quentin was essentially the last battle of August, 1914, on the Western Front. The French decided to counterattack at St-Quentin toward the town of Guise. Their misfortune was that the Germans intercepted the orders. Still, the move was a success at first, and the French forced the Huns back. From that point, due to troop exhaustion, difficulties posed by the marshy terrain and miscommunication, the battle sputtered out, resulting in a minor German victory.
Now: St-Quentin is a busy, multicultural city. For contemporary fun, skydive at the nearby aerodrome of Péronne. On a more sobering note, the many military cemeteries that ring the area deserve a visit, from the overgrown German one midway up Le Grand Ballon, to the immaculately maintained American graves at Belleau Wood. Every name you read is a token to the person who owned it.