“What river is this?”
“The Marne, at least that is what the navigation system says,” replied Sherry, my companion on an impromptu drive through Champagne country in northeastern France.
“Oh the Marne has a lot of history around it,” said I, the history major. “In World War I there was a famous battle fought around here. The French defeated the Germans because all the taxi drivers of Paris rushed car loads of soldiers out here in the middle of the night to reinforce the army.”
In fact – I had no idea how right I was – the battle had been fought exactly here, in Meaux, where we were driving at the moment I related this little historical tidbit. Right at the gates of Meaux, through which we driving on streets like “Rue de la Victoire” and “Rue de Verdun”.
Another fascinating coincidence: That famous Battle of the Marne had occurred 100 years before (actually early September 1914), and the centennial celebrations were just starting in the city and the surrounding countryside, which were adorned with flags, flowers and remembrances for the occasion. The Germans were turned away, and not only was Meaux saved, but also Paris which is only 45 miles away, and by extension all of France.
Later in that same war, the Second Battle of the Marne in 1918 was similarly decisive, and was instrumental in the final defeat of Germany 100 days later.
But, driving along in a loaned Audi R8 which we were returning to Germany, we were largely clueless about the history we had stumbled onto (my bachelors degree in 20th Century world history, notwithstanding). The R8 has a largely inscrutable navigation system that will generally offer you three possible routes of travel to your chosen destination.
One is fastest, another is shortest, and the third seems to be the scenic route (a.k.a. “roads you should probably never take a $200,000 car on”).
We were being sent along a route the car had chosen for us, to a B&B on the north side of Reims – the Champagne capital of the world. It was an enchanting drive, on this perfect summer day, through countryside that could not have appeared more serene. But besides the Marne, some other signs along the road, and places we traveled through, the names seemed awfully familiar: Chateau Thierry, Loivre, Tardenois, Fismes and Belleau Wood – this latter I recognized as the battlefield where American Marines made a distinguished, heroic, historic stand.
Essentially, the navigation system was taking us along the route of numerous German retreats – rather magnanimous, considering where the car was from.
We passed large American cemeteries – one located on a peaceful country hillside was especially poignant – that are still carefully and respectfully tended (there are three major American cemeteries in this part of France). Every little village seemed to have a monument erected in its center, honoring the war dead, 1914-1918. A large number of them also had monuments to the World War II casualties that were suffered in the same town. In fact, these same areas had been invaded, ravaged and pillaged countless times down through the centuries; we found one battlefield where a monument informed us Attila and the Huns had been defeated there in 451 (the Battle of Chalons-en-Champagne)!
An informative series of articles appearing this week in The New York Times, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II and subsequent conflicts, points out that after centuries of conflict this region has been left in merciful peace the last seven decades or so. That’s probably some kind of record!
In summer, with the red poppies in bloom, the fields full of wheat, corn, canola and sugar beets, it seems hard to imagine wars were once fought here. The fields, in fact, are an indication of wariness surrounding considerations of other uses for these areas: Many areas are still laced with unexploded bombs, grenades, mortar shells and other ordnance. Many fields are still littered with war paraphernalia, soldiers’ personal artifacts and even bodies still in uniform. Farmers are careful not to disturb these fields any deeper than a plow might go.
Our journey continued through the French countryside up into the Ardennes Forest, through Sedan at the end of the silly Maginot Line, to Bastogne which is remembered for WWII’s decisive Battle of the Bulge. These strategic roads, which were once the thoroughfares of conquering hordes, are now in many places little more than the width of an R8.
We lingered for three days in this area, taking in all the sights we could see, including a detour into Luxembourg to see how that small country was devastated by war. In one fair-sized town bordering Germany, we noticed that several of the old buildings have been left as they were in 1945 – pockmarked by hundreds of bullets and mortar shells.
After a few leisurely days exploring this area, we crossed the Rhine River near the site of the famous bridge at Remagen (now gone). That uneventfully completed a Marne-to-Rhine journey (300 miles) that would have taken months, if not years, and cost millions of lives a hundred years before.
It is unthinkable now that such events could have occurred in the stunningly beautiful, tranquil countryside we had just visited. Wars continue around the world, and regrettably probably always will, but it seems along the route of remembrance our R8 took us on, thankfully, people have finally learned the lessons of history.
June 28, 2014 (100 years to the day, from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Serbia – which triggered the World To End All Wars)