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Exploring the WWI battlefields of Normandy, France


Villers-Bretonneux, France

Villers-Bretonneux, France – For such a stunningly beautiful part of the world, it’s hard to fathom the horrific carnage that took place here more than a century ago on the Western Front during World War I.

Amid the rolling hills in Normandy bearing golden wheat fields, apple orchards and tiny medieval villages are the remnants of what historians have called the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war ever fought by mankind. 

Beginning July 1, 1916, Allied troops, led by soldiers from France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, fought the Germans in the Somme region of northern France spanning both sides of the Seine River.

My visit to the Somme battlefields was one of the most impactful and emotional days on a week-and-a-half cruise on the Seine River on the Scenic Gem that started and ended in Paris. Like many Americans, I was reasonably well-informed about the D-Day invasion in World War II and had previously visited the Normandy landing beaches.

On the left: The village of Arromanches in Normandy, where battles were fought during the Allied invasion of France in 1944. Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic.

'The war to end all wars'

The grave of an unidentified soldier at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France.

Villers-Bretonneux, France – For such a stunningly beautiful part of the world, it’s hard to fathom the horrific carnage that took place here more than a century ago on the Western Front during World War I.

Amid the rolling hills in Normandy bearing golden wheat fields, apple orchards and tiny medieval villages are the remnants of what historians have called the bloodiest battle in the bloodiest war ever fought by mankind. 

Beginning July 1, 1916, Allied troops, led by soldiers from France, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, fought the Germans in the Somme region of northern France spanning both sides of the Seine River.

My visit to the Somme battlefields was one of the most impactful and emotional days on a week-and-a-half cruise on the Seine River on the Scenic Gem that started and ended in Paris. Like many Americans, I was reasonably well-informed about the D-Day invasion in World War II and had previously visited the Normandy landing beaches.

On the left: The grave of an unidentified soldier at the World War I Australian National Memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, France. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic). On the right: The reflecting pool at the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic

The reflecting pool at the Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

More than 1 million casualties

By the time the battle of the Somme ended on Nov. 18, 1916, more than 1 million men were killed or wounded. That’s more than double the casualties suffered in the World War II D-Day invasion and the entire battle of Normandy in June 1944.

There are numerous military cemeteries, many of which contain the graves of soldiers who were never identified, seemingly located around every turn of the road throughout the Somme. Even though the battle was fought more than 100 years ago, the trenches are still visible and some have been paved so that visitors can walk through them.

In no way, though, does a stroll through the trenches dug into grassy fields even remotely convey the ghastly conditions in which the soldiers had to endure.

The area still contains undetonated shells from the war. After a hard rain, it’s not uncommon for locals to spot the remains of soldiers in the mud. 

While Allied forces are considered the victors in the battle of the Somme, they gained little territory in the process. But the battle seriously weakened the German army. America entered the war a year later and its fresh troops helped the Allies gain the upper hand, culminating with Germany’s surrender in 1918.

The cruise also included a visit to the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach on France’s northern coast. This was the site of the D-Day invasion which turned the tide during World War II and led to Germany’s surrender to the Allies in 1945. The cemetery contains the remains of more than 9,000 Americans.

Visitors walk through the trenches at the Somme battlefield in France.

Visitors walk through the trenches at the Somme battlefield in France. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic)

The Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France.

The Normandy American Cemetery near Omaha Beach in Normandy, France. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic)

 

Beyond the battlefields: Giverny and Deauville

The famous water lilies in Giverny that Claude Monet painted during the last 30 years of his life.

The famous water lilies in Giverny that Claude Monet painted during the last 30 years of his life. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic)

In stark contrast to the grim reminders of the two world wars, the cruise also included visits to some of the most beautiful and tranquil settings in Europe, including the famous Giverny Gardens on the right bank of the Seine. The Impressionist painter Claude Monet lived in Giverny and we visited the water-lily ponds that were the focus of much of Monet’s work during the latter part of his life.

We spent a day in Deauville, a seaside resort on the English Channel known as a playground for French high society. Deauville features numerous half-timbered buildings, a trademark of Normandy’s traditional architecture.

Our visit coincided with France’s Bastille Day, which commemorates the turning point of the French Revolution in 1789. We were treated to a magnificent fireworks show from the top deck of the Scenic Gem while docked in a small village on the Seine.

We also enjoyed a light show at the Gothic cathedral in Rouen, the administrative capital and largest city in Normandy.

Consecrated in 1063 in the presence of William the Conqueror, the cathedral was the tallest building in the world for several years in the late 1800s. The light show chronicles the church’s tumultuous history, including Viking invasions, fires and lightning strikes. It’s a 10-minute walk from where the river ships dock and is offered free after dark during the summer months.

Cruising the Seine

The 17th century Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris.

All told, we sailed about 400 miles round trip on the winding Seine from Paris to the picturesque port of Honfleur near the English Channel, leisurely meandering past numerous castles, cathedrals and chateaus.

Built in 2014 specifically for the Seine, the Scenic Gem is one of only a handful of the 19 ships now sailing the Seine that can navigate the river’s numerous locks and sharp turns and make it to Honfleur. Cruising the Seine is a relaxing way to explore northern France, and by eating meals on the ship you’re immune from the exorbitant costs of French restaurants.

The weather during the trip was spectacular – sunny most days with highs in the 80s. The only exception was our day at the Somme battlefields, when it was cold, windy and rainy. It somehow seemed fitting given the horrible loss of life that took place for so many soldiers from all over of the world.

"Many of the men who fought were volunteers, so they chose to cross the world and come to our country and help us and the other Allies win the war,” Lefevre says. “This is always very impressive for me.”

On the left: The 17th century Chateau de Vaux-le-Vicomte near Paris. (Photo: Dan Fellner/Special for The Republic)

Source: azcentral.com