Our cycling adventure and memory trail continues during Week 2 into Eastern France, along the Rhine, and ends in Basel, Switzerland. Week 1 overwhelmingly centers on the Belgian and British Empire experience of war, but Week 2 takes us to sites that are sacred to the memory of the French, American, and German roles in the war. From Reims we move into Verdun, with its scarred landscape and massive ossuary, then on to the two big American cemeteries at Romagne-sous-Montfacon and St. Mihiel. If we time our cycling correctly, we are hoping to attend the Memorial Day ceremony at the US cemetery at Romagne. At Pont-a-Mousson, we will have a shorter day with some rest before beginning our foray into the Vosges Mountains, the site of intense fighting between French and German troops throughout the war. We will visit the Hartsmannwillerkopf museum in the mountains, then descend into Alsatian wine country before finishing our trip in "neutral" Swiss territory.
While our bicycling trip is planned as a World War I centenary event and while we plan to follow a portion of the Western Front, we also will find ourselves in territory that featured prominently in the Second World War. Today, May 8, marks the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day, and commemorations will be held in multiple nations. Last year we watched the wreath-laying ceremony in the Tiergarten at the Soviet memorial as survivors of the war and dignitaries solemnly remembered the millions of Soviet war dead in the "Great Patriotic War." This year, we'll see the faded remains of these VE wreaths at cemeteries and monuments in France. Todd's grandfather, who died a year ago, fought in France, and my uncle (who was one of my dad's best friends), is buried in Lorraine in the US military cemetery there. As Americans traveling through France, that Second World War remains a presence as we investigate the first Great War.
I've already written about our first day of cycling, but I thought I would lay out the rest of our planned itinerary for week one. Next week I will highlight week two, and then we leave on Friday for the trip. I'll include stories and photos when we return about the highlights of what we actually see and do.
From Ieper (first overnight stop)--we proceed through an area of Flanders that saw intense fighting in a small zone. Our route visits the craters created by explosions of mined tunnels dug by the British -- the most well known is the Pool of Peace. We shall also follow a part of Messines Ridge (near Mesen today) and visit cemeteries dedicated to the French, the Irish, the New Zealanders, and the Canadians. One place I am eager to visit is Arras, not only for its cool Flemish architecture, but also to visit the Carriere Wellington, a complete underground network of trenches and bunkers. From Arras we proceed to the Somme zone, where we will visit a sampling of the memorials and cemeteries in the region -- Thiepval, Newfoundland Park, etc. Our overnight stop is in Peronne, so we will visit the WWI museum there, the Historial de la Grande Guerre. Our route leaves Peronne and heads toward Soissons, where we will proceed along the Chemin des Dames, an important road and supply route during the war. Week 1 ends with a visit to Reims and its reconstructed cathedral.
As I write about France and use a French guidebook on World War I sites to help me plan the trip, I would be remiss if I didn't pay tribute to Mme. Vicki Barmann, my high school French teacher who died earlier this week. Mme. Barmann not only laid the foundation for my French language learning, but she helped arrange a scholarship for me so that I could go to France for the first time in 1986 as part of a group of students from my high school. That trip and her teaching really inspired my love of European history, and I owe her a great debt.