Not so well-known to the public as the ‘fort city’ of Verdun, the region between that town and the baroque city of Nancy, France, was theatre of fierce fighting in WWI. German troops poured in the area immediately in 1914, and the Fifth Army conquered the region while the advance of the Kaiser’s forces was in full swing almost everywhere between Belgium and the Alps. By the time the line of the front was consolidated at the end of 1914, a salient was established between the villages of Les Eparges and Pont-a-Mousson, extending about 12 miles to the west into French-controlled territory, reaching the small town of Saint-Mihiel. This anomaly in the shape of the front line would be hard to clear, and in spite of several brave actions by the French armed forces, it was to last in place until the closing months of WWI in 1918.
Coincidentally, the United States had started deploying their forces to help those of France, the British Commonwealth and their Allies on the German western front. The silencing of the Saint-Mihiel salient was part of the final assault to the German lines, leading quickly to the end of the conflict, and the first campaign the American Expeditionary Forces of General Pershing were in charge of. The attack was launched on September 12th, 1918 and lasted one week. It involved both ground artillery and troops and the US Army Air Service, and it turned out highly succesful, the salient being totally taken over.
Today the place represents a less-known, highly interesting field of exploration for war historians. This section of the front was the stage of a prototypical static war of attrition, lasting the full duration of the war. French and German trenches faced each other at a distance of a few yards, and they were consolidated and fortified to last for long. Today some of these trenches are still visible, and the region is pointed with memorials erected after the war, just like the theatre of the Somme and that around Ypres (Jeper), north of Verdun (see this post). The difference is the very much lower number of people visiting, which allows a more ‘concentrated’, less ‘touristic’ visit.
A distinctive sight in the region is the imposing memorial to the US forces, commemorating the succesful action against the German army in the salient, and those who died in the operation.
The following photographs were taken during a visit to the area in August 2016.
Getting there and moving around
The area of the former salient is extensive and located in a nice, relaxing countryside, making for a good destination for a bike tour. If you like to concentrate on war relics, I would suggest moving by car from site to site, accessing each site by foot – this was my choice. The war sites are all freely accessible with no restrictions, and none of them requires special physical ability for touring. The only danger to be noted is that of unexploded shells and explosives, which albeit remote is always real in this and all other former WWI theatres of operations. It will suffice avoiding touching any suspect item you may come across. Local explanatory panels and maps can be found in many of these sites, but directions for reaching them only appear very close to the sites themselves.
I listed the sites I’ve explored in this area on the map below. I spent more than half day exploring these sites. I approached from Toul and drove directly to Flirey, which I suggest adopting as a starting point. Then I moved westward via Montsec to Saint-Mihiel. Finally I left north, following the trench of the Calonne and the old service road reaching Verdun (see map).
Your exploration may take less or more than mine depending on your level of interest. There is not a great ‘hardware difference’ between the various trenches, so if you get bored after the first one don’t expect to regain interest from the others… If you – like me – have an interest in retracing the history of the salient and the attacks in its different sectors, then you will likely enjoy your stay in the region.
Flirey – destroyed village
Most people know of the air bombing of Europe during WWII and of the destruction it caused to many cities on both sides. What is less known is that WWI brought a sometimes deeper and more complete destruction to villages and non-military buildings. Of course, differently from WWII, this was mainly the result of artillery shelling, and this happened only relatively close to the front, as a ‘side effect’ of firing against enemy troops. The village of Flirey ended up on the border between the invading German forces and the retreating French troops. When the line of the front was consolidated, the village was caught in a kind of ‘nobody’s land’, hence suffered the fate of many towns and villages in similar conditions, being rapidly reduced to ruins.
Today a small part of the planform of some of the original buildings is preserved in a dedicated small park. There you will find also informative panels about the history of the salient.
‘Sentier historique 1914-1918’ – historical walkway with preserved trenches
A local society of enthusiasts made a precious preservation work on a portion of the French and German trenches just a few minutes from northwest of Flirey, with the support of local institutions. Here you can walk in the original trenches, getting explanations from some panels placed along the trail. The German trenches are notable for the very advanced design with a serious use of concrete – making their trenches really durable and ‘fresh-looking’ even today.
In some points the French and German trenches are placed at a distance of a few yards from each other.
There is a map at the trailhead (see map above for the position of trailhead). I suggest taking a pic of it with your phone for moving around without difficulty.
Butte de Montsec – Memorial of the American Expeditionary Forces
The American Battle Monument Commission had this monument erected on top of a hill, with a scenic view over Lac de Madine, a local lake, and the hills around it. This is an open air memorial, accessible all day. There is a local office offering explanatory leaflets, but it was closed when I passed by. Anyway, a placard with detailed explanations about the history of both the actions in the salient and the monument is placed at the base of the site. The memorial can be spotted also from quite far away, due to its size and location.
Bois brulé – German and French trenches
This is one of three sections of well-preserved trenches closer to the village of Saint Mihiel. Fighting in this area was particularly deadly on the French side from the first days of the war in September 1914 up to June 1915. A refurbished part of French trenches provides an idea of the harsh conditions soldiers had to withstand, especially if you go on a rainy day…
Also here the enemy trenches are located extremely close to each other. The ground is pocked with craters from artillery shelling.
Trench of the Bavarians and Roffignac
This site is next to the previous one, and you can walk from one to the other following the old trenches. A more heavily fortified section of the German trench lines can be seen here, with engraved German words over the entry to some underground deposits. This section of the trenches, despite being fairly well-kept, was very lonely when I visited, and I came across some wildlife.
‘Trench of the Thirsty’
This last portion of the trenches in the forest of Ailly (Bois d’Ailly) close to Saint Mihiel was the stage of a heroic battle in September 1914. Trying to gain a favorable position on top of the hills close to Saint Mihiel, in order to enable artillery shelling on the village, the French attacked the German trenches and occupied some of them. Later on, men of the 172th Infantry Regiment were caught in a trap and isolated by German troops, who had advanced to their sides into their former positions. The isolated French soldiers opposed a fierce resistance in very difficult conditions, having no food nor water supplies for three days, and fighting in very warm weather and in a smoky, suffocating atmosphere.
Albeit partially rounded off by time and rain, clear traces of long sections of these tranches remain today. Two monuments celebrating the heroism of the French troops involved in the battle can be found at the end of the visible line of trenches.
When leaving the area of the salient to Verdun, you may choose to follow the old road today numbered D331 (see map above). This dates back to the days of WWI, and is a quick, almost straight road in the trees, which does not cross any village for about 15 miles. It was used as a supply road for the trenches in the northern area of the salient from the city of Verdun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures, for I was driving in heavy rain.
As remarked before, there are rather few signs for reaching the war sites, and unless you know of them elseway, reaching them may be difficult. I obtained much valuable information from the book “1914-1918 750 Musees Guide Europe”, a specialised guidebook with double text in French and English and maps. You can purchase it from various shops in more tourist-populated places like the Somme, Verdun or Jeper, or online from the Editor’s website. The book was edited by a group of enthusiasts, and together with its twin publication about WWII, they are must-have companions for war historians traveling Europe. I used these books extensively this year and I found the information contained in them very precise and extremely useful.