By reading the title, you may think, ‘What does military history have to do with champagne?’. Well, more than you may think. No, this isn’t about celebrating military victories over bottles of champagne. While I’m sure this has happened endless times throughout history (see our last article about Easy Company on VE Day at Hitler’s Eagles Nest here), this article has much more to do with the modern day travels of a beloved French region and its, at times, marred past.
To cut to the chase, I’m referring to France’s Champagne region in the northeastern portion of the country, due east of Paris. This region produces some of the finest champagnes in the world. Dom Perignon, Veuve Cliquot, and Moet & Candon are names you may have heard of. All of these fine champagnes are produced in the heart of the Champagne region, centered around Reims.
A Darker Side
However, there is a darker side to the region. Eastern France and the Western borders of Germany have been contested over for centuries. Some would argue for millennia. Whether it was during the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, World War I, or World War II, the Champagne and Alsace-Lorraine regions have experienced their fair share of conflicts and territorial transfers between the French and Germans. Even further back, you will find history covering the Roman, Gallic, and Germanic Tribal conflict to include the reign of infamous leaders like Julius Cesar and Vercingetorix of Gaul.
If you’re a history fan like yours truly, or perhaps you appreciate the taste of champagne, this region is not to be overlooked. It has its share of indulgence for everyone, travel or history aficionados alike. Between battle sites of WWI such as Verdun or contested grounds of WWII such as Bastogne and the Ardennes, the following story and itinerary should provide you with some food for thought for traveling throughout this region.
Champagne Travels and Beyond
Back in 2012, I lived in a region of Western Germany within the Birkenfeld district in the Rhineland-Palatinate. The town I resided in was located approximately 1.5 hours west of Frankfurt and an hour east of Luxemburg. From here, Brussels and Paris are in short reach. My parents came to visit and I promised them I would take them to both cities but in between, we would make a few pit stops to scratch my history itch. So we set off for Brussels first.
Our first historical stop would be Bastogne, a key site in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII. It was here and through the Ardenne Forest where the Germans launched one of their final desperate counter-offenses of World War II. The Allied forces were pressing the German Western Front and knocking at the doorstep of the Rhine river.
You may have heard of Easy Company of the 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne. They were also dubbed the fabled ‘Band of Brothers’, as seen on HBO. It was during this battle in which Easy Company endured one of their most trying and defining moments as a unit. I could write for hours about this group of men. If you’re interested, you can read more about our commemoration article to Easy Company HERE.
Bastogne is about 3.5 hours from Frankfurt and one hour and 45 minutes from Brussels. A day trip from both locations. Here you can visit the Mardasson Memorial. This memorial is a monument honoring the memory of American soldiers wounded or killed during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge. Designed in the shape of a five-pointed American star and representing all fifty states, it is located near Bastogne in the Luxembourg province of Belgium. On top of it’s design, it’s one of the largest memorials I’ve ever experienced. It’s not to miss.
In addition to the Mardasson Memorial, it’s possible to visit the site where Easy Company, aka the Band of Brothers, held their line in one of their most famous encounters with an elite SS German Panzer unit. Easy Company was part of the 101st Airborne Division which held firm against some of Hitlers most well trained and loyal SS Divisions of the war.
As my Dad and I stood in awe in front of a plaque commemorating the fallen soldiers of Easy Company, we couldn’t help but to be humbled. Identified on the plaque approximately 100 meters behind it, lies a hedge of trees where Easy held their faithful position against the Germans. It’s a powerful feeling to stand on the hallowed grounds where history was made.
On to Brussels
From Bastogne, my parents and I continued on to Brussels to spend a night taking in the city’s rich history, decadent chocolate, potent beer (which has a knack of sneaking up on you), and some savory waffles and cream. On top of those delicacies, we enjoyed a mammoth dish of paella near the old town’s main square. Speaking of beer, don’t miss their famous Delirium Bar where you can sample some of the world’s best beer such as Delirium Tremens.
Paris on to Champagne
After Brussels, we continued on to Paris, my parent’s first trip there together. It was an honor to be able to give back to my parents and take them to places they’ve always wished to visit. After taking in the delights and sites of Paris, we continued the history adventure and headed for Champagne country. I did title the article after this region…about time I got to it, right?
The region just south of Reims, the region’s capital, is absolutely gorgeous. Like something out of a fairytale. Lined with vineyards everywhere the eye can see, you’ll want to stop into a few sellers and sample some of the fantastic wine and champagne the region has to offer.
From a historical perspective, it’s impossible to not venture past an abandoned WWI bunker, fort, or battlefield remains in Champagne. Beyond these, you’ll find a host of well preserved and visited memorials such as the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery located about an hour and a half east of Reims. While we didn’t visit this cemetery, we were able to visit Verdun. Verdun was the site of one of, if not the bloodiest encounter of the “War to end Wars”. Verdun was also the site where mass chemical weapons were used on a strategic scale by both sides of the war.
Champagne and Verdun
At Verdun, a few must visit sites include the Mémorial de Verdun, Fort de Douaumont where the “hell of Verdun” was unleashed, the Monument de la Victoire, and the Trench of the Bayonets. Given we only had a half a day to explore, we opted to explore Fort Douaumont and the Memorial of Verdun.
Fort Douaumont was the largest and highest of 19 similar fortifications built around 1890. It was built to protect the city of Verdun against future German (Prussian) aggression. As fortresses such as this lost their advantage to new 16 inch German howitzers that could pulverize these defenses, the French abandoned the fort for more defensible positions. A small German detachment took the fort early in the battle of Verdun. Then it was recaptured by a larger French force.
Prior to recapturing the fort, the French heavily shelled their abandoned fort leaving it a shell-pocked moonscape still highly visible to this day. These craters remain etched in my memory and I can only imagine what the persistent bombardment would have felt like to be under fire from these massive cannons.
WWI events such as this are where the term shell-shocked was derived, a state where soldiers were left in permanent shock for months, years, and in some occasions permanently after the war.
Close to Verdun is also the statue commemorating André Maginot, the architect of one of the most famous defensive lines ever constructed. It was built between 1929–1938 and was impenetrable according to many strategists and historians. The Germans took note of this, hence their northern envelopment through the low countries in 1940 as Blitzkrieg tactics took the French by surprise shortly before their surrender that same year.
Other not to miss regions
Beyond Champagne and the Ardennes, another not to miss French historical region is Normandy and its beaches. One of my regrets from this trip is not visiting the famous beaches. American, British, and Canadian soldiers stormed the shores against all too challenging odds. Faced with German batteries, trenches, and well fortified positions, casualties were astounding on both sides. The Normandy Memorial should not be overlooked if you are a history fan traveling in this region of the world.
To close, if you like wine, champagne, history, cheese, and sprinkling some capital city fun in between, I would highly recommend this itinerary. You will experience beloved cultures, battlefields, history from different millennia, and above all, you’ll get a great buzz!
I hope you enjoyed this content, to read more about history travel, continue to our history page.
Additionally, here’s a great read from History.com regarding Champagne’s bubbly history.