Ian Weightman

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At the crossroads of European history

There’s probably nowhere in France that can claim to have been at the crossroads of history quite as often as The French Ardennes, in the northern tip of the country.

The only region to have been fully occupied for the entire duration of both world wars, it was also the here, in Sedan, where France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

Invaded, occupied, bombed and devastated, it’s nevertheless today one of the most rural and peaceful corners of the country: a place where it’s possible to enjoy a relaxing rural break, while following some of the most famous chapters of French history 

One of its greatest military claims to fame is that it was the German HQ during the First World War - with the, then, opulent Castle Renaudin above the town becoming the Headquarters for Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Kronprinz from 1916 to the end of the war.

Nearby Sedan Castle was originally created to defend France but despite being the largest fortress in Europe it was simply circumnavigated by the modern invading armies of the late 19th and 20th centuries.  It became a symbol of revenge during the First World War, and any locals who refused to obey the orders of the occupying forces were interned here…and often left to perish.

All very different to the Castle today, which houses both one of the biggest visitor attractions in the region, as well as one of the finest of boutique hotels.

Walnut-Pont-Maugis, meanwhile, is where one of the biggest battles in The French Ardennes was fought during the First World War.  "The Marfée" had become strategically important to both sides, and ultimately led to the deaths of more than 4,000 soldiers on each side of the divide.  The Military Cemetery here, which has the graves of almost 27,000 French and German soldiers killed during both world wars, is the final resting place of many of the soldiers killed during this battle.

American forces - especially those from “The Big Red One” (The American 1st Infantry Division) - were very active in The French Ardennes during the First World War.  A monument entitled "This Point" in Wadelincourt marks the end of the American troops’ advance on November 10, 1918.  A huge relief for France, it shows General Pershing paying homage to his troops.

Perhaps most famously of all, however, is the story of Sergeant Alvin York’s heroic actions in Châtel-Chéhéry, which - according to the commander of the Allied armies, Marshal Foch - was “the greatest feat ever achieved by a single soldier of all the armies in Europe”.

One of the most decorated American soldiers in World War I, Sergeant York received the Medal of Honor for leading an attack on a German machinegun nest in Chatel Chéhéry, in the south of the French Ardennes, single-handedly taking 32 machine guns, killing 28 German soldiers, and capturing 132 others.  This action occurred during the US-led portion of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, which was part of a broader Allied attack masterminded by Marshal Ferdinand Foch to breach the Hindenburg Line and ultimately forced the German forces to capitulate.

Not surprisingly, the story was turned into a Hollywood movie, which even earned Gary Cooper the Oscar for “Best Actor”.  And today, it’s possible to follow in the footsteps of Sergeant York in Chatel Chéhéry on a self-guided 3 km through the nearby forests.

Far less well known is the fact that this is also where the last French victim of the Great War, Augustin Joseph Trebuchon, fell - just fifteen minutes before the cease-fire at 11am on November 11th, 1918 

Trebuchon is buried in the cemetery of Vrigne-Meuse, an Ardennes village of 220 inhabitants, where visitors today will find a church with 18 white crosses surrounding a memorial - in honour of the men of the 415th Infantry Regiment who all died on November 11th during the last offensive while attempting to cross the River Meuse.

Augustine Trebuchon - unmarried and childless, and mobilized on August 4, 1914 - had fought on all fronts and was wounded twice before being killed at 10:45am on November 11th, 1918, fifteen minutes before his friend and solider-in-arms Delaluque had the honour of sounding his bugle here, in The French Ardennes, to mark the ceasefire.

Like much of Europe, The French Ardennes will be helping to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of World War I during 2014.  Visitors will be able to follow some of the stories outlined above.  And it is also hoped that work to restore the War & Peace Museum in Novion-Porcein will have been completed in time for it to be re-opened during this significantly historic year.

For further information, visit www.ardennes.com.

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