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France> Maginot Line & Exploring Lorraine


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Maginot Line & Exploring Lorraine

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The region of Lorraine, tucked in the northeast corner of France, is bordered to the north by Belgium, Luxemburg and Germany. Stretching along its border to the east is Alsace. However, whereas Alsace is well known for its picturesque villages and lovely wines, Lorraine is well known for its rich military history. If you are intrigued by stories of World War II, you will not want to miss a visit to the Maginot Line, built as a brilliant, but unsuccessful defense against a German invasion. The Maginot Line stands today as a monument to French engineering genius and lost hopes. Also tying in with the history of the World War II, is the beautiful American cemetery in Saint Avold where thousands of simple white crosses mark the graves of American soldiers. A visit here is unforgettable.

As you travel through Lorraine, you cannot help but wonder why this region is not nearly as well-known as Normandy to travelers who are interested in the history of World War II. Here too crucial battles were fought against the Germans under the commands of General George Patton. Here too a heartbreaking number of soldiers sacrificed their lives to restore freedom to France.

Whereas Normandy has hosted many reunions and memorial ceremonies over the years, Lorraine was somewhat forgotten. It wasn't until 2004 (60 years after the allied forces came to the rescue of Lorraine) that the heroism of the men who fought here was truly recognized. What prompted this surge of interest is due to one of General Patton's platoon sergeants, Joseph Stobbe, who was seriously wounded by a by a sniper who was shooting from a window as he entered Metzervisse (a village about 15 kilometers east of Thionville). This was the third time Sergeant Stobbe was wounded while fighting in France (his first two injuries were in the battle of Normandy).

After the war, Sergeant Stobbe returned home, went to school, and opened a medical practice in Salt Lake City. It wasn't until many years later that he returned to Lorraine with his family to share with them memories of his past. As coincidence would have it, an automobile accident hospitalized him once again. The local chief of Police, Pascal Morretti, while investigating the accident was stunned to hear that Dr. Stobbe was one of the young soldiers who had been wounded many years before while liberating his village. Friendships were formed and many of the local people came to the hospital bearing bottles of wine, flowers, flags, and souvenirs. But, patriotic Pascal Morretti thought that more should be done, and a grand reunion was planned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Lorraine. The elaborate plan called for inviting as guests all the veterans of the 90th and 95th Infantry Divisions, as well as the 3rd Cavalry. Amazingly many of the soldiers were still alive and came to France with their families for a week's celebration. The local people turned out en mass and welcomed them royally with banquets, speeches, parades, religious services, and bus tours to the battle fields where new monuments and statues were commemorated. At every stop both the Star spangled Banner and the The Marseille were played by local bands.

Planning Your Trip: If the Maginot Line is the focus of your trip to the Lorraine, it is essential that you plan in advance and carefully check dates before finalizing your travel arrangements. The reason for this is that the fortresses along the Maginot Line are not always open. Most are only open from spring through fall, and then only on certain days of the week. If you have a group that wants to visit, special arrangements can usually be made. Two of the largest of the fortifications that are open to visitors are the Hackenberg Fortress and the Simserhof Fortress. If you want to visit the Hackenberg Fortress (which is frequently closed) our suggestion is to stay nearby at the Romantik Hotel L'Horizon in Thionville and to mention to the owner, Mr. Speck (who has an astonishing depth of knowledge of the history of World War II) that the purpose of your trip is to see the Hackenberg Fortress. Before making reservations, ask him to advise you if it will be possible to visit it during your intended dates. If you also want to include the Simserhof Fortress, scheduling is much easier since it is open every day from mid-March to mid-November. If the focus of your trip is to visit the American cemetery at Saint Avold, planning is easy since the cemetery is open every day all year except Christmas and New Year's.

Recommended Pacing: This itinerary covers a small geographical area so we suggest choosing just one place as your hub of operation. Thionville and Metz (both large industrial cities) are centrally located for sightseeing. To have time to include one or more fortresses along the Maginot Line and also visit the American cemetery at Saint Avold, you need three nights in order to have two full days for sightseeing. One day can be allocated to the Hackenberg fortress and the surrounding area. Another day can be used to visit the Simserhof Fortress and Citadel of Bitche with a stop en route to see the Saint Avold Cemetery (located approximately mid-way between Thionville and Simserhof). If you want to squeeze in some more sightseeing, additional suggestions are given at the end of this itinerary.

The Maginot Line-A bit of history: The Maginot Line, a name and place once so well known, has faded into the background through the years and now is best remembered by those who were alive during World War II and those with a keen interest in history. But, its story is fascinating. Following the Great War (World War I) the French were devastated by the horrors of battle and determined to never again experience such losses at the hands of their mortal enemy, Germany. It is no wonder they were so motivated to find a way to block another German invasion. The loss of life in World War I is almost unimaginable. A staggering number of France's finest young men were lost; few families were spared heartache. The worst casualties of the war took place in Verdun, also located in Lorraine. Here the Germans, led by Crown Prince Wilhelm, attempted to conquer France with an onslaught that began in February 1916 and lasted for 10 months. Finally, in spite of great odds against them, the French prevailed, but at an almost inconceivable loss of life. It is estimated that over a million died here, including Germans and French-the greatest fatalities per square meter of any battle of the war.

Knowing the French suffered such heartbreaking losses in the World War I, it is understandable that they were passionate about avoiding another invasion by Germany. And, their fears of just such a scenario happening again grew daily as Hitler blatantly built up his army. The French politicians and military experts debated about the best way to stymie an invasion. After much debate, the plan of the Minister of War, André Maginot, to build string of fortifications along the border was accepted and construction began in 1929 for what became know as The Maginot Line. The concept was grandiose; the engineering top notch. Only the Great Wall of China could compete with the flamboyant plan-to build a series of fortifications stretching for 640 kilometers across the north of France along the borders of Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium. The strategy called for 108 large fortresses positioned 15 kilometers apart, supplemented by smaller forts, pillboxes, concrete bunkers, and watch posts. The undertaking was awesome: Secreted below the ground would be over 100 kilometers of tunnels accessed by a network of trains, accommodations for thousands of men, hospitals, kitchens, dental offices, lighting systems, cinemas, rail yards, sophisticated plumbing works, maintenance shops, dining rooms, a vast network of phone, and concealed turrets with mechanisms that could raise them as smoothly as a well-run clock to the surface of the earth.

Unfortunately, the Maginot Line did not work. On paper, the plan seemed brilliant, but it did not take into consideration changes in warfare. Yes, the German and Luxembourg borders were well protected; however, the section of the fortification along the border with Belgium was weak because the French thought the Germans would never attack through Belgium, which was their ally. They also thought there was little chance the Germans would attack through Belgium since they would have to go through the dense forests of the Ardennes. How wrong they were. Belgium declared neutrality thus Germany had access to France. And, with better equipment, Hitler's panzers plowed right through the forests of the Ardennes which the French had thought were impregnable. In May 10, 1940, the German army crossed into France over the border with Belgium with 140,000 troops and 1,500 tanks. The only obstacle to their unimpeded conquest of France was the battle at Dunkirk where the Germans surrounded and trapped over 300,000 allied troops. In a drama that will always be remembered as testament to British daring and courage, the soldiers were rescued by the heroic efforts of incredibly brave Englishmen who crossed the English Channel in hundreds of small boats of all shapes and sizes to rescue the stranded soldiers and ferry them back to England. (It was said there were so many boats in the channel that one could almost walk between England and France.) After Dunkirk, the Germans encountered no more resistance. They swept across the country unimpeded, totally avoiding the Maginot Line. By June 15, 1940, Paris had fallen.

The Maginot Line-Hackenberg: If you have time for just one fortification, we suggest Hackenberg Fortress near Veckring. Not only is it near Thionville and Metz, but it is also one of the largest and most important of the fortifications along the Maginot Line. Even Winston Churchill came to take a look at this underground city. To reach the fortification, take exit 37 off the A31 (the exit is between Thionville and Metz). Then take D8 east for about 14 kilometers and turn north on D918 for just a few kilometers, and then go east on D60. Five kilometers before you reach Veckring, there is a M10 tank marking a turnoff to the left to the Hackenberg Fortress, which is tucked into a wooded ridge.

Park your car and walk up to the entrance. Be sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and a warm coat, gloves, and a cap since you will be doing lots of walking and the underground tunnels are damp and cold. You will be greeted by a guide-some of the older ones have known the fortress first hand. Be forewarned that there might not be an English-speaking guide available. If not, join the tour anyway-most of what you see along the way will be self explanatory. The tour usually takes from 2 to 3 hours.

As you start out on foot with your guide and descend ever deeper into the ground through a myriad of tunnels and elevators, it quickly becomes obvious why a guide is absolutely essential. In fact, you will probably hover near to him, like a school child clinging to his teacher, for fear of getting lost in the 10-kilometer maze of dark passages. Just about when you get tired of walking, a train will pull up through one of the long tunnels and you will hop aboard to continue your journey along the narrow gauge railway that was used to transport soldiers, ammunition, and supplies. Along the way you will make many stops where your guide will take you through a labyrinth of small tunnels and with his special key opens the heavy doors leading into locked rooms, flipping on lights so you can see.

The tour is fascinating. Not a sophisticated, sleek Hollywood-style presentation, but rather a simple, well-presented one that shows you everything in homespun, heartfelt way that makes the adventure that much more real. One of the most interesting aspects of the tour is that along the way you will experience what it must have been like to have been one of the more than 1,000 enlisted men and officers who lived here. There are many dioramas which make the scene come alive. You will pass the kitchen where dressed manikins show the chef preparing dinner helped by the solders assigned to mess duty. The daily menu shows that the soldiers were well fed, no doubt an attempt to boost moral in this forsaken assignment. Another vignette is the dentist's chambers where again full size models dressed in uniforms. A hospital, dormitories, officers' quarters, laundry facilities, ammunition depots, huge maintenance rooms, a movie theater, recreation halls, power plants, and reservoirs of water are passed along the way.

Housed in one of the barracks is a museum displaying memorabilia of the war with very interesting photographs of some of the soldiers and a display of weapons and uniforms At another point, a stop is made to see a demonstration of how the hidden gun turrets worked. As you watch, the guide operates the still perfectly-functioning mechanism whose gears slowly raise a camouflaged turret. You climb some steps leading outside where you watch as the gun turret magically rises from its hiding place below and pokes its head above the ground. (The fortress is open for tours on Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm from April through October. From mid-June to mid-September, weekday tours are added at 3pm.)

The Maginot Line-Simserhof: If you wish to see more fortifications, visit the Simserhof Fortress, located near the town of Bitche. It is the fourth largest of the fortresses along the Maginot Line. To reach the site, go south on A31 from Thionville, then east on the A4 (bypassing Metz). From the A4, take exit 43 near Rimsdorf, then north for 5 km, then east on the D8 (which becomes D35). When you come to Rohrbach, continue east on D62. Simserhof is located five kilometers before you reach the town of Bitche.

Simserhof is different from the other fortresses in that it has received outside funding for renovations-whereas most depend almost totally on financial support from their local communities. As a result, the tour is a bit more "polished" than the others along the Maginot Line. The tour begins at the visitors' center where an 18-minute film is shown giving the background of the Maginot Line, including why it was built. Afterwards an open-air electric train takes you 30 meters underground for a short tour. The tour is well done with dioramas demonstrating what it must have been like to have been one of the soldiers stationed here. (The fortress is open daily from mid-March to mid-November, 10am to 5pm.)

Bitche-Citadel of Bitche: After visiting the Simserhof Fortress, continue on for another 5 kilometers to the town of Bitche where the strategic military importance of this region of France is once again demonstrated. The town wraps around a flat-topped hill, crowned by the remains of a superb, 18th century fortification, the Citadel of Bitche. A tour of the site relives the battle fought in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War. There is also a museum here that commemorates the men who fought in the Franco-Prussian War.

Saint Avold American Cemetary: A visit to the Saint Avold American Cemetery adds greater compassion and understanding to the sacrifices made during World War II.  It seems that everyone is familiar with the battlefields and cemeteries of Normandy, where thousands of visitors walk the hallowed ground each year. However, it was surprising to us to learn that the largest American cemetery in Europe is the one in Saint Avold.

Saint Avold Cemetery is beautifully set in gently rolling, wooded countryside just north of the town of Saint Avold. Upon arrival, you can leave your car in a parking area just outside of the dramatic gated entrance, which is adorned with a bronze eagle. A short walk leads to undulating lush green lawns that are enclosed by a distant forest. The well-manicured landscaping is elegant with flowering shrubs, walkways bordered by roses, and a lush lawn dotted with oak, beach, maple, and hawthorn trees. There is nothing to mar the beauty. Everything is serene and tasteful. Tears cannot help but come to your eyes as you view row upon row, of simple, pure white, marble crosses that seem to stretch forever. The graves of soldiers of Jewish faith are marked with the Star of David. Four Medal of Honor recipients are buried here: their headstones inscribed in gold leaf. In Saint Avold there are 10,489 graves, including soldiers and airmen from every state in America, as well as fallen soldiers from Puerto Rico, Panama, Canada, Mexico, and England.

Stop to visit the Wall of the Missing, a handsome, impressive monument inscribed with the names of 444 unidentified soldiers. The names of those who were later identified are now marked by a star. While we were at the cemetery we spoke with a family from Virginia who told us the story of their Missing Soldier. For many years the family only knew that their son was missing and had obviously died on the battlefield. It was not until more than 60 years later that they received in the mail a bracelet engraved with his name. A note was attached from a farmer in Lorraine who found the bracelet while working in his field. After vast research, he was finally able to discover where the boy's family lived and sent the token to them. A small group of his family, glad to finally have closure, had come to Saint Avold to commemorate their long-lost loved one.

Before leaving the cemetery, be sure to visit its Memorial, a simple, dignified,  beautifully designed, rectangular stone building that stands on a rise overlooking the field of crosses. An inscription reads "In proud remembrance of the achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices, this memorial has been erected by the United States of America." Within, the monument tastefully blends historical information along with a quiet, spiritual mood. At the end of the room, bathed in a stream of light that flood through tall floor to ceiling windows, there are five sculptured figures of white limestone that represent the eternal struggle for freedom. The middle carving is a young man. He is flanked by historic religious and militarily heroes, including King David, Emperor Constantine, King Arthur, and George Washington. Below the sculptures is an alter of green marble, a place where many come to quietly remember about their loved ones and say a silent prayer On the wall is a large glazed, colored ceramic map portraying, and describing, the military operations in Europe beginning with the Normandy landing until the war ended. A special smaller map details the fighting near Avold. A row of flags flutter high on each side wall, representing each part of the United States military service. (Saint Avold is open daily except Christmas and New Year's, 9am to 5pm).

Additional sightseeing suggestion-American Cemetery in Hamm, Luxembourg. If your heart was profoundly touched by the American cemetery at Saint Avold, it is well worth the short drive across the border into Luxembourg to visit the American Cemetery where over 5,000 American soldiers are buried near the village of Hamm (about 4 kilometers east of Luxembourg City). It is here that General George Patton, the strong-willed, brilliant military genius who liberated Lorraine is buried. Patton fought in both World War I and World War II and had been wounded three times. However, it was not a battle, but rather a staff car accident that led to the death of this tough general, affectionately called by his men "Old Blood and Guts." Instead of returning home to lie at rest in Arlington Cemetery along with other famous military heroes, he is buried, just as he requested, amongst his soldiers. Thousands of visitors come each year to visit the cemetery and pay their tribute by decorating the graves with wreathes and flowers. The beautiful, 43-acre, wooded site was donated by the people of Luxembourg.

Additional sightseeing suggestion-Metz: If time allows, visit Metz, a city dating back to Roman times. Today it is a large metropolis; however at its heart you find an interesting, pedestrian-only, historic center. Of greatest interest here is the magnificent St. Étienne Cathedral, one of the finest Gothic cathedrals in France. Its beautiful stained glass windows were done by famous artists, including Marc Chagall. The cathedral and many of the nearby historic monuments are romantically illuminated at night.

Additional sightseeing suggestion-Verdun: To expand your understanding of military history, visit Verdun, located about an hour's drive east of either Thionville or Metz. It was in Verdun in World War I that France's most horrendous 10-month battle took place. Its battlefields and memorials can easily be visited in a day. For more information on Verdun, see the previous section: "The Maginot Line: a bit of history."

When finished with your explorations in Lorraine, it is an easy drive southeast along the A4 to the exceptionally lovely city of Strasbourg. From here, you can continue along our Alsace Itinerary, tasting delicious wines and visiting charming small villages.

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