Lorraine: A Hidden Historical Area You’ve Never Heard of in North East France by Sophie Nadeau

Sure, you’ve seen the pictures of the fairy tale-like towns of Alsace and you’ve probably even drunk the sparkling wine from Champagne… But have you heard of the Lorraine, an area of France sandwiched between two of its much more famous neighbours?

Now located in the Grand-Est region of France and situated just a few hours from Paris, Lorraine is the historical French area you’ve never heard of but probably should have done!

History of the area pre WWI: Architecture, traditional food and historical landmarks in Metz, Meuse and Beyond…
The region’s history and architecture is a complicated and interwoven tapestry of old meets new and modern meets ancient, much of which was shaped by World War One (1914-18). But of course, much like the rest of France, Lorraine also has a history dating back thousands of years.

Bien sûr, many believe that the bicycle was invented here in Lorraine. And it was here, also in Lorraine, where the popular French sweet treat, ‘the dragée’ was invented in the 13th Century in an apothecary by way of Verdun. For those not in the know about this traditional French delicacy, the Dragée is typically an almond coated in a hard candy shell.

This sweet treat is often gifted and consumed at weddings, christenings and confirmations, and is an incredibly special gift in French culture. Similarly, the Madeleine Cake (usually made with orange blossom) finds its origins in Commercy, a commune in the Meuse Department dating all the way back to the 9th Century.

If you look to the capital of Lorraine, Metz, you’ll find a whole host of architecture, local food and oodles of history just waiting to be discovered. In Metz (a city which is easily accessible via high speed train from Paris or via car from nearby Luxembourg airport) you’ll find one of the tallest cathedrals in France, as well as the oldest working theatre in France.

Walk another few blocks of the city, and you’ll stumble upon the Porte des Allemands (literally translated as ‘Germans’ Gate’). It was built by the Teutonic Knights and dates all the way back to the 13th and 15th Centuries. More recently, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany imagined Metz as a new ‘Germanified’ city following the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. It went from being located in the Moselle Département of France, to being incorporated by Bismarck into Germany. A grand plan for a great city was devised. Wander around Metz today, and you’ll find traces of Germanic influence almost everywhere you look. From the Grand Gare de Metz-Ville, fitted with apartments fit for an Emperor, to numerous boulevards, by the beginning of the 20th-Century, the city had been well and truly shaped by the Kaiser.
Indeed, the story of the region is still playing out today. Just a few years ago the modern art museum, Centre Pompidou-Metz was opened and inaugurated. The inspired art space houses all kinds of installations, quirky exhibitions and pieces designed to make you think.

Similarly, the beautiful hotel of Les Jardins du Mess was recently opened in the very heart of Verdun. The four-star establishment is housed in a once abandoned building, proving that Lorraine is a region constantly changing with the times, and incorporating its interesting history into its storyline one building at a time.

WWI, Lorraine & Its Impact on France
If there’s one event that has shaped the region more than any other, it’s World War One. When war broke out in Europe in 1914, Lorraine was one of the very first areas of France affected. Following the war, much of the region was declared part of the ‘Zone Rouge’; an area so devastated by fighting that buildings, agriculture and forestry were declared 100% destroyed or damaged following the war.

Just one small reminder of the complete devastation the war caused comes in the form of a little bell tower, located in the small and sleepy town of Varennes-en-Argonne. A little plaque on the tower indicates that it was here, in 1791, that Louis XVI was recognized and captured together with his close family. He was arrested while attempting to flee France and abscond from the Revolution.

However, what the plaque, and indeed the entire village, do not depict is that Varennes-en-Argonne was almost entirely decimated during the war. The only indication that the village once lay on the very frontlines of the Western Front sits just a few hundred metres away from this little snippet of history that is the bell tower.

It is the Pennsylvania Memorial, a monument paid for and erected by the state of Pennsylvania as a way of commemorating the many service personnel who came from the USA to fight in France. They came to a country they had never been to before and they came to fight for freedom. This is the story of the interwoven history of the Lorraine.

In total, troops spent four years here, fighting in the Meuse area. Years of repeated shelling and artillery fire took their toll on the region. Yet another poignant reminder of the complete and utter devastation that the war had lies just behind the Montfaucon American Memorial. There, you’ll find the ruins of the Collegiate Church Saint-Germain. Today, just a few crumbling walls are all that remain of what was once a thriving place of worship. Similar stories can be found throughout the region; notably in the villages of Beaumont-en-Verdunois, Bezonvaux and Cumières-le-Mort-Homme. Following the war, the decision was taken not to rebuild these towns as they had ‘died for France’, mostly during the battle of Verdun.

Verdun was one of the bloodiest, and most tragic battles fought over land that the world has ever seen. In fact, there is no way of knowing how many men died in the battle, let alone during the war. It’s estimated by some that as many as 700,000 men died in the Battle of Verdun alone. Such was the loss and devastation that the remains of many soldiers and other military personnel were never recovered or identified from the battlefields.

While estimates suggest that as many as 80,000 men were never recovered, and remain buried in the fields planted with forests to remember the war, the Douaumont Ossuary is now a memorial and the final resting place for some 130,000 men who were recovered from the battlefields but could not be identified. These men are soldiers from both sides of the war.

For those whose bodies could be identified, war graves were erected. These war graves are not only the final resting place of soldiers, but of nurses, and other military personnel who aided in the war effort.
While in Lorraine, we attended a candlelit ceremony at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery. This moving memorial service consisted of over 3000 graves lit by candlelight. We were invited to wander the graves and listen to volunteers describe the life of the soldiers and other military personnel who lived and died in Lorraine. An altogether moving, memorable and emotional evening, it’s the kind of experience that leaves you pondering upon the devastation of war for days.

What many people don’t realise is that the war was not only fought on the land and in the trenches. It was also fought over the air, by sea and even underground. The underground tunnels at Butte Vauqouis are a surviving example of Germans fighting, living and mining under the ground. The battered remains of Fort Vaux are yet another example of warfare that did not necessarily take place in the trenches.

In fact, no area of the region, or life in the region was left untouched by the war. Even French Châteaux were used in some way or another. For example, Château des Monthairons (a grand 19th-century mansion) was used as a military hospital during WWI. Today, the Château has been transformed into a family run hotel- a small reminder that history can be found in the most unexpected of places.

Lorraine Today
Today, Lorraine is one of those places you really have to see for yourself. It’s one thing to take some history lessons at school, and another thing entirely to really experience the story of the region for yourself.
For those wishing to learn history from the experts, you’ll find plenty of museums in the area: each with its own unique way of looking at the past, and curating a narrative in a way in which we may never forget the horrors of WWI.

One of the most moving museums I’ve ever come across came in the form of the Romagne 14-18 Museum, run by local resident Jean-Paul de Vries. Comprising of close to 200,000 objects (many of which were found within 5km of Romagne and by de Vries himself), it’s the kind of museum that will leave you thinking and feeling for days. It’s the kind of museum that shows the human aspect of war. Another similarly moving museum, shown in an entirely different fashion is that of the Verdun Memorial and Museum. Set over several floors, it is incredibly interactive and shows many different aspects of war.

In the Romagne 14-18 museum, you can hold the objects, smell them and be transported back in time- if only for a moment. In the Château des Monthairons, you can sleep in a century old castle and walk the hallways as people have done for decades. Meanwhile, at the Dragées Braquier factory the scents of the baked caramel, sugar and other confectionery delights cannot easily be described in words. So take a trip to the Meuse-Lorraine area, be transported back in time and explore a region that many have never heard of…