These regions are home to the many sites that bear the scars of two world wars. The sites commemorate the selfless sacrifice of those who took part and now, thanks to the regional Remembrance Trails, you can discover them at your leisure along local cycling and hiking routes. Each route develops a specific theme and is accompanied by an illustrated guide. Consult the guide on your mobile (or download it) to discover the human side of these conflicts and learn about the region and its history in an original and compelling way.
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This cycle route takes you to the principal sites connected with the Siege of Maubeuge, which took place from 27 August to 8 September 1914 during the initial phase of the German invasion. Although the siege managed to stall for almost a fortnight tens of thousands of German soldiers who would have otherwise taken part in the Battle of the Marne, it was nevertheless a serious blow to the French Army which saw more than 40,000 soldiers taken prisoner (a tenth of the total number of French prisoners taken in the Great War). Maubeuge is significant because, along with the Siege of Antwerp (28 September – 10 October 1914), it marked the end of a tactical tradition which had for centuries been an integral part of European warfare. What followed was a linear state of siege, the trenches, which would last for nearly fifty months on the Western Front. Thereafter, heavy artillery dominated the battlefield.
Visitors also gain an insight into the crimes committed by the German Army during the invasion of 1914. Although French civilians may not have suffered on the same scale as the Belgians (several hundred were massacred in the towns of Dinant, Tamines and Andenne), the invading troops left in their wake a bloody trail whose only justification was a deluded fear of the francs-tireurs (civilian snipers).
Maubeuge was liberated from German occupation on 9 November 1918. The ancient town would suffer once again the ravages of war during the invasion of 1940.
The fortified perimeter of Maubeuge comprised thirteen forts and other military works. These were built on high ground and even today they dominate the landscape.
Taking up his appointment in 1912 as governor, General Fournier quickly identified weaknesses in the layout of the forts and had installed trenches, posts, thorn bushes and barbed wire. His actions led the ranks to christen him ‘Général Fil de Fer’ (General Wire).
Placed in Belgium on the high ground to the northeast of Maubeuge, the German guns started shelling French positions to the east of the fortified town on 29 August 1914. These included the forts of Boussois and Cerfontaine and the works of Bersillies, La Salmagne and Rocq. The French soldiers manning these positions were stunned by the density of the bombardment and the massive destruction it wrought. The centre of Maubeuge was also damaged.
On 31 August, French soldiers observed for the first time a 420 mm shell case in the area around Sarts Fort. This discovery left the defenders of Maubeuge in no doubt about the superior fire power of the German Army.
Leveau Fort was built between 1882 and 1884. Its purpose was to strengthen the fortified town of Maubeuge. It was also a key position in a much wider defensive system designed by General Raymond Adolphe Séré de Rivières to protect France’s border with Belgium.
The fort’s raised features, known as ‘cavaliers’, are about thirty feet higher than the ramparts and were used as platforms for the heavy artillery. Underneath were the barracks. Ditches with scarp and counterscarp encased in stone surround the fort and their purpose was to hinder attacking forces. Two caponiers connected to the fort provided flanking fire on the ditches. The entrance and the gorge of the fort are flanked on either side by casemates.
The site saw action during the siege of the fortified town of Maubeuge. In the summer of 1914, after crushing the Belgian defence at Liège and Namur, the German Army advanced on Paris as prescribed by the Schlieffen Plan. Coming up against Maubeuge, the Germans encircled the fortifications and on 29 August 1914 they proceeded to shell the forts and works of the defensive perimeter. Their objective was to neutralize all the French defences in the sector that had the potential to disrupt the advance of the Kaiser’s troops into France.
On 7 September 1914 Leveau Fort came under fire. Despite the thickness of its walls, the fort was no test for the German shells, especially the 420s from the heavy siege gun known as ‘Big Bertha’. On the same day the garrison was evacuated. According to various sources between 80 to 100 were killed and the building was seriously damaged, in particular the original entrance bridge which has now been replaced with a replica.
Since 1993 the charity Sauvegarde du Leveau Fort has been restoring the site and the result is remarkable. The fort is now home to a museum which, through a marvellous collection of artefacts, tells the story of the Siege of Maubeuge and the German occupation of the district of Avesnes during the Great War.
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To facilitate the movement of troops and equipment within the fortified town, the French Army set up a network of strategically-placed tracks between the forts and other military positions. These tracks were concealed from the besieger’s view. Most of them were based on existing byroads. The War Department paid subsidies to the district authorities to keep them maintained.
In the fortified town of Maubeuge, strategic track 14 linked Leveau Fort to Sarts Fort and then continued through Mairieux, Elesmes and Assevent to its destination at Cerfontaine Fort. Today this strategic track is the secondary road D136.
Six intermediate works were built between 1891 and 1895 to improve the defensive perimeter of the strong point of Maubeuge. These infantry positions were intended to strengthen the spaces between the forts and protect the batteries deployed at Bersillies, La Salmagne, Ferrière-la- Petite, Gréveaux, Feignies and Héron-Fontaine.
The intermediate work at La Salmagne came under heavy shelling from 31 August to 1 September.
At midday on 1 September General Fournier launched an attack along an 8 km front between Vieux-Reng and Jeumont to destroy the enemy’s artillery. He deployed his forces from Boussois Fort and the works at La Salmagne and Le Fagné. This attack was the only offensive of any size to be executed by the French and it failed at 250 yards from the enemy guns under a hail of machine-gun fire.
In late September the Germans blew up the caponiers in the ditches and carried off the barbed-wire entanglements to use them at the front.
In 1935 the fort was once again utilized in France’s border defence. The bunkers were demolished to make way for a small artillery work comprising two concrete combat blocks 150 yards apart. They were linked thirty metres below the surface by a tunnel which also gave access to the soldiers quarters including kitchen, dormitories and sick room.
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In 1914 this field battery was mounted with six 90 mm guns. It covered the terrain that extended from Le Fagné Farm to La Salmagne Farm.
Around the battery the army placed stone markers and these are still visible today. Such marking indicated that the surrounding land was subject to restrictions depending on the distance from the stone:
Thus the terrain around military works within a radius of up to 974 metres would always be clear for action. However these restrictions considerably hindered the development of farming in the vicinity.
Two thousand men were killed in the Battle of Maubeuge, as many French as German. They were initially buried in temporary, sometimes mass, graves and in the cemeteries near where they fell. Many of the soldiers dug out of the ruins of the forts were also interred locally, as were those who died in the hospital of the fortified town.
Under orders from the Kaiser himself, the governor of Maubeuge Karl Ritter Von Martini organized the construction of a war cemetery at Assevent in honour of the ‘immortal dead’. In March 1916 he ordered the mayors concerned to transfer the dead buried in their towns and villages to the new cemetery. Jules Walrand, mayor of Maubeuge, was given the task of dividing up the cost of the transfers among the various districts.
It was inaugurated on 20 October 1916 in the presence of the mayors of the participating towns and villages, Father Wattiez and Jules Walrand, the latter receiving the keys to the site.
Assevent French National Cemetery is the final resting place for 1,140 French soldiers (487 in ossuary), 399 Germans (342 in ossuary), as well as 260 Russians (200 in ossuary), 12 Romanians, 7 Britons, and 1 Belgian.
The Russians among the war dead were prisoners brought over from the Eastern Front to carry out the heavy, exhausting work of maintaining the roads, cutting down trees, and building German defensive works on the Hindenburg Line.
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After nine days of intensive shelling which succeeded in destroying the works that made up the defensive perimeter of the fortified town of Maubeuge, General Fournier offered surrender on 7 September 1914 and this took effect the following morning at 8 o’clock.
At 2 p.m. on 8 September General Fournier, accompanied by Captain Grenier and Lieutenant-colonel Duchesne, went to Porte de Mons to meet General Von Zwehl, commander of the besieging forces. In accordance with military custom General Fournier offered his sword to the victorious commander but, in recognition of the Frenchman’s fine defence of the garrison, Von Zwehl refused it.
Subsequently, 32,000 prisoners taken by the German troops at the end of the Battle of Maubeuge marched through the ancient Vauban gate. Those soldiers, who had so valiantly defended their fortified town, were now on the road to Germany and captivity. They would be prisoners for more than four long years.
In total 60,000 German soldiers were mobilized to take the fortified town of Maubeuge, the longest siege of the Great War. Consequently, it could be said that but for Maubeuge the German Army would have been much stronger on 5 September at the outset of the Battle of the Marne. As it was the British and French troops succeeded in halting the German push in the summer of 1914 and saved Paris from humiliation.
Today Porte de Mons, parts of which date from the seventeenth century, bears a plaque commemorating General Fournier and the French forces who defended Maubeuge.