Today was full of adventure! It was my last full day in France and the only day of this trip devoted to exploration. Thanks to my friends Guillaume and Denis, the day exceeded expectations.
The day began at the headquarters of the Association which manages Butte de Vauquois. Denis and Association President Alain analyzed topographical maps to plan our journey into the heavily forested hilltop battlefields in the area which we would explore.
Our first stop was a tunnel system that Guillaume discovered last year. Access required the use of a portable ladder that was thrown down a 35 foot hole into the darkness. Guillaume was apparently the first human being to access this place over the past century. He found the original electrical system with light bulbs still intact. Remnants of the electrical power plant remained. A railway system, lots of objects of daily life, munitions, parts of uniforms, boxes of dynamite and machinery lay about. Unfortunately, hunting season had just opened. Nearby, there were hunters shouting as they tried to corner a deer which briefly passed close to our location. Guillaume decided that it was a bit too risky for us to continue to the site.
Next, Guillaume showed Denis and me a variety of WWI vestiges in the forest: a German fountain still flowing and marked with regimental inscriptions, a plaque inside a bomb-damaged bunker not far from the Crown Prinz Bunker, an isolated gravestone in the forest belonging to a German officer, and four WWI bunkers in different locations.
We then walked along deep front line trenches, mine craters and large shell holes in the earth, now in a heavily forested area, where violent fighting took place. The German and French front lines were separated by less than one hundred meters.
Then things got interesting. Guillaume set up a rope line leading down into a small opening in the earth which would carry us into a French tunnel system that once opened directly onto a French front line trench. On either side of the tunnel were rooms carved out of stone where soldiers’ beds still lay on the ground. Bottles, pots, hand grenades and more were strewn on the ground.
There was a metal door which spanned most of the width and height of the tunnel. To the left was a slim area where a person could shimmy around the side of the door to get to the other side of the tunnel which once connected to the trench. There was a square opening in the metal door which Guillaume explained was for a machine gun to fire upon invading German soldiers who may have attempted to enter the tunnel from the French front line trench. This was my first time inside a tunnel with a machine gun placement inside.
Next, we drove to a different part of the battlefield where access is limited. Guillaume is an archeologist with the French railroad and has special authorization to enter parts of the forest where the public can not go. We climbed up a large hill, crossing over former French front line trench followed by the German front line trench. Behind the German front line, Guillaume located a small opening in the ground, the entrance into a German tunnel system. We slid into this tunnel opening on our backs.
Once inside, the height of the tunnel was often high enough to stand upright, even for me at almost 6’ 4” tall, though it always remained fairly narrow. There were rooms on either side of the tunnel where soldiers sought shelter from the bombing. We began to descend down stairs cut into the stone. At one point, there was a passageway up to the trenches. But the stairway itself led down at a fairly steep incline. I wondered when the tunnel would end but we kept descending. I don’t recall ever exploring a tunnel system that went so deep into the earth. I was never claustrophobic, but being so far underground was a bit of a creepy feeling. If something happened that caused the tunnel to collapse, it crossed my mind that we would likely never be found.
Along the way, we found lots of “stuff” left in place for a century: grenades, parts of uniforms, bullets, bottles, soldiers’ beds and more. Guillaume scratched the ground at one point and lifted out a German coin. We continued to descend. Finally, we reached the tunnel’s end with multiple rooms and many objects scattered about. I’m guessing that we had descended several hundred feet down.
What happened next is a bit embarrassing to share. I’m a big believer in carrying backup gear incase a particular piece of equipment fails. But today I didn’t bring even a headlamp or backup flashlight, not knowing that we would go underground. Neither did Denis. Guillaume had one back up light which Denis and I shared. But at the bottom of this tunnel, the batteries in the backup flashlight died and the three of us were left to share one light, the one on Guillaume’s helmet, to illuminate the path back to the surface. The way back to the top was slow and methodical. But we reached the surface without anyone getting hurt.
After leaving this tunnel, we moved along the front lines in the direction of the car. Barbed wire and the metal “pig tails” around which barbed wire was wrapped were frequently seen. We found several piles of live shells, hand grenades and other weapons along the way.
Deep in the forest, Denis found a type of mushroom that he considered a rare delicacy. He removed his helmet and used it as a bucket to hold mushrooms. He told us that one of his greatest pleasures is to enjoy an omelette made with these wild mushrooms for dinner along with a bottle of nice Bordeaux wine which he would make last the whole evening.
To celebrate the completion of this wonderfully successful trip to France, I stopped by a local grocery store in Champagne and purchased a nice bottle of Bordeaux along with several varieties of French cheese!
As I write this, I’ve reached the hotel near Paris’s Orly Airport. I’m now sipping on Bordeaux, enjoying some tasty French cheese and feeling a sense of contentment for a trip that exceeded its objectives.