Many battles hold significance in the heart of France, but the Butte de Vauquois would probably be towards the top of that list for residents of the Meuse region. The village of Vauquois was decimated by World War I; villagers fled in September 1914 as German troops advanced through Belgium, bringing destruction to this region. Local residents would never return to the hilltop town that they had once called home. There was nothing left thanks to two war tactics that took shape during the Battle of Vauquois—the flamethrower was introduced, and mine warfare took hold during WWI as a way of eliminating your enemy from below; an easy battle plan when fighting on the hill town of Vauquois.
In 1915, the French decided to dig underground tunnels to detonate explosives, which was the start of mine warfare in WWI. There are several craters in the hill that was once home to the town of Vauquois, but the largest was formed after sixty tons of explosives were used underground to make a crater that cut the hill in half (30 meters deep). Through 1917, French and German troops continued digging tunnels so they could take out their enemies from underneath when they couldn’t get a foothold in the battle raging above ground.
WWI was also the first time flamethrowers were used in battle. Unfortunately for the French troops, it didn’t work out so well for them when they ignited their flamethrowers. The wind changed direction, throwing flames on the French troops and igniting a batch of ammunition.
Visiting the Butte de Vauquois in modern times
Although it is free to visit the site on your own, if you want to go underground you will have to book a guide in advance. This is worth scheduling ahead of time, especially if you have children learning about WWI in school, or you yourself are interested in history. Just like our journey through La Main de Massiges, my boys were young for this sort of adventure, and my youngest (age 4) was a bit nervous as we talked about going underground into dark tunnels. As soon as he saw that we had to wear hard hats AND we got to hold our very own flashlight his fears vanished. There were a few older boys in our tour group as well, which made it extra fun to explore the mines together.
Thanks to our local guide, we were able to learn more about the living conditions of soldiers, how the mines changed sides as the war progressed, and saw only a fraction of the many miles of living space, communication rooms, sleeping quarters, and even a hospital that was used underground while fighting persisted. We also saw a brilliantly colored salamander, bright green moss, and more tunnels than you could image being tug by hand in less than three years.
Can you imagine living underground for a month at a time? Soldiers generally rotated their time inside the mines every eight hours, going up to the trenches when they weren’t digging tunnels. Every 28 days they were sent to Verdun for a rest. Even with rest, being underground for even just an hour had me going batty, and there was some electricity in the tunnels, plus we had several flashlights to light our way. I can’t imagine the insanity a soldier would experience when he was working and sleeping underground for long periods of time.
Tips for visiting with the Butte de Vauquois kids
Young children will get antsy while exploring the Butte de Vauquois. If your kids get antsy whenever you try to do something interesting, this site will be no exception, but that is O.K. If you are on a guided tour you can hang towards the back so your children aren’t disruptive. If you have battle loving little boys like my 4 and 7 year olds, they may be more interested in hearing what explosives can do to a hill and how a flamethrower works than many adults in your group. (Seriously, After Star Wars: A Force Awakens my boys know all about those stormtrooper flame throwers.)
Don’t skip historic battle sights just because you think your younger children (and even the older ones) will be bored. For older children this is a chance to connect all that they learn at school with the real places it has happened. It is also another reminder of the devastation war can bring, something we don’t see as much of in the United States, even though our troops have fought on European soil through two World Wars.
Know before you Go
- The Battle of Vauquois (Butte de Vauquois): Association Les Amis de Vauquois- 55270 Varquois
- Admission fee: Free with no guide. You are welcome to explore the above ground area, where you will see the permanent destruction the underground mines made to the terrain.A paper guide can bring you through the site; just follow the numbers. Pick up your paper guide in the visitors center or in the tiny village just outside of the entrance to the historic sight.
- Tours: Above ground tours of the area that explain the history and significance of this battle in the war cost three Euros per person via the Association Les Amis de Varquois. Tours are available in English, but call ahead of time to book. Below ground tours of the mines and “living quarters” are available by advance appointment only. Tours are limited to protect visitors and the site.
Where to stay near Butte de Vauquois
Les Jardins du Mess, 22 Quai de la Republique, 55100 Verdun. Enjoy chic and luxurious accommodations in the heart of the city of Verdun. The family suite features a massive soaker tub, king-size bed for mom and dad, and pull out chairs that turn into twin beds for the kids. Breakfast is worth grabbing downstairs, and the toys at check in are perfect for children as they wait for their parents to grab keys or gather information for their next adventure.
Le Tulipier, Rue Saint Jacques, 51800 Vienne-le-Chateau. This small country hotel provides large rooms for families, plenty of outdoor space to play, an indoor pool and superb dining right on site.
PIN IT FOR LATER!
Many thanks to ATOUT France, Air France and the tourism offices of Aisne, Champagne Ardenne, Meuse and Lorraine for hosting my family as we discovered WWI history in France with kids. As always, my opinions are my own. When they aren’t you will be the first to know.