As we road tripped through France, wine wasn’t the only thing that fueled our agenda. Passionate about history, Harry and I sought out landmarks that were scattered across the country to learn more about how both World Wars impacted the people and countries involved. We primarily used Rick Steves’ Whirlwind Three-Week Tour of France by Car as a rough guide and we found a few of our own hidden gems along the way.
After tons of research and planning we realized that the best way to tour France was by renting a car through one of the short-term lease buyback programs through Auto Europe. Here is our guide to France’s FREE WWI/WWII historical gems.
La Main de Massiges, Massiges, France
We stumbled on this outdoor museum by chance. La Main de Massiges is a memorial and archeological site where visitors can walk the trenches of WWI. The site provides an insight as to what life was like in the trenches. Real artifacts are still in place and are free to be touched and held. Historical photos in the ruins provide visitors the chance to get a glimpse into what daily life was like. The site is eerily quiet and often free from other visitors. As late as 2014, excavators and volunteers are still finding the remains of soldiers buried beneath the ruble.
Oradour-sur-Glane Village, France
To us, this was the most shocking and disturbing WWII site that we encountered on our European travels. On June 10, 1944, 642 men, women, and children of the small French village of Oradour-sur-Glane were viscously massacred by Nazis. The charred remains of the village still stand as a memorial to all who died in this horrific event. We walked around the rubble in stunned silence, getting a visual image of this war crime which historians claim still has no understandable motive. As this is the site of the worst Nazi massacre of civilians carried out on French soil, it surprising that this memorial is not better known throughout the world.
*Village is free. The Interpretation Center has a small fee for admittance.
This WWII location tells the story of an American paratrooper (from our home state of Illinois!) who accidently landed on this church’s tower. He played dead for two hours until he was shot in the foot and eventually captured by Nazi soldiers. He eventually escaped and continued the fight against the German forces. Today, a mannequin hangs from the place where he landed back on D-Day in 1944. An interesting and unexpected sight in the small village of Ste-Mére-Eglise.
* We recommend pairing it with the Airborne Museum, our vote for one of the best WWII museums in France. The admission cost is 8.00€ per adult.
D-Day Beaches, Normandy France
It’s hard to imagine the death and destruction that occurred on this beautiful piece of France’s northern coast back in 1944. Along the stretch of historical beaches, there are memorials, monuments, and bunkers that allow visitors to get a better understanding of the battles fought here. Pack a picnic lunch and take time to walk the sandy oceanfront to reflect on this significant part of WWII history.
Pointe du Hoc, Normandy France
Explore the bunkers, underground tunnels, and bomb cratered landscape in this German strategic site. Located on a cliff overlooking the English Channel, this is where 225+ United States Army Rangers assaulted and captured the Pointe du Hoc after scaling 100 foot cliffs. An interesting fact we learned is that during the planning and training phases for this engagement, the teams practiced firing the grapnels with DRY rope. During the rough English Channel crossing the ropes became soaked and HEAVY. When the Rangers initially fired the grapnels none of them made it to the top of the cliff. (Talk about having to overcome a huge problem at the worst moment!) Luckily, a few of the last ropes were dry enough to be fired to the top of the cliff. The rest is history.
Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial
No trip to France’s WWII sites is complete without paying respect to the American Heroes who bravely gave their lives to help liberate Europe from those damn Nazis. What many visitors may not know, is that there is an amazing free museum attached to the visitor center that is worth exploring before walking around the beautiful grounds.