A French department at the heart of the First World War, Oise in Hauts-de-France remains deeply marked by this conflict. Occupied from September 1914 to March 1917, ravaged by the battles of 1918, this territory steeped in history and situated at the crossroads of the region's major lines of communication played a strategic role as the final rampart before Paris. It was also the first French department to be liberated, symbolically hosting the signing of the Armistice in the Compiègne Forest on 11 November 1918. From the German lightning advance of September 1914 stopped at Nanteuil-le-Haudouin to the stabilization of the frontline in the Noyonnais, point of departure for the so-called “Race to the Sea” and setting of the terrible offensives during the spring and summer of 1918 (the battles of Noyon, Mont Renaud, Lassigny, Matz and Attichy), Oise bears the scars of this fighting in its flesh (civilian and military casualties), in its stones (destroyed buildings) and in its soil (trenches, shelters, sculpted quarries, bunkers…).
The Musée Territoire 14-18 (WWI Territorial Heritage Museum) offers numerous thematic discovery trails, hikes and historical loops combining the exploration of old villages and the moving discovery of the local Great War heritage.
The WWI Discovery Trail in Tracy-le-Mont
Marked by the Great War from the first few weeks of fighting, Tracy-le-Mont is home to a 6-km historical heritage trail that crosses through the old village and leads to the military necropolis and the Maison du Garde ("Guardhouse") quarry. This memorial walk presents all aspects of day-to-day life from 1914 to 1918 via ten information panels and ten life-size soldier silhouettes: the frontline, the battlefield, behind the front, places to rest and relax, the infirmary, the wash house, the cemetery for 3,200 soldiers and the monuments raised to the dead during the war, not to mention the quarry transformed into barracks by the 219th Infantry Regiment and La Pansée, a house evoking the terrible suffering endured by the poilus or French infantrymen.
Click here to find all memorial trails (itineraries available for free download)
Among the department’s many memorial destinations, certain must-see sites have more to tell than an entire library of history books.
War cemeteries: honouring the dead
Civilians and soldiers, French, Germans and Allies, the dead numbered in the thousands in Oise. At the end of the First World War and over the subsequent years, necropolises were born of the desire to gather together the many scattered graves, to provide a dignified burial to the soldiers and to honour their memory. Three such cemeteries have been proposed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites:
The National Necropolis of Cuts is the only necropolis in France that explicitly honours soldiers from the former French colonies, Somalis and Comorians.
The French military necropolis and the German cemetery of Thiescourt present the particularity of having originally been a mixed common grave, created by the French and rediscovered by the Germans.
At the French military necropolis of Compiègne (Royallieu) can be seen numerous graves of soldiers from former French colonies (Mali, Ivory Coast, Algeria and Tunisia) and the French overseas department of Martinique. What is more, 367 Muslim graves testify to the respect accorded the dead’s religious beliefs during WWI burials.
Other sites of interest
The fascinating Serge Ramond Museum presents several hundred works of stone-wall graffiti, engraved and sculpted by French, British, American and German soldiers in the underground quarries of the Noyonnais and the Soissonnais and along the Chemin des Dames trail. Occasionally naïve, often remarkably well done, these wartime graffiti and sculptures are the three-dimensional expression of the soldiers’ imagination. A moving, modern-day Lascaux.
Visitors to the Montigny Quarries can discover subterranean galleries, troglodytic dwellings and vestiges left by WWI soldiers. Serving as a place of rest and relaxation, as well as an infirmary during the Great War, numerous regiments stopped here while walking from the Somme to the Marne or the Ardennes, and vice versa. Other French soldiers were barracked here throughout the war, to defend the Compiègne sector. A military hospital was even here set up, which allowed the quarries to remain French despite frequent attacks by the enemy located just nearby.
All that remains of the Chiry-Ourscamp Abbey, occupied by the Germans and shelled by the French in 1915, are the picturesque ruins rising toward the heavens. This breathtakingly beautiful site leads visitors on a long journey through French history. Just nearby, the martyred town of Noyon became, as of 30 August 1914, the closest city to Paris occupied by the invading Germans. This buffer of only 100 km would prove of major strategic importance during the 30 long months of occupation. From the climate of terror suffered by the Noyonnais to the shellings of spring 1918, the city would soon become a symbol, repeatedly taken up by the French.