Historically speaking, 2014 is a big year in France. June 6th marks the 70th – hard to believe – anniversary of D-Day and the beginning of the liberation of Europe by the Allies in World War II. And this year also observes the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. A propos, the French are making a point to remember both the events and those who lost their lives in these conflicts with a host of special activities and commemorations.

World War I: If you’re in Paris between now and August 4th, you’ll want to check out the moving photo exhibition commemorating the ‘Grande Guerre’ at the Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank. British photo-journalist Michael St Maur Sheil spent six years capturing the battlefields of the Great War from the North Sea all the way to Gallipoli. His efforts have culminated in an open-air gallery show entitled “Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ which is being shown on the fences on the eastern side of the Luxembourg Gardens.

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Exhibition poster courtesy of the French Senate

The large-scale photos poignantly capture the haunting remains of the devastation and violence that occurred along the front lines as well as the interminable rows of tombs of those who fell during the war. These landscapes also reveal the healing powers of time and nature as the trees, woods, mountains and rivers resumed their peaceful existence in the aftermath of World War I.

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© 2014 westernfrontphotography.com / Mary Evans Collection

Also included in the exhibition is a massive memorial map created by the top cartographers at Michelin. Laid out on the east side of the Luxembourg Palace – home of the French Senate who sponsored the exhibition, the  giant map recalls the battlefields and front lines of France, Europe and the world, highlighting the global scale of the conflict. Included are the 50 most important battlefields, nearly 700 kilometres of front lines during the four years of war, and 80 commemorative sites that can be visited today as well as the frontier demarcated by the Armistice signed on November 11, 1918 at 11am.

And when it comes to commemorations, no detail is too small for the French. The wooden railings installed around the giant map are made of 100 year old beechwood from the forests around Epinal. The French National Forest Service helped log the wood and a local workshop created them specifically for the exhibition. It turns out that these forests supplied the wood used to build the infamous trenches of the war. Be sure to click here for a short French video (with English-subtitles) of the installation of the exhibition map and photographs at the Luxembourg Gardens.

After its run in Paris, “Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ will travel to London where it will be shown in St. James’s park. The exhibition will then move to Nottingham as part of the city’s ‘Trent to Trenches’ commemorative program. The tour will continue, visiting major cities and towns throughout the UK, until its conclusion on Armistice Day on November 11, 2018.

“Fields of Battle – Terres de Paix 14 – 18″ will be on view in Paris until August, 4, 2014. Admission is free. The Luxembourg Garden fences have been used to host a wide variety of photography exhibitions in recent years, reaching a large urgan audience that might not otherwise visit a museum or gallery. To locate the Luxembourg Gardens outdoor photo exhibition, please see the map below:

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A large number of WWI commemorative events are being held all over northern France this year. Please see the Chemins de Mémoire 14 – 18 website for activities in the Nord-Pas de Calais region. Also of note is the Musée de la Grande Guerre located in Meaux in the Ile de France. Opening there on June 28 and running through December 29, 2014 is the temporary exhibition: “Join Now! L’entrée en guerre de l’Empire britannique” (’Join now! The Entry into the War by the British Empire’). And the war memorial and museum at Belleau Wood is always worth a visit.

World War II: The inhabitants of Normandy, France are pulling out all the stops this year to observe the 70th anniversary of the Allied landings on D-Day. From June 5th to August 21st, 2014, re-enactments, memorial ceremonies, exhibitions and more will be taking place in observance of June 6th, 1944. Adding to the emotion is the fact that this will be the last decennial D-Day celebration in which actors and witnesses to the actual D-Day event will be able to take part given their age.

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Event poster courtesy of the Comité Régional de Tourisme de Normandie

A comprehensive calendar in either French or English can be found on the event’s site. If you are traveling to Normandy soon, please click here to see what’s in store. A couple of things that caught my eye were the concert for peace in the town of Sainte Mère Eglise  on June 6th in the evening and also the grand picnic on Omaha Beach the following day to honor all those who fell there. What a place to be on June 7th, 2014!

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If your WWII D-Day history is a little rusty, you can see a terrific recap of the key military events of the Normandy landings on the 70th anniversary website by clicking here. And if you’ve never seen the American film “The Longest Day,” I recommend rushing out to rent or buy a copy. Also not to be missed is the recent documentary by film maker Doug Stebleton on the “Mother of Normandy.” Stebleton stumbled across this riveting untold story while making another documentary in France. He dropped everything and then spent three years in both Normandy and the U.S. tracking down the impact Simone Renaud made on France, American and the world.

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 Book cover courtesy of Doug Stebleton

Simone Renaud, the wife of the mayor of the Norman town of Sainte Mère Eglise, was there the night that American paratroopers landed as part of the Allied offensive in June, 1944. She, her husband and three sons witnessed the violent battle between the occupying Germans and American soldiers and the deaths of some 60 of their fellow townspeople. In the weeks that followed, makeshift cementeries around the town filled up with graves of the fallen GIs. Rain or shine, Simone Renaud took it upon herself to tend to the graves. When American families heard where their sons, husbands and fathers had died, they sent letters addressed simply to the “Maire” (mayor) of Sainte Mère Eglise to inquire about their graves. Alexandre Renaud passed the letters on to his wife who began to answer them individually, often including a photo of the graveside cross, a bit of dirt or even a pressed flower from the burial service.

After a photograph of Simone Renaud laying flowers on Brig. Gen. Theodore Roosevelt Jr.’s grave was published in Life magazine in August, 1944, even more letters came. From then on until her death in 1988 at the age of 89, Simone Renaud made it her mission to care for these soldiers who had died fighting for liberty and who were buried far from home. She wrote hundreds and hundreds of letters to American families and hosted some of them when they came to visit their loved one’s grave. As part of her efforts to make sure these heros were never forgotten and to express gratitude for the freedom they brought, she began to organize yearly D-Day memorial celebrations and re-enactments. Long story short, her immense legacy earned her the title “Mother of Normandy” and Stebleton’s compelling documentary ensures that her memory will never be forgotten.

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 Simone Renaud tending to GI graves – photo courtesy of Doug Stebleton

The “Mother of Normandy” is a must for those who love France and French history as well as WWII history buffs. To purchase the DVD version of the documentary, you can order it directly through the producer. The DVDs are $20 each, plus $4.00 for shipping, or $24.00 per DVD. Checks can be made out to Doug Stebleton and sent to:

Doug Stebleton
5506 Aurelia St
Simi Valley, CA 93063

Upon receipt of the check, the DVD(s) will be sent to the address provided. To order the accompanying book, please click here for more info.