Today our World War 2 Memorial Tour takes us through little villages near Verdun, France, a famous battle site of the Great War, World War 1. Later, we enter the Ardennes Forest.
This eastern region of France is beautiful and hilly, not mountainous, and the roads are bumpy. We are surprised at the extent of logging here in the Ardennes forest.
Much of the architecture is unchanged since 1918, and memorials to battles and lost men pop up unexpectedly along the narrow roadways. The views remind me of vintage black and white films like All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). Outside the villages are farmland and cattle as far as the eye can see.
The battle of Verdun was the longest battle of the war, lasting from February to December 1916. Verdun is situated on the River Meuse, approximately 140 miles from Paris and 62 miles from Reims. Excellent accounts of the battle can be found in many sources, including Great Battles of World War 1 by Anthony Livesey (1989). Recollections of this period are best from the English and French perspective given that the Americans were many months away from engaging in the war.
The Meuse Argonne Offensive
The World War 1 American Cemetery is our first stop and highlights the fighting in France during the fall of 1918 and the role of Major John Pershing.
The monument to the Meuse-Ardennes battle is lovely, but the church ruins of Montfaucon village atop the hill, which was strongly fortified by the Germans, are all that remain. Our guide reminds us that this location is also famous as the place where Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette were captured while fleeing Paris.
The Meuse Argonne campaign tested Americans from September until the end of the war in November 1918. Twenty German divisions faced thirty-one French and thirteen American divisions. The French and Germans had lost significant numbers, but the newly arrived American divisions were each at 27,000.
The goal of the campaign was to sever Germany’s front lines, cutting communications and supply lines. Although their numbers were dwindling, the Germans had four years’ experience at the front while most of the two million Americans were young men with little knowledge of warfare. But their daring and tenacity would eventually overcome the Germans.
The Lost Battalion
I’d never heard of “The Lost Battalion,” an important and well publicized engagement in the Meuse Argonne that occurred October 3 to 7. With miles of bus travel one afternoon, we watched an excellent made-for-TV film, The Lost Battalion (2001), a true account of over five hundred Americans who were surrounded by Germans in the Argonne Forest from October 3 to 7. They were part of the 308th infantry, mostly New York City area draftees and were led by a thin, bespectacled New York lawyer, Major Charles W. Whittlesey. He later became a national hero and was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Under constant rain and shelling, and cut off from allies and rations, they lived on brush, leaves, and roots. In desperation, Whittlesey sent patrols for help, but they either came back bleeding or never returned. Many were injured by the shelling, and there were no medical supplies. According to one of the 252 survivors, the Germans were so close that the Americans could hear them talking. Worse yet, from their position they could see the Americans attacking south of them, trying to break through. (Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in WW1, edited by James H. Hallas, 2009)
One sad historical postscript of The Lost Battalion has to do with Charles Whittlesey. In November 1921, after attending a WW1 memorial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery with Alvin York and others, Whittlesey left on a cruise ship from New York to Havana. He jumped ship to his death. It is surmised that he could never forget the conditions they had been under and the many men under his command who died or were disabled those five days in October 1918.
We pass through a beautiful French WW1 Cemetery. A statue of an angel, eyes closed and arms in an embrace, welcomes us. I like this cemetery. It has a more spiritual feel than the stark German ones with dark crosses or the large American cemeteries with endless rows.
I’ve wanted to see Reims since sending the characters in my historical novel Yours in a Hurry to the first international air exhibition, which took place there in 1909. It made American flyer Glenn Curtiss famous and made for a delightful story. I also wanted to see the grand Reims cathedral.
Reims is the unofficial capitol of the Champagne area. Wine makers are challenged to produce enough wines for the global market, a fact attributed to the increasing markets of China and India. We see evidence of this by the large champagne houses, as the factories are called, as we approach Reims. The cathedral, although under exterior renovation, is as impressive as we anticipated.
Before leaving we visit a museum showing a film on the 1945 signing of the World War 2 peace treaty, including Eisenhower’s role and General George Patton receiving the key to the city.
Post script: Fortunately, we’ve seen more World War 1 history than expected on the trip. I know it will be useful as my next book, involving returning World War 1 service men in the 1920s, progresses.
Next time: World War 2: Belgium and the Netherlands
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohio siblings relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She loves speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920s and preparing for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com.