Hi All. A while back (2004) I wrote an essay after I visited some European battlegrounds with a friend. With some light editing, here it is now:
A Visit to France
Recently, over Veterans’ Day, I took the opportunity to visit the Verdun area in eastern France. I went there with a good friend, a French-born naturalized American, whom I have known for a long time. The intent of our “guy’s road trip” was to visit the Verdun battlefield area, which as many of you know was the defining battle for France in WWI, fought for most of 1916. What I did not realize until we arrived in the area was that this is the same area that most of the American Expeditionary Force major actions took place, specifically the 1918 offensives at St Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne. St. Mihiel is just to the south of Verdun and the Meuse-Argonne is to the west. Like many Americans, I tend to think of Europe as a sprawling place, like America, when in fact many very significant places are in close proximity. From St. Mihiel to Verdun to Meuse-Argonne would be like driving from Baltimore to Annapolis to Annandale, VA (or, for you West Coasters, Lakewood-Seattle-Olympia or San Jose-Salinas-Monterey or Chula Vista-Oceanside-Mission Viejo). And amid this compact rolling pastureland, more than a million men fought each other, for more than four years.
So anyway, while touring the various sites, we naturally decided to visit the American sites as well. There are two main ones, maintained by the American Battlefield Monuments Commission – your tax dollars at work, since the 1920s. More on them later. In addition, there are many, many smaller displays of our presence there in WWI: plaques and statues (“General Pershing Park,” in some tiny French farm village, for example) and monuments to specific units, or regional tributes (“Pennsylvania divisions”). Most are quiet little reminders – a fountain here, wall plaque there, a marker along a road or in a village. The people are ‘different’ there as well. I actually saw a large American flag flying from a French farmhouse in the area. They’re still a bit ‘European’ about present politics, but they seem much less blatant and in-your-face about their anti-American attitudes than elsewhere in the country. They seem almost shy and embarrassed about toeing the party line, as they take their lead from the Paris newspapers. Possibly due to the presence of all those reminders – and all those crosses.
Many of the battle sites, and there are a large number of them, are maintained and preserved, to one degree or another. The Germans first rolled into the area in August 1914, against little French opposition. The ABMC Monument is at Montfaucon, a hill, really, eleven hundred feet above the farmland, that the Germans took without a fight. The French then tried for the next four years to re-take it, failing. Easy to see why – it has a panoramic view of the area, all the way to Verdun. An American regiment, the 313th Infantry, of the 79th Division (a National Army unit whose troops were generally drawn from populations in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington, DC), took it in fall 1918, against determined German resistance, during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Anyway, the entire region has small battlefield exhibits and museums and shrines, and you can find trenches here and there.
Another famous site, well known to the French, pretty much unknown to most Americans (including me), is Vauquois. The village was destroyed – it used to occupy a small wooded ridge top running east-west, 20 miles west of Verdun. The Germans took the north side in 1914, the French occupied the south – and for the next four years, both sides fought over it. Between the explosive mines and artillery, the top fifty feet of the half-mile long hill are gone. In 1918, the Americans arrived and sought to remove this key bastion in the German line. Ignoring French suggestions to carry it by mass frontal assault or by more mining, they instead devised a simple and effective strategy: First, they pushed the lines back on either side, hooking around behind the heights; then, under intense and accurate artillery fire (directed by the Germans on the hill) they brought up field artillery batteries, which poured cannon shot over open sights onto the elevated German defensive fortifications from behind. The Germans, cut off and under direct fire from the field pieces, surrendered. The American tactics were thus neither subtle, nor stupid. They were simple, straightforward, brutal and effective. As you might expect from such a maneuver, American casualties were very heavy. It’s not difficult to imagine that the artillerymen who survived this action would have the traits of toughness and determination, and would be unflinching, unlikely to fail or falter under pressure. They were probably like Captain Harry Truman, who was one of them. George C. Marshall and George Patton also fought around that modest hill.
One aspect of these sites really struck me: so much of the actions were so intertwined, the U.S. and French sites. I always got the impression in school that somehow our battles were distant, separate, and not really central to the war effort. That all we did was shove a tottering, exhausted German Army over the edge, and then they quit. It’s pretty clear that that isn’t how it went, when you see the area up close.
The goal of the 1916 German Verdun offensive was not to take territory, per se – it was designed to bleed the French army. And it worked, to a great extent: three-fourths of the French Army was cycled through the six-month battle, where they lost a million casualties, killed and wounded. And the following year, when the French tried an offensive in Champagne, west-northwest of Verdun, the Army stalled, revolted, and quit the field, morale shattered. In other words, the Kaiser’s aim to destroy the French Army’s will to expel the invading Germans succeeded to a large degree. And so, when the Germans launched their own offensives a few months later (Spring and Summer 1918), the French army crumbled. Fortunately, by then the American army had arrived to bolster the Allies, at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood and along the Marne (a really pathetic river, let me tell you), and stopped the Germans, as they advanced to within sight of Paris. (When part of the retreating French Army streamed by, passing the Americans marching up to the front, a French officer told an American Marine officer that “Fini la guerre,” and that he and his troops should join the general retreat. The American famously replied, “Retreat, hell – we just got here!” I guess he wasn’t smart enough to read the local newspapers, which then as today are in French, not German, because of the likes of him.)
Which brings us to another popular WWI myth: that the Americans won merely because of the raw numbers they brought to the game – an army of 2 million suddenly appears on the battlefields and so inevitably the opposition gives in. Wrong. If there is any lesson of WWI battlefields it is that numbers alone are relatively unimportant – the machine gun, entrenchments, radio-directed artillery, and restricted battlefields saw to that.
What did matter was will – the American Army, fresh to the fight, was composed of determined and robust soldiers who hadn’t been eroded by four exhausting years of war, attrition, cynicism, misery, and despair. (NB: in my book, an early draft included the following:
Official battle reports provide interesting insights into German views on engaging in combat for the first time with Americans. French reporting from just prior to the July 15th attack revealed that the “fear of and respect for American soldiers has spread generally through the German divisions.” The size, fitness, and determination of the young Americans had been noted by German officers, as reported by the French Third Army Bulletin of July 11: ‘All of them are strapping and determined young fellows (French, ‘gaillards’). The French have great confidence in the Americans and unfortunately they are not wrong.’ Reports from German prisoners reported they expected the battle to be easy and were “impressed by the steadiness and determination shown by the Americans.)
The Germans – true, not the same confident army of 1914 – gave way, and then broke. But facing unrelenting determination tends to help along weak morale, and the Germans hadn’t seen such will in four years. They were a still-strong army, but brittle. When it became clear the Americans weren’t going to quit, despite the horrendous casualties, the invaders sued for peace, before they were driven back to their own territory and utterly defeated.
So finally we arrive at the monument and cemetery, Montfaucon and Meuse-Argonne, northwest of Verdun. The memorial at Montfaucon is imposing – a huge, open, granite structure, with a classical Doric column topped with a statue, set amidst the hilltop (again) surrounded by remnants of the German fortifications. The names of the units that fought in the region – American and French – during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive are displayed, matched to the specific forests, towns or locales of their actions. A large plaque is at the base, paying tribute to the victorious struggle.
But oh, that statue. In the surrounding area, at the French and German memorials, the statues are invariably crowned with, appropriately, symbols of country, soldiers, generals, patriotism and nation: German Gothic crosses, the famous French poilous (the common draftees, usually from the rural areas, due to the conscription deferment policies that favored the city dwellers), generals, and the French tricolor, for example. But not the American one. We topped our column with a symbol that inspires and explains; a concept, not a hero: the Greek goddess symbolizing Liberty.
A few kilometers to the west, a cemetery has a “campaign map” on display, showing the divisions and the paths they took as they assaulted the German lines along a 20-mile front, during the six-week Meuse-Argonne Offensive of September-November 1918. The map shows the parallel tracks of American Divisions (and a couple French ones, along the boundaries of the offensive) as they drove the Germans back. Except in the Argonne Forest. Only a few miles long and several wide, it’s an unimposing patch of trees, I guess, unless you’re trying to fight there. Viewing that map, you need only to glance to your left, not even turning your head, to see a slope of white crosses. And that explains a lot, because in the forest, the Division tracks stop, only to be replaced by new units, farther on. Other U.S. Divisions hit, recoiled under German counterattacks, then just poured though, driving the Germans back to what became the Armistice line. But in the Argonne, the track changes name and number every mile or two, and where the woods end, so do the Divisional tracks. There the adjacent Divisions widened their paths, merged to cover the gap on either side of the woods and carried on past it. It’s not hard to figure out that the reason for this was, well, all those crosses.
The Meuse-Argonne Cemetery is breathtaking. It is the largest American cemetery in Europe, but not even the only WWI one. There are more than 14,000 graves there, from battles in the Meuse-Argonne area over only a six-month period, mostly from the last two months of the war, during the offensive. There is a website and the picture it shows is impressive, but does not capture the scope, or the stark, poignant beauty of the place. From the western end of the chapel edifice on the hilltop one can look down and across yet more farmland and see the Argonne Forest, where my grandfather and his fellow Army engineers fought. That’s where so many of the 14,000-plus fell. The cemetery grounds – considered American soil, in perpetuity – are immaculate, a sweeping slope of quiet perfection. No statues here, just crosses and stars. I saw every state and territory represented, and Washington, DC. Women and civilians are there as well – Red Cross workers and journalists and muleskinners, even (that German heavy artillery carried a long way, behind the lines). But the vast majority of them are of course young American men – soldiers and Marines. Many have French and even Italian citations listed on their markers.
And so walking around, you look out onto the grounds and the acres of rest, and you think about it all. And you wonder about thousands of farm boys – more than a million, actually; but the rest got to go home – who traveled to France, at a time when that would have been unthinkable for them to do, under any other circumstances. And in the distance, you see that column and that statue at Montfaucon. And on that beacon hill is the explanation for such a stark distinction: the Germans came there to conquer, to impose their will on a neighbor for the second time in fifty years (there would of course be a third). The French were there resisting this aggression, and to recover the two nearby provinces taken from them 40-plus years before. They fought to defend their country and to throw off the aggressor. But the Americans were there not for possession nor because we were threatened, nor even because of some defensive alliance (we fought in the war not as Allies, but as, explicitly, “co-belligerents.”). At the start of WWI, America was an economic power, thanks in large part to the superior ability of Standard Oil to refine oil into kerosene and gasoline. Had America stayed out of the war, however, we would have traded and co-existed with an Imperial Germany-dominated Europe as we had with the previous status quo. We wouldn’t have liked or preferred it, but make no mistake – Imperial Germany posed no direct threat to the U.S. Except to our sense of justice and of liberty: it would have brought tyranny to an area we believed to be important – an intolerable situation. Conceptually, abstractly, it was unacceptable to allow a tyrant to impose his will on an area we felt was important. We weren’t interested in material or territorial gain; we weren’t seeking to protect our own territory, nor that of our economy.
President Wilson at the time told our forebears that the war was to “protect our way of life.” But really, it wasn’t: the weapon of mass destruction of the day – the Imperial German Army – could never have been carried to our shores, not ever. Instead, it came down to the fact that we weren’t really interested in appeasing or tolerating a tyrant; it wasn’t enough that he stay in his European ‘box,’ which would have been easy to sustain, had we sat neutrally back and merely sold goods to each or both sides, like a massive, passive Sweden or Switzerland (who did). We were there to defeat a powerful, aggressive, threatening tyrant and thus bring liberty to an important area. And nothing, Thank God, is more American.