Visiting American WWI sites a century after conflict ended
One hundred years ago, World War I raged across much of Europe.
The main adversaries, Great Britain and France on the one side and Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire on the other, had been fighting since August of 1914. Both sides were worn out, yet the war dragged on.
But each side had a ray of hope as 1918 progressed. The Germans had signed a peace treaty with Russia, freeing up many divisions to send to the western front. And the French and British had a strong, new ally on their side. The Yanks had arrived.
America had declared war on the Central Powers the year before, and as 1918 dawned it was pouring troops into Europe.
For the rest of the year, to the war’s end in November, the Yanks, integrated into British and French units, and on their own, would help turn the tide to defeat Germany and its allies.
A century later, you can visit the places where the Americans fought and died. The landscape is still pockmarked with craters from artillery shells. Monuments honor those who fought. And white marble crosses and Stars of David, in well-groomed cemeteries, mark where many of those killed still rest.
Chateau-Thierry is about 60 miles east of Paris, on the Marne River. On a bluff high above the city is the Chateau-Thierry American Monument. Honoring the American and French soldiers who fought in the Aisne-Marne and Oise-Aisne offensives, it is an imposing structure consisting of a double row of columns on a long terrace. The western facade features two giant figures representing the U.S. and France, while an eagle adorns the side looking east, with a map showing the advances the Allies made after July 18, 1918.
When America entered the Great War, the regular Army — numbering just 127,000 troops — was in bad shape. Underfunded, undermanned and undertrained, the French and British commanders thought the arriving Americans should be used as replacements within their forces.
The American Expeditionary Forces commander, Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing, didn’t agree and pushed to keep them under his command.
The Americans did have one proven fighting force, however: the U.S. Marine Corps.
And at the beginning of June, the Leathernecks were heading to battle at a forest outside the small village of Belleau.
As the Marines arrived at Belleau Wood, the French were getting ready to retreat. When it was suggested the Americans should do the same, Capt. Lloyd W. Williams, of 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, entered Corps lore when he reportedly answered: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”
And they fought bravely and tenaciously. So much so that the leathernecks earned themselves another nickname. “Teufelshunde,” the Germans supposedly called them — “Devil Dogs.” The name stuck and became another piece of Marine legend.
There are still traces of trench lines and artillery craters in the woods. A circle of plaques along a footpath tells the story of the battle and the bravery. In a clearing in the road, surrounded by period artillery pieces, stands the Belleau Wood Marine Monument. It depicts a U.S. Marine attacking with a rifle and bayonet in bronze bas-relief.
Many of the Marines that fell here are buried nearby at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.
Administered, like all overseas American military cemeteries, by the American Battle Monuments Commission, 2,289 of our war dead are buried here. Among them is Navy Lt. j.g. Weedon E. Osborne, one of four Medal of Honor recipients from the battle.
The white crosses and Stars of David are laid out in a gentle curve under the wooded hill where the battle took place. Overlooking the graves is the chapel with the names of more than 1,000 troops missing in action engraved in its walls. On its outside walls are carvings that depict fighting in the trenches.
Gazing over the graves and through the trees, one can see Belleau’s church. Its original church was destroyed by 26th Division artillery fire, but the Americans promised to rebuild the church and it was dedicated in 1929.
On highway D3 near Fere-en- Tardenois stands the simple but moving Rainbow Division Memorial. A bronze statue of an American soldier carrying a fallen comrade, it stands where the 42nd, or Rainbow Division, fought the battle of Croix Rouge Farm.
The division got its nickname from its rainbow-shaped and colored shoulder patch that represents the National Guard units from various states.
The battle there in July lasted two days, then the 42nd pursued the Germans across the Ourcq River and advanced more than 11 miles in eight days.
As the Allies pushed the Germans north and east in the Oise-Aisne Offensive, many of those killed were laid to rest at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles.
“We don’t have any generals and we don’t have any Medal of Honor recipients here, but we do have 6,012 Americans who gave their lives for their country buried here,” said Bert Caloud, the cemetery’s superintendent, as he walked among the graves.
One of those buried here is the poet Joyce Kilmer; another is Oliver Ames Jr.
A descendant of the founder of the Ames Shovel Company, the maker of the Army’s entrenching tool, he mostly kept the fact a secret, figuring his fellow soldiers wouldn’t appreciate him with all the trenches they had to dig.
Both served under Maj. “Wild Bill” Donovan, who went on to found the Office of Strategic Services in World War II, and both died within a day of each other.
Not far from the cemetery, in the village of Chamery, is the Lt. Quentin Roosevelt Fountain. It is dedicated to the son of President Theodore Roosevelt. A pilot, he was shot down during aerial combat nearby. He was one of former president’s three sons who fought in the war.
On road D977 between Suippes and Sommepy-Tahure stands one of the more striking memorials to those who fell in battles in the area, the pyramid-shaped Navarin Monument. Inside is a chapel and an ossuary that holds the remains of 10,000 soldiers. It is topped by a statue of three soldiers by the sculptor Maxime Real Del Sarte that depict his brother who fell in battle, French general Henri Gouraud and Quentin Roosevelt.
From here, it is just a short jaunt up to the Sommepy American Monument. It commemorates the American units that served in combat with the French Fourth Army during the summer and fall of 1918. Sitting high on Blanc Mont Ridge, it offers a great view of what was the World War I battlefields from the platform atop its limestone tower.
Check out the remnants of the trenches, craters and gun emplacements that surround the monument.
In 1918, American forces were still segregated. There were a number of African-American units in theater, but some of the white leadership didn’t trust them in battle.
The French, who were used to black soldiers from their African colonies, had no such qualms. They were happy to accept the black American soldiers as replacements for their fatigued and decimated units.
Under French command, the units of the 93rd Division fought courageously. Near Sechault stands a monument to the division’s 369th Infantry Regiment. Nicknamed the Black Rattlers, they earned another sobriquet during the war: Harlem Hellfighters.
Two soldiers of the 93rd, Cpl. Freddie Stowers and Sgt. William Henry Johnson, were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1991 and 2015, respectively.
About 20 miles to the east is the Montfaucon American Monument.
Set high on a hill, like the Sommepy monument, it is a massive Doric column topped by a statue representing Liberty. Commemorating the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a map of the battle is engraved in an inside wall. After climbing its 234 steps, one has a great view of what was once a bloody battlefield. Behind the monument are the ruins of the former village.
Nearby is Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. It is the largest administered by the ABMC in Europe with 14,246 war dead. Most died during the final offensive of the war, but here also lie some killed during the American expedition to Russia in 1918-19. There are 954 names engraved in the Tablets of the Missing.
Also buried here are nine Medal of Honor recipients, including Freddie Stowers.
At 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, the guns fell silent. World War I was over.
Nearly 100 years later, from Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, to the Mont Sec Monument in eastern France, there remain many sights and sites commemorating the bravery and sacrifice of Americans fighting a war an ocean away from home.
Want to go?The story follows American troops — more or less — as they advanced from west to east. Chateau-Thierry, as a starting point, is about 225 miles west of Ramstein on the way to Paris or about 140 miles south of Mons, Belgium.
For locations, opening hours and more info on American cemeteries and monuments, go to the American Battle Monuments Commission website at abmc.gov.