The crosses — snowy white, weathered gray, faded brown. Cemetery after cemetery filled with them, in tidy rows. There are enormous patches of countryside with thousands of these markers. And there are smaller plots with just a few hundred.

All designate the graves of soldiers who died in World War I, the Great War, which ended 90 years ago this year. The pure white marble crosses are for Americans. Weathered concrete crosses mark French graves, while dark-colored crosses cover the graves of Germans.

Few areas have as many as the northeastern section of France near its borders with Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany — home to thousands of living U.S. servicemembers and their families.

"You can’t drive seven or eight kilometers without seeing crosses," said one area resident.

Lt. Col. Ran Reinhard of Heidelberg, Germany, was visiting the area recently with his wife and three children.

"The sheer number of crosses makes you think of all those young men who died fighting for freedom," he said. "You get emotional. It’s humbling."

It’s also haunting.

The statistics of the war, which lasted from 1914 to 1918 and surpassed all previous wars in the enormity of its destruction, are mind-boggling:

65 million men mobilized by the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, Belgium, Russia, Italy and the United States).An estimated 10 million killed and 20 million wounded on the battlefield.2,084,000 U.S. troops reached France with 1,390,000 engaged in combat. Approximately 122,500 were killed, 48,909 in battle. More died of disease than any other cause. 237,135 were wounded.Some 1,200,000 U.S. soldiers fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive from Sept. 26 to Nov. 11, 1918, America’s largest military offensive to date.In the first 72 hours of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, often called the greatest U.S. battle of the war, there were 23,000 casualties. During the first 72 hours of the D-Day invasion in World War II, by comparison, there were 6,603 casualties.The catalyst for the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria while he was visiting Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia.

A Bosnian Serb and member of Black Hand, a Pan-Slavic nationalist movement that wanted to free Serbia from Austrian domination, shot the archduke. Austria invaded Serbia in retaliation. Other countries formed alliances, declared war on one another and battled on several European fronts.

On the Western Front, which extended 475 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border with France, part of the fortifications consisted of trenches that became symbolic of the war. Both sides hunkered down in trenches, some no more than 60 feet apart.

There were several major offensives along the front between 1915 and 1917 with massive artillery bombardments and infantry advances. Casualties were high but no significant advances were made. New military technology was introduced — poison gas, aircraft and tanks — in hopes of breaking the deadlock, but not until new tactics were adopted was there any significant movement.

The United States entered the war in 1917, fighting in support of French and British troops. In 1918, Gen. John J. Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces in its first major offensive as an independent army, a successful campaign that marked a turning point for the Allies.

Pershing’s goal was to conquer the Saint Mihiel region, a projection into France between Verdun and Nancy that was taken early on by the Germans, who planned to use it as a base for their push toward Paris. After just four days of bombardment, the U.S. First Army destroyed the German hold on the area.

In the Meuse-Argonne offensive that followed, Allied commander Marshall Ferdinand Foch took the lead. The combined Allied offensive forced the Germans to retreat.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the armistice went into effect. The political map of Europe was radically changed. Both the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires ceased to exist. Poland re-emerged as an independent country. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were new nations, and Russia lost some of its possessions and become communist for armed forces personnel.

• Fort Douaumont, Verdun: The fort, the largest in Verdun, has three levels of tunnels several miles long. It was supposed to house 800 soldiers, but at times as many as 3,000 lived in this underground world. Men were said to have become deaf, even crazy, due to the incredible noise of shelling. Some 100,000 soldiers died in defending the fort, which was captured by the Germans in 1916 and retaken by the Colonial Regiment of Morocco on Oct. 24 of that year.

Open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. April through August, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. September through November, and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2-5 p.m. in December, February and March. Admission: 3 euros adults; children, 1.50 euros; no charge for armed forces personnel.

• Douamont Ossuary, Verdun: Contains the remains of 130,000 French and German unknown soldiers. Visitors can view apoignant film on the war as well as visit a museum at the site. On a slope at the feet of the ossuary is the Douaumont military cemetery with 15,000 graves.

Open 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. May through August, 9 a.m. to noon and 2-6 p.m. September, 9 a.m. to noon and 2-5:30 p.m. October and March, 9 a.m. to noon and 2-5 p.m. in November and 2-5 p.m. in December. Admission: 4 euros adults; 3 euros for children; (+33) (0)329-84-54-81;

• Verdun Memorial: Museum with documents and objects from the battle, including a reconstruction of a trench. A French plane, a German plane and the basket of a captured balloon hang from the roof. There is a film portraying the terrible conditions of the soldiers’ lives.

Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in spring and summer, 9 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. autumn and winter; closed Dec. 15-Jan. 29. Admission: 7 euros adults; children, 3.50; younger than 11, free. (+33) (0) 329-84-35-34;

• Saint Mihiel American Cemetery: Crosses marking the graves of 4,153 Americans fill this cemetery. Most died in the battle of Saint Mihiel fought Sept. 12-15, 1918, under the command of Pershing. The U.S. attack was part of Pershing’s plan to break through German lines, which had held the area since 1914. The victory led to the ultimate defeat of the Germans. The cemetery, on the west edge of Thiaucourt, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

• Montsec Memorial: This spectacular memorial, a large circular colonnade on top of a hillside, commemorates the capture of the Saint Mihiel salient by the Americans. It is 12 miles from the Saint Mihiel cemetery.

Photojournalist Leah Larkin, a member of the Society of American Travel Writers, lives in the north Luberon area of Provence, France. Contact her through

World War I commemorative eventsHere are some of the special events in France marking the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Details for some not yet available. Consult the Web site for updates.

Concerts: American Music in 1918

History of Jazz and Its Introduction to Europe, 8:30 p.m. June 7, Saint Mihiel, Salle des Avrils.Jazz of the Period, June 29, Neuvilly-en-Argonne.Sounds of American Honor Band and Chorus, July 25 or 26, Verdun, Salle Cassin.French-German choir accompanied by an American chorus, Sept. 27, 4 p.m., Pennsylvania Monument, Varennes-en-Argonne.Sound and light shows

“From Flames to Light”: 600 volunteers will participate in this spectacle re-creating the Battle of Verdun. June 20, 21, 27, 28; July 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 25, 26 in Verdun. Show starts between 10 and 11 p.m. Admission: 19 euros; children 7-15, 9 euros; free for those under age 7. Details at:“Liberation of the Argonne”: Montfaucon d’Argonne, Sept. 26-27, Oct. 3-4.Illumination of route from Saint Mihiel to Montfaucon d’Argonne.Following a military convoy representative of the period, runners will carry torches along the route of U.S. and French troops in 1918. Candles and flags will be distributed to residents along the route. Sept. 20-21.

Ringing of the BellsBeginning at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, bells in communities throughout the Meuse will be rung. From 2 p.m. until midnight on that day, the names of Americans buried in Thiaucourt at the Saint Mihiel American Cemetery and in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery will be read at these locations.

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