Northeastern France reflects the courage and sacrifice of WWI
Stars and Stripes May 22, 2008
This is first of a two-part series on the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Next week: The cities of Reims, Metz and Nancy are not far from the battle sites of northeastern France. Learn about what to see and what to do there while getting your fill of World War I history.
Tiny white blossoms of spring blanket shell holes. Rainwater fills others. Green plants and branches conceal tangles of rusted barbed wire.
The battlegrounds of Saint Mihiel, France, where Gen. John J. Pershing and his troops fought in 1918, are lush and green now. But walk into the forest. Trenches, German and French, are just 60 feet apart, and the horrors of World War I are all too real.
Death was never far away for those in the trenches. Some were under constant shellfire. Others suffered from diseases, ailments and infections that could lead to gangrene and amputation. All had to deal with rats, frogs and lice, the last a cause of trench fever.
Florence Lamousse, a guide conducting a tour of the battlefields, visits the trenches often. It is not an easy task.
"I have feelings of sadness," she says. "I feel closer and closer to the war. When I walk my dogs in the forest I find buttons, shrapnel, bullets. I always think they could have killed someone. The war becomes the present, not the past."
A visit to the trenches was an especially poignant part of a recent tour of WWI sites in northeastern France. The trenches, which have been reconstructed to their original state, are on the highway between Saint Mihiel to Nancy. Stop just before the village of Apremont by the sign "Bois Brule" for a visit, or get a map of WWI circuits from one of the tourist offices in the area and follow the 12½-mile path marked "Le Saillant" past the trenches.
Along with the suffering were acts of great valor and heroism. The success of "Black Jack" Pershing’s U.S. First Army in the Meuse-Argonne offensive enhanced the army’s status in the eyes of the French and British. Officers who fought in the battle and went on to greater fame included Capt. Harry Truman, Col. George Marshall Jr., Col. Douglas MacArthur and Lt. Col. George Patton Jr.
Then there was Sgt. Alvin York.
York was one of the great heroes of the war. On Oct. 18, 1918, he and 16 other soldiers got behind enemy lines in the Chatel-Chehery region of the Meuse-Argonne and captured a large group of Germans. Shortly thereafter the Americans took machine-gun fire that killed six of the soldiers, leaving York in charge. While his men guarded the captured prisoners, York took additional prisoners. His account:
"And those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful. And the Germans were yelling orders. You never heard such a racket in all of your life. I didn’t have time to dodge behind a tree or dive into the brush….
"As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. There were over 30 of them in continuous action, and all I could do was touch the Germans off just as fast as I could. I was sharp shooting. All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn’t want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had."
Twenty-five Germans were killed and 132 taken prisoner. Some reports claim York captured the Germans single-handedly, although he never claimed he acted alone.
York was awarded the Medal of Honor. A monument in front of the Chatel-Chehery town hall is a tribute to his bravery. The town is also preparing a Historic Trail of Sgt. York, expected to be finished this summer. American visitors are invited to visit the town’s Café Culturel, a center for meeting locals, learning more about York and buying souvenirs.
Following are other WWI sites in this part of France worth visiting.
• Fort de la Pompelle, Reims: Reims was occupied by the Germans in September 1914 and bombarded for the next four years, leaving more than 80 percent of the town in ruins. About three miles from the city is this fort, built between 1880 and 1883. The Germans occupied it for 20 days in 1914, until an Allied victory returned it to the French, who used it as a center of resistance during the war. It now houses a war museum with a collection of 560 German helmets, as well as uniforms, knives, swords and interesting examples of trench art, objects made by soldiers as they waited for action in the trenches.
Hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. weekends and public holidays from April 1 to Oct. 31, and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily from November to March 31; closed Tuesdays. Admission: 4 euros; 2 euros for ages 15-18; free for children up to age 15. (+33) (0) 326-49-11-85
• U.S. Memorial Room, Sommepy-Tahure: This room on the second floor of the village town hall was built with U.S. funds after the war to commemorate the liberation of the village by U.S. Marines on Sept. 26, 1918. It contains a small collection of war memorabilia. Wall frescoes list the names of U.S. and French soldiers who died in the liberation battle. To visit the room, contact the mayor’s office: (+33) (0)326-66-80-04.
• Blanc-Mont American Memorial Monument: The golden yellow limestone tower is three miles northwest of Sommepy-Tahure on a site captured by U.S. troops. Its viewing platform offers an excellent panorama of the former battlefields which are still marked with shell-hole depressions. The monument commemorates some 70,000 Americans who fought in the region during 1918. It is open daily, weather permitting.
• Centre d’Interprétation Marne 14-18, Suippes (Marne Interpretation Center): Fascinating museum with interactive, multimedia exhibits on various aspects of the war. There’s a map with sections that move to illustrate the battle fronts. Exhibits explain the reasons for the war, life in the region before the war, as well as medical care during and after the war. The best part is the multimedia trench experience. Sit on sandbags in a circular room as you are surrounded by sounds and sights of battle. "If you don’t know much about World War I, this will give you a great sense of the war," remarked one visitor.
The museum is at 4 ruelle Bayard, Suippes, (enter behind the square Hotel-de-Ville). Open 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 2-7 p.m. May through September and during November. In February, March, April, October and December, hours are 2-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Closed Mondays and in January. Admission: 6 euros; veterans 4.50 euros; ages 6-15, 3 euros. (+33) (0) 326-68-24-09; www.marne14-18.fr
• Vallée Moreau Camp: Germans occupied this camp throughout the war until it was liberated by French and U.S. troops on Sept. 26, 1918. It has been restored to its original state. Dug into a hillside, it is a mini-city that housed about 800 troops with rooms for showers, transportation tunnels, an electric power station, a delousing station, and sleeping and dining quarters — with a pile of old wine bottles. Trenches surround the building.
At the camp our group met Serge Tourovsky and his 10-year-old son, Joffrey, both wearing World War I military uniforms. The retired French soldier says he likes showing visitors "who lived in this camp" and talking about the war. "I like to give a little of my time to this generation which has disappeared…." he says. "The shock of World War I is everywhere and in the minds of people here."
The camp is on country road D63, Vienne le Château. Open Saturday mornings and Sunday afternoons in July, August and September and by appointment. Admission: 3 euros. (+33) (0)326-60-49-40.
• Meuse-Argonne Cemetery: The largest U.S. cemetery overseas has graves for 14,246 soldiers, most of whom died in the fierce Meuse-Argonne offensive. There is a chapel on the site with memorial loggias on either side. The names of 984 missing are listed on a panel.
A crew of 27 maintains the cemetery’s 130 acres. Like other American cemeteries and monuments, it is impeccably preserved and makes one especially proud to be an American. It is east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon and 26 miles northwest of Verdun. It’s open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
• Montfaucon Monument: A statue symbolizing liberty tops a 200-foot Doric column commemorating the 47-day Meuse-Argonne offensive. Climb 234 steps to the viewing platform for an excellent view of the former battlefield. The monument is seven miles south of the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and 20 miles northwest of Verdun.
• Underground Citadel, Verdun: Visitors ride a small train through a series of tunnels, passing exhibits illustrating the life of French soldiers during the war. The underground fortification was planned to house 2,000, but during the war as many as 10,000 crowded into it. It had a bakery, ammunition storage area, barracks and officers meeting rooms. The visit is available in English.
The Battle of Verdun, 300 nights and days of ceaseless fighting, has become a symbol of the suffering of the war, claiming a quarter of a million lives and an estimated million wounded. "Verdun is the second most famous city in France," a tour guide told us. "Every family has someone who fought or was killed at Verdun."
The citadel is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through June and in September; 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. in July and August; 10 a.m. to noon and 2-6 p.m. October and November; and 10 a.m. to noon and 2-5 p.m. in February, March and December. Admission: 6 euros; children, 2.50 euros; no charge
Where to stayHere are recommended hotels and restaurants convenient for visits to the World War I sites listed:
Hotel Restaurant Le Tulipier, Rue Saint Jacques, Vienne le Château. Doubles from 65.50 euros, breakfast 8.50 euros. (+33) (0)326-60-69-90; www.letulipier.com.Château des Monthairons, Dieue-sur-Meuse. Beautiful château hotel near Verdun with an excellent restaurant. Rooms from 98 euros, breakfast 13 euros; (+33) (0) 329-87-78-55., www.chateaudesmonthairons.fr.Hostellerie du Coq Hardi, 8 avenue de la Victoire, Verdun. Charming hotel in center of Verdun, superb restaurant. Rooms from 76 euros, breakfast buffet 16 euros.( +33) (0) 329-86-36-36; www.coq- hardi.com.La Source du Puy, Sommepy-Tahure. Restaurant decorated with old radios and cameras offering a three-course menu for 24.50 euros. (+33) (0) 326-68-21-64; www.lasourcedupuy.com.A great guideFlorence Lamousse is an excellent guide to World War I sites. 110 euros for two hours; 310 euros for a full day (+33) (0)329-85-21-83; Florence.email@example.com.
Learn moreSome Web sites with information on the area: