Looking for America in World War I

On a recent trip to France, as part of research for a novel I hope to write next year, my long-suffering wife endured several days in northeastern France looking for traces of America’s role in World War I.  The weather was just right for imagining nasty, soggy trench warfare, where half the casualties were from illness, not wounds.  Though it was late May, it was cold and rainy.

Les Monthairons -- a military hospital in World War I.

Les Monthairons — a military hospital in World War I.

The remaining trenches that we could find were all German and French.  It seems the American soldiers simply passed through the French trenches.  The Americans mostly didn’t stay in the trenches very long, because General John Pershin was hellbent on attack.  The Germans built a few trenches, like the one below, with concrete structure that still stand.  The French trenches were not built to survive for a century, so the tourism officials have to dig them out every now so tourists like us will have something to see.

Crown Prince Trench, Argonne

Crown Prince Trench, Argonne

Today’s remaining sample trenches give you a sense of just how miserable the life was, particularly on a cold rainy day, though we have nothing like the constant death and destruction of a century ago.  A coupld of other comparison:

  • These trenches were all in forest land.  After a few weeks of constant fighting and shelling back then, the tree cover was largely stripped off, creating the moonscape vistas that we associate with World War I.  Nature has filled in the trees by now.
  • But the land still has an amazing proliferation of bomb craters.  Acres and acres of land are pockmarked with them, looking almost like an endless egg carton.  The vegetation has grown back, but the land still reflects the devastation.

Two traces of the American expedition do remain, both built after the war.  The American Cemetery for the Meuse-Argonne battlefield is moving.  Almost 15,000 American boys are buried there.  Many died after Armistice Day, due to earlier wounds or illness, and the names of those who were never recovered are listed on a monument. (The U.S. paid to have soldiers’ bodies shipped home if the families wished.).  Very few Americans ever visit the cemetery, as Americans honor World War I very little.  The day we visited, the guest book was signed by Belgians and Australians, and one or two other Americans.

And the Montfaucon Monument commemorates the Americans who fought at the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne.  Way off the beaten track, its tower affords a panoramic view of beautiful farmlands that were the scene of vicious fighting for seven bloody weeks in late 1918.

The view from the Montfaucon Monument over the Meuse-Argonne battlefield.

The view from the Montfaucon Monument over the Meuse-Argonne battlefield.

We had been in the area for a couple of days when we realized that we were in the French province of Lorraine, where they must make good quiche Lorraine!  We stopped at a patisserie in a village that morning and had a quiche that put to shame every other quiche I have ever eaten.  I’m not sure I can ever order it again.  I also highly recommend the “pain Lorraine” we had in Verdun, which was a delicious croissant-type pastry with a marvelously spicy and greasy sausage in it.

The St. Mihiel Museum was closed when we tried to go there, but it was a small effort and could not have compared with the military museum (Musee Des Armee) at Les Invalides in Paris.  The French, who lost 1.3 million soldiers in World War I, a conflict they won yet which probably doomed them to lose World War II, honor World War I with great care.

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