Briefly Along the Western Front
The message on Harry’s card is a common one. Hundreds of thousands of postcards carried almost identical messages, inquiring about the health of those at home, and simply letting them know that their soldier was still alive. Postcards like Harry’s were censored by the military and self-censored by the soldiers; the messages were devoid of details about the horrible reality that was the First World War.
Harry Waters Jones died in the trenches of the Somme from an artillery explosion August 8, 1916. His name is on the Wall of the Missing at the Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, France. Harry’s brother, Wilfred Dray Jones, was killed in action at Passchendaele on Oct. 13, 1917; his name is inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, Belgium—one of 54,389 names of soldiers from the United Commonwealth Forces who fell in the Ypres Salient who have no known grave. The third Jones brother, William, survived the war to return home alone.
The Germans were fighting on two fronts during World War I. The Western Front extended from Switzerland to the Belgian coast as they pushed through Belgium and into France, but they were simultaneously fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front. WWI also encompassed fighting in Africa and the Middle East, as well as brief excursions into Central and Eastern Asia, but it was the Western Front that sustained four and a half years of battles and military deadlock in the muddy trenches and scarred landscape of northern France and Belgium.
Since Ned and I couldn’t separate the events of WWI from today’s France and Belgium, we hoped to temper our more serious historical pursuits with some beautiful scenery, good food, French wine, and friendly people. We brushed up on a few necessary words in French: bon jour, merci, chambre double, vin rouge, crepes and that universal word—sandwich. After a flight into Paris, we rented a small, black Peugeot 208, and within 20 minutes we were driving on winding, narrow, back roads under clear skies and sunshine. The roads and countryside were uncluttered—no billboards, no large vehicles, no traffic lights—just a few roundabouts and open space with views of rolling hills, vineyards, farmland, and villages of timeworn stone buildings with red tile roofs.
During the battle, the French military commandeered 600 Renault taxis off the streets of Paris, turning out passengers from some, and calling others from their garages. The taxis transported 5,000 French soldiers to the front, many of who had never ridden in a motorcar before; the passengers that were left stranded in the road cheered when they heard the reason tbey were abandoned. Five thousand soldiers was a small number compared to the millions of combatants in the Battle of the Marne, but the taxis came to symbolize French pride and solidarity; they are remembered today as part of the “Miracle of the Marne,” when the French and their British Allies stopped the German juggernaut only 30 miles from Paris.
Detailed, full-sized recreations of front-line trenches blend seamlessly with actual WWI film footage of soldiers moving about; a large group of life-size, uniformed soldiers are frozen in mid-step with some of them actually coming through the glass diaplay-case walls and into “our” space. The authentic uniform colors and materials in displays suddenly change to stark white at the outer edges of the displays—seeming to represent the fading of reality into memory—or life into death.
The beginning of the 20th century saw exciting new inventions, including the airplane and the telephone, but unfortunately others involved more effective ways for human beings to kill each other. New methods of mechanized warfare—machine guns, hand grenades, tanks, larger artillery pieces, and poisonous gas—were brutal, and cruelly efficient against human bodies. WWI was the world’s first industrialized war and battlefield losses were unprecedented.
and extensively used by U.S. Forces, 1917 – 1918. Musée de la Grande Guerre, Meaux.
Throughout the area of the Western Front, farmers still uncover shrapnel, shell casings, rusted weapons, unexploded ordnance, human remains, and personal effects in their plowed fields and vineyards. A restaurant owner that I will tell you about later gave me a button from a French infantry uniform; he had a cup full of them behind the bar, and he told me that he finds them often in the local vineyards.
Today, the little farming village of Belleau sits just below the quiet hilltop, looking much as it did before the battle—a few houses and barns, a church, and the “mairie,” or mayor’s office and town hall. It reminded me of one of those miniture villages that people arrange on their fireplace mantels during the holidays. The forest above the town was once the hunting ground of the Count and Countess of Belleau, but now the scarred hilltop peacefully overlooks the Aisne-Marne American cemetery. The cemetery contains the graves of 2,289 war dead from 10 American Divisions who fell during the fighting in and around Chateau-Thierry in the summer of 1918. The walls inside the memorial chapel display the names of another 1,060 men whose remains were never found.
Walking the trails through Belleau Wood, Ned and I passed trenches, foxholes and artillery-shell craters that are still distinctly evident, giving the woods an eerie feeling as if soldiers were just out of sight. The few surviving original trees, referred to as “veterans,” are never cut—partly out of respect, but also because they are full of bullets and shrapnel. The only sounds Ned and I heard were a few bird songs and our own soft-spoken comments as we tried to comprehend some of the details of the battle with the help of a large bronze map near the parking area. Walking to the western edge of the hill, we could see the open fields where the first American assaults took place. The peacefulness of the place was in stark contrast to what must have been an appalling torrent of artillery explosions, machine gun and small arms fire, cries of the wounded, and the stench of the dead and dying.
Slowly walking along the gently curving rows of crosses and Stars of David in the American Cemetery, we read the names engraved in white marble—names of men from Texas, Pennsylvania, New York, Michigan, Illinois, New Jersey, South Dakota, Mississippi and many other states.
Lieutenant Thomas Brailsford, U.S.M.C., was from Pittsburg, but graduated from Texas A&M in 1917. He was a tall, handsome young man and recently married. He was 24 years old when he was killed in action at Belleau Wood in June 1918. We also paid our respects at the grave of David Marion Maxwell, Navy Pharmacist Mate, who was assigned to the Fifth Marines as a corpsman. Maxwell’s family was from Arkansas, but he enlisted in Dallas, Texas. He was wounded on June 16, 1918, while tending to wounded Marines in the field during the battle of Belleau Wood, but he continued his work under machine gun and artillery fire. He was wounded again and died the following day. The French awarded Maxwell the Croix de Guerre and he was awarded a Silver Star Citation by the U.S. We corresponded with Maxwell’s nephew prior to our trip and we were able to provide the family with a photo of his headstone.
The Bulldog Fountain
French poilu, George Delbez, wrote a photo postcard to his wife, Jeannette, in November 1914 telling her about a recent inspection that found his troop “robust enough to hit the trenches.” He went on to say, “Can’t we end the war now my little wolf? So that he (referring to himself) can hug and kiss his Jeanette as he likes to?” In the photo we see George posing with his comrades in full uniform and kit. He is wearing the early French dark blue greatcoat and red trousers. His uniform was perhaps suitable for warfare of the previous century, before snipers and machine guns, when troops stood together to repel attacks from infantry or cavalry. WWI was a different type of war, however, and the French soon learned that this bright-target of a uniform was a poor choice; the uniforms were soon replaced it with a more neutral, light-blue material.
George’s wife, Jeannette, sent a copy of his photo to friends, asking, “What do you think of my little soldier? I think the eagle (Germany) will be forced to fall and that this brave Kaiser will definitely be afraid of my trooper.” Unfortunately, in a later postcard, Jennette laments the loss of her “brave George.”
The Argonne Forest
U.S. Signal Corps photograph. Body of German soldier near French Renault Tank.
Text: “Street Scene in Exermont, shortly after its capture by the Americans. The evidence of battle are [sic] everywhere. Members of the tank corps seek shelter as a German shell is heard over head.”
German outpost in the Argonne Forrest.
Note Kicking Mule emblem of 95th Aero Squadron just behind cockpit.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
— Siegfried Sassoon, 1918
Not only did the soldiers face the threat of death from the enemy, but the conditions of the frontline were appalling in the extreme. Bitter, wet, and cold winters, mud, lice, unsantitary conditons, mental and physical exaustion, and disease were commonplace; Approximately one-third of the military deaths during the war were from disease, including pneumonia and the flu pandemic of 1918.
WWI raged on three sides of Ypres for four years. When the Germans were unable to take the town, they proceeded to shell it to oblivion, including Cloth Hall and St. Martin’s, a towering Gothic cathedral that was completed in 1370. Not a single building in the city was left intact.
Adjusting to our inadequate three days in Ypres, Ned and I elected to take a half-day tour of the South Salient that included Bayernwald, Hill 60, the Anzac Memorial at Messines and the Kemmel American Monument. The Kemmel monument honors the American soldiers of the 27th and 30th divisions who were attached to the British during the Ypres-Lys Offensive in August and September 1918. Shortly after that stop, we were able to walk through the reconstructed German trenches at Bayernwald that were part of the German defenses of Messines Ridge. Private Adolph Hitler served as a headquarters messenger in this area during WWI, where he was promoted to corporal and decorated for heroism. He would later be propelled down the dark path to WWII by a combination of factors, including the failure of Germany to win the war, the harsh armistice agreement imposed on Germany by the Allies, and his own personal demons.
We paused at one liberally decorated gravesite to listen to our tour guide tell the story of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, a British boy-soldier who lied about his age and joined the British 8th Battalion Rifle Brigade at age 14. Soon after arriving in France, Strudwick was gassed during a battle and sent home to England for three months of recuperation. His family was so poor that his mother was unable to travel to the military hospital where he was treated; after three months Strudwick rejoined his regiment in France. He was killed in action January 14, 1916, a month before his 16th birthday.
Luciana: But he was a boy.
Yossarian: Well, he died. You don't get any older than that.
Official Australian photograph.
South to Paris
Even with our language difficulty, it was clear that Didier and I agreed that the Chauchat was not well thought of by the French poilu or the soldiers of the American Expeditionary Forces who were issued the weapon in 1917 and 1918. Many of the rifle’s working parts were of poor quality and the gun was susceptible to overheating as well as jamming due to mud and dust.
I happened to have with me a copy of a photograph of an elderly French couple greeting two American doughboys when their small town was liberated after four years of German occupation. In the photo one of the Americans has a Chauchat slung over his shoulder. I gave the photo to Didier, and the link to our first day in France seemed like a nice “bookend” to our trip.
Digital collage, KGW.
Reuilly-Sauvigny, France: Champagne B&B www.marneweb.com
A guide to the Battlefields and History of the first World War, www.greatwar.co.uk
Picture Postcards from the Great War, www.worldwar1postcards.com
Daniels, Josephus. The Achievements of the Marine Corps, Perry, Lawrence, Our Navy in the War. New York: Charles Schribner's Sons, 1922.
Dunn, Captain J. C. The War the Infantry Knew. 1938. London: Abacus, Little, Brown Book Group. 1994.