Thursday, July 23, 2015

Briefly Along the Western Front

Prologue: The following is a report of a ten-day trip that my son Ned and I took in April 2015, exploring the World War I Western Front in France and Belgium. This account is not organized by the chronology of events or relative significance of various military engagements; constrained by limited available time, we chose to travel the Western Front from southeast to northwest, working from a tentative list of places and events which we hoped would expand our understanding of “The Great War.” We had studied histories and photographs, but we wanted to see the landscape, walk the sites, and examine the ruins and relics that remain today. We wanted to experience the physical spaces in hopes of a better understanding of the human toll of this long, brutal conflict. Rather than an examination of the broader aspects of politics, governments, and warfare, the focus of this piece is the appalling cost of World War I on the soldiers who fought, the civilians who endured, and the landscape that still bears countless scars a century later. Brief historical background material has been included––however, any factual errors are my own. KGW

Briefly Along the Western Front

On June 24, 1916, John and Flora Jones in North Perth, Australia received a beautiful embroidered silk postcard from their son Harry in France. Private Harry Waters Jones was one of three brothers who volunteered to serve with the Australian Imperial Forces on the Western Front during WWI.

My Dear Mother and Father, Just a line or two to let you know I am well. I hope you are all the same. I hope you will like this card.  I have not heard from Will since I have been here. I had another letter from Uncle George. I will write you a letter next mail. I thought you would like this pretty card. Remember me to all. I hope Dad is keeping well. I remain your loving son, Harry.

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.


We are a century past the events of “The Great War,” but an ongoing collection of postcards similar to the one above have piqued my interest in the soldiers and civilians who experienced the war, and I have long wanted to tour some of the battlefield sites of the Western Front. My son, Ned, is a former Marine who has been interested in military history since boot camp where he heard stories about places like Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry. He was enthusiastic about the idea of a trip and we began planning an itinerary for the coming spring.

The Germans were fighting on two fronts during World War I. The Western Front extended from Switzerland to the Belgian coast as the German army 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.

Ned and I hoped to temper our more serious historical pursuits with some beautiful scenery, good food, French wine, and friendly people; feeling humbled by our limited language skills, we brushed up on a few necessary French words: bon jour, merci, chambre double, vin rouge, crepes and that universal word—sandwich. After the long flight into Paris, we went straight to the rental car desk where we chose a small, black Peugeot 208; within 20 minutes we were driving on winding, narrow, back roads under clear skies and sunshine. The smaller roads and countryside were uncluttered—no billboards, no large vehicles, no traffic lights—just a few roundabouts and open spaces with views of rolling hills, vineyards, farmland, and villages of timeworn stone buildings with red tile roofs.  

Champagne Region of France just northeast of Paris.

La Grande Guerre

One could spend years reading about WWI without completely understanding and appreciating the events that took place between 1914 and 1918. The causes and instigating factors of the war were complex, but the ensuing human and economic losses were both obvious and staggering. Despite the limitations of a short trip, and the passage of a hundred years, Ned and I wanted to see some of these sites first hand—places like Verdun, the Argonne Forest, Passchendaele, Ypres, Essex Farm, and the valleys of the Marne and Meuse rivers. We hoped that by doing so we might gain a better understanding of the lives and sacrifices of the individual soldiers and civilians who found themselves caught up in in this “war to end all wars.”

France’s new Musée de la Grande Guerre, in the city of Meaux, was our first stop after we left the Paris airport. The museum is housed in a beautiful, modern, "floating" structure with references to the war in the design of its walls and gates. To reach the building's entrance, one walks across a relief map of the Western Front in the space beneath the elevated museum building. Inside the museum itself, the displays are beautifully presented and engaging, including one of the legendary "Taxis of the Marne" from the first Battle of the Marne when the French and their British Allies turned the tide of the German advance on Paris.

By the autumn of 1914, the German forces had pushed through Belgium and were continuing south toward Paris. There was debate within the French government about abandoning Paris to German occupation, but insead the French and British mounted an offensive attack that pushed the Germans back to the Aisne River; the battle became known as “Miracle of the Marne.” The resulting Allied and German positions solidified into a stalemate; trench warfare and an extremely costly war of attrition would last another four years.

The Renault taxi on exhibit in the museum was one of 600 taxis commandeered off the streets of Paris by the French military during the Battle of the Marne in 1914; passengers were turned out of some taxis and other taxis were called out from their garages. The taxis transported 5,000 French soldiers to the front, many of whom had never ridden in a motorcar before; the passengers left stranded in the road cheered when they heard the reason they 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.

                    One of the Taxis of the Marne.                                             Soldiers display.

The museum houses displays of large artillery pieces, smaller weapons, uniforms, propaganda posters, and a Renault tank that seems to be coming up out of the floor––but it’s the displays of the smaller items, photographs, tools, drawings and correspondence, that touchingly reveal the personal lives of humans at the war front and the home front. A soldier’s pipe and tobacco, a shaving kit, a sweat-stained uniform cap, a well-used prosthetic arm, and a fiercely ugly, rusted, shrapnel mask worn by a tank gunner all seemed more intimate and more “real” than the spotlessly clean artillery cannon or army truck. One display held simple stringed musical instruments made from steel helmets and other war debris—each one seeming to offer a story or song that was almost perceptible.

A large group of life-size, uniformed soldiers are frozen in mid-step with some of them actually coming through the glass walls of the display case and into “our” space; detailed, full-sized recreations of front-line trenches blend seamlessly with actual WWI film footage of soldiers moving about. The colors of uniforms and other elements in the displays suddenly change to stark white at the outer edges of the presentations—seeming to represent the fading of reality into memory––or life into death.

Frontline trench recreation. Musée de la Grande Guerre, Meaux.

Detail of “Western Front Battlefields Map, 1914 – 1918.”  Reproduced with kind permission of

The area that comprised the Western Front is surprisingly small; one could drive the length of it today in about five hours, but this area of northern France and Belgium endured four and a half years of total devastation, destruction, and death. Artillery shelling reduced entire villages, forests, and agricultural areas to rubble, dust, shattered stumps, and mud.

The beginning of the 20th century saw exciting new inventions, including the airplane and the telephone, and many of these inventions found employment during the Great War as human beings found more effective ways to kill each other. New methods of mechanized warfare—machine guns, hand grenades, tanks, larger artillery pieces, and poisonous gaswere brutal, and cruelly efficient against human bodies. WWI was the world’s first industrialized war and battlefield losses were unprecedented.

1915 Chauchat, French light machine gun. Placed into service with the French in 1916,
and extensively used by U.S. Forces, 1917 – 1918.  Musée de la Grande Guerre, Meaux.

The total number of deaths during the war was nearly ten million soldiers and seven million civilians, with many more maimed and wounded; in one week in September 1914, the French lost 80,000 killed and wounded at the First Battle of the Marne.  On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the British Army lost 20,000 men killed and 40,000 wounded—and the battle of the Somme would last for 141 days. Just outside of Verdun, Ned and I visited the ossuary at Douaumont, a memorial that houses the skeletal remains of 130,000 unknown French and German soldiers that were recovered from the Verdun battlefield.

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 frequently in the local vineyards.

Belleau Wood

It was only a short distance from the museum at Meaux to the village of Belleau and the small, forested, hill on its western edge known as Bois de Belleau, or Belleau Wood. This hilltop and the fields to its south and west were the site of a now legendary battle between U.S. forces and dug-in German troops in June of 1918. 

In the spring of 1918, the German army advanced south to the Marne River in a last desperate effort to take Paris and end the war. They captured Chateau-Thierry on the Marne and moved westward into Belleau Wood. During March and April, newly arrived American troops were pouring into combat positions along the Western Front, reinforcing their exhausted French and British allies, and halting the Germans Spring Offensive at the Marne River. As part of the Allied counter-offensive, U.S. Marines and American soldiers, under the command of the French Army, halted the German advance at the village of Belleau, and, at great cost, captured the hilltop known as Belleau Wood. The U.S. Marines of the 4th Marine Brigade’s 5th and 6th Regiments are particularly revered for their part in this battle.

The Army’s 2nd Division Engineers prepared defensive positions and served alongside the Marines as they repelled German attacks from shallow fighting positions in open fields below Belleau Wood for three days in early June. On June 6 the Marines mounted a two-prong attack from the west and south across the wheat fields into murderous machine gun fire. It was here that Marine Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly is quoted as yelling at his men of the 73rd Machine Gun company: Come on you sons-of-bitches, you want to live forever? 

The Marines advanced in waves, with the rear waves moving up and past the earlier ones, passing the bodies of the dead and wounded. In his official report in December 1918, Josephus Daniels, Secretary of the Navy described the attack of June 6 at Belleau Wood:

'Men fell like flies,' the expression is that of an officer writing from the field. Companies that entered the battle 250 strong dwindled to 50 and 60, with a sergeant in command; but the attack did not falter… In Belleau Wood the fighting had been literally from tree to tree, stronghold to stronghold. Belleau Wood was a jungle, its every rocky formation containing a German machine-gun nest, almost impossible to reach by artillery or grenade fire. There was only one way to wipe out these nests—by the bayonet… The heroism and doggedness of that battle are unparalleled. Time after time officers seeing their lines cut to pieces, seeing their men so dog-tired that they even fell asleep under shellfire, hearing their  wounded calling for water they were unable to supply, seeing men fight on after they had been wounded and until they dropped unconscious; … (officers) would send back messages to their post command that their men were exhausted. But in answer to this would come the word that the line must hold, and if possible, those lines must attack. And the lines obeyed.

Drawing of the Belleau Wood Battle by Georges Scott, published in France, 1921.

The Marines casualties that day were their highest single-day loss in Marine history, but they managed to obtain a foothold in Belleau Wood. During ten days of desperate combat, including hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets, grenades, and trench knives, the Marines slowly advanced into the dense wooded underbrush, taking one machine gun nest after another. They were relieved by the Army’s 7th Infantry on June 17, but returned to the line five days later and finally cleared the woods of Germans by June 26. The Germans gave the Marines the name “Devil Dogs,” and today Bois de Belleau is honored and hallowed ground to U.S. Marines.

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 miniature 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 is a memorial that 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 death.

Artillery shell holes, foxholes and trenches are still evident in Belleau Wood.

After a comfortable night at a bed and breakfast owned by a retired American couple in nearby Reuilly-Sauvigny, we returned to Belleau the next morning.  David Atkinson, the superintendent of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, gave us some reference points concerning the battle, the cemetery, and the approximate locations of some of the early temporary cemeteries, which we had seen pictured on old postcards. Emails to Atkinson’s office, prior to the trip, had provided us with the names and locations of the graves of several U.S. Marines who had enlisted in Texas and Internet searches had yielded some details of their lives.

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 Pittsburgh, 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.

          Lt. Thomas Brailsford, U.S.M.C.       Pharmacist Mate 2nd Class David Maxwell

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery below Belleau Wood

One of the Marines buried in the American Cemetery is Major Edward B. Cole who commanded the 6th Machine Gun Battalion at Belleau Wood.  Major Cole was a Harvard graduate and an expert on machine guns before the war.  On June 10, he was leading an attack on an enemy machine gun position when he was wounded by a hand grenade; when a second grenade landed in front of him, he grabbed it to throw it back but it exploded in his hand. Severly wounded, he crawled back to his men under rifle fire and died of his wounds eight days later, in a field hospital. 

Major Cole received the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism during the Battle of Belleau Wood; he lies with his comrades, heroes all, in the Aisne-Marine American Cemetery, Belleau, France.

The Bulldog Fountain

We were not about to leave Belleau without a visit to the legendary bulldog fountain that spouts the cold, clear water that the village is named for (belle eau – beautiful water).  Some stories say that the Countess of Belleau installed the large, bronze, bulldog head as a tribute to the U.S. Marines, but in reality, the fountain predates WWI and was probably meant to represent one of the bullmastiff hunting dogs of the estate.  However, soon after the war, Marines visiting Belleau Wood “adopted” the fountain as a representation of their own “Devil Dog” mascot. One of the legends about the fountain is that any Marine who drinks from it will gain an extra 20 years of life.  Of course, Ned drank deeply at the fountain, and, although I’m not a Marine, I figured it couldn’t hurt to have a sip.

Ned takes a drink from the Bulldog Fountain at Belleau.


The Americans did not enter the war until 1917, but the French, Belgians, British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, and Germans had already been fighting and dying in France for almost three years. During the next few days of our trip, Ned and I walked cemeteries, photographed rebuilt villages, and climbed hillsides that were still scarred with trenches, bunkers, mines, tunnels, craters, rusting angle iron, and barbed wire. We explored Verdun, Fort Douaumont, Chateau-Thierry, parts of the Argonne Forest, and the river valleys of the Meuse and the Marne.  

I first heard the name Verdun in the early 1960s when my mother, an antiques dealer, obtained a piece of “trench art”—a brass shell casing that had been formed into a vase with “Verdun 1916” embossed into the metal. At the time, I mistakenly believed that all such items had been crafted by soldiers in the trenches during their idle time. However, while the men at the front did fashion some items like jewelry, letter openers, and ashtrays from the detritus of war, most "trench art" was created behind the combat zones. Soldiers in the rear echelons fashioned many artistic keepsakes of this sort in order to fill long hours of inactive time—creating mementos to keep, send home, or sell to other soldiers. French and Belgian villagers and war refugees also produced a large number of such items to sell to the soldiers during the war. It was an important cottage industry, capable of producing income for civilians who had been displaced or had suffered the destruction of their homes, farms, and businesses. Prisoners of war also handcrafted such folk art pieces to trade for food and cigarettes. In the post-war years "trench art" keepsakes continued to be created by villagers and sold to tourists and battlefield pilgrims. In her book, They Called it Passchendaele, Lyn Macdonald describes these postwar visitors to Flanders:
They were mostly women, these pilgrims. Some of them were accompanied by a husband, or a father, or a son. More often by a sister or a daughter because their husbands and fathers and sons were already here. A whole generation of young men lay buried beneath the Flanders mud.
Another wartime handicraft was the local production of hand embroidered, silk postcards like the one that Harry Jones sent home to his mother; these beautiful cards were an enterprise for women in villages and refugee camps.  The soldiers provided a ready market for these cards as something they could send home or keep for a souvenir—small bits of bright color and human affection in a dark place and time.

The battle for Verdun was one of the deadliest of the war. The city of Verdun was ringed with a series of large reinforced concrete defensive fortifications, but when the Germans attacked, in February 1916, they intended to take Verdun regardless of losses. They captured Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux after extensive artillery shelling, and intense man-to-man fighting, both above ground and in the dark, damp, subterranean tunnels and living quarters. The French retook Douaumont in the autumn, but by December the casualties on both sides totaled over 600,000. The battle of Verdun lasted 303 days; the determination and bravery of the French soldier, the poilu, as they fought for their homes and their nation at Verdun cannot be overestimated. 

The remains of Fort Douaumont, north of Verdun.

Poilu is the informal and endearing term for a French WWI infantryman. It literally means “hairy one,” and refers to their rustic background and their bushy mustaches and beards. If you happen to overhear someone questioning the courage of the French soldier, refer them to the Battle of Verdun; both the French and the Germans knew the battle as “The Hell of Verdun.”

French poilu George Delbez, sent 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 (center) 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 gunswhen 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.”

        Interior passageway, Fort Douaumont               George Delbez (center) French poilu. 1914.

In Warrior Against His Will, an anonymous account by a German sapper (combat engineer), the author describes the German attack at Liège, Belgium during the opening engagement of the war—an attack against concrete fortifications that were similar to Fort Douaumont:

The heaviest artillery was brought into action against the modern forts of concrete. Up to that time no soldier had been aware of the existence of the 42-centimeter mortars. Even when Liège had fallen into German hands we soldiers could not explain to ourselves how it was possible that those enormous fortifications, constructed partly of reinforced concrete of a thickness of one to six meters, could be turned into a heap of rubbish after only a few hours’ bombardment… Thus the forts were made level with the ground; thousands of Belgians were lying dead and buried behind and beneath the ramparts…

The exterior of Fort Douaumont today looks like natural limestone cliffs, but the appearance is deceiving—what appears to be weathered stone is actually the remains of thick concrete walls that were shelled relentlessly. The 42-centimeter artillery gun mentioned by the German sapper was popularly known as “Big Bertha,” a huge, new heavy-duty mortar that was used to great effect at Fort Douaumont and Fort Vaux during the battle of Verdun. 

View from the top of Fort Douaumont.

Following the walkway to the top of the old fort, Ned and I found steel machine gun turrets scarred with 100 year-old bullet marks and the steel covers for retractable 155mm artillery pieces. From this elevation, the surrounding green terrain seemed quiet and peaceful, but it was crumpled with the remains of shell craters, trenches, and foxholes and bristleing with rusted angle iron and barbed wire entanglements. Tourists are allowed to explore freely inside the fort, and there we discovered a maze of cold, damp, tunnels and rooms that echoed with the sounds of dripping water and our own reticent footsteps. Military bed frames, a few artillery pieces, and stair railings stood as dark, rusted, witnesses to the past; the place was both claustrophobic and ghostly. It was difficult to imagine soldiers living in those rooms—the thought of fighting and dying in them was nearly inconceivable.

The Ossuary and French Military Cemetery at Douaumont.

After driving a short distance from the fort, we saw the tower of the Douaumont Ossuary dominating the skyline, but the immense cemetery in front of the building seemed to overpower it with rows and rows of white crosses marking the graves of over 16,000 French WWI soldiers. The interior of the ossuary is a large, cathedral-like space with a chapel and museum, but the most striking aspect of the building is what lies beneath this peaceful interior—a shadowy, cavernous, space that houses the skeletal remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers found scattered over the Verdun sector after the hostilities had ceased. Their identities and even their nationalities are unknown. The bones lie in jumbled heaps that can be seen through small, low windows at the back of the building. It is a disturbing view that invites reflection about the scale of this war and the anonymity of death.

The Argonne Forest

The Argonne Forrest is a rough stretch of wooded terrain northwest of Verdun. This area was central to one of the largest battles for American forces in WWI, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that began in late September, and ended with the Armistice on November 11, 1918. The Meuse-Argonne was part of a larger Allied offensive along the whole of the Western Front against German troops that had been fortifying their positions for four years. 

Just north of Verdun, we left the car and walked the road as it ran through the small village of Exermont. We found that the buildings and church that were the setting for combat action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive are still standing. The local church was used as a field hospital during battle.

1919 postcard: American Troops under fire in Exermont 
Oct. 1918.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.”

Exermont today.

German outpost in the Argonne Forest. 

Only a few kilometers from Exermont, we paused again at a stone marker beside the road and peered down a steep, wooded embankment into a ravine where nine companies of the U.S. 77th Infantry Division—misnamed as the “Lost Battalion” by a journalist—were surrounded and pinned down in a pocket in the Argonne in October 1918. Under relentless attack and deadly sniper fire, they ran out of food and water and suffered heavy casualties during the six day ordeal. They were unable to reach a nearby stream for water and they came under fire from their own artillery. The battalion continued to hold out despite continuing losses. Although running low on ammunition and weak from days without food and water, they still refused a German offer of surrender and held their position against terrible odds. One-third of the 550 men were killed, another third were missing or captured, and the remaining 194 survivors were finally rescued after their last homing pigeon, Cher Ami, carried a message back to division headquarters.

The deep ravine where the 77th Battalion was surrounded and pinned down in Oct. 1918.

Later that day, near the village of Chateau de Chatel-Chéhéry, we walked the marked and maintained hiking trail through a wooded valley where Corporal Alvin York, a 29 year-old farmer, religious pacifist, and crack-shot from Tennessee took out a German machine gun nest and captured 132 German soldiers during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. York was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor after that action. York described the event in his diary:
And then the machine guns on top swung around and opened fire on us. There were about thirty of them. They were commanding us from a hillside less than thirty yards away. They couldn't miss. And they didn't!... They killed all of Savage's squad; they got all of mine but two; they wounded Cutting and killed two of his squad; and Early's squad was well back in the brush on the extreme right and not yet under the direct fire of the machine guns, and so they escaped. All except Early. He went down with three bullets in his body. That left me in command. I was right out there in the open… those machine guns were spitting fire and cutting down the undergrowth all around me something awful… As soon as the machine guns opened fire on me, I began to exchange shots with them. 
I had no time nohow to do nothing but watch them-there German machine gunners and give them the best I had. Every time I seed a German I jes teched him off. At first I was shooting from a prone position; that is lying down; jes like we often shoot at the targets in the shooting matches in the mountains of Tennessee; and it was jes about the same distance. But the targets here were bigger. I jes couldn't miss a German's head or body at that distance. And I didn't… I covered their positions and let fly every time I seed anything to shoot at. Every time a head come up I done knocked it down. Then they would sorter stop for a moment and then another head would come up and I would knock it down, too. I was giving them the best I had.
     Sergeant Alvin C. York                       Entering Chatel-Chéhéry, France

One of the most decorated soldiers of WWI, Sergeant York returned to Tennessee after the war and spent the remainder of his life working to improve educational opportunities for the children of Tennessee mountain families. Later in life, York humbly described his time on the Western Front: I occupied one space in a fifty-mile front. I saw so little it hardly seems worthwhile discussing it. I'm trying to forget the war in the interest of the mountain boys and girls that I grew up among.

I recently mentioned to one young friend that actor Gary Cooper played Alvin York in the 1941 movie, Sergeant York, and she said, Who? Sometimes forget how old I am.

“Black Death”

Another important story of WWI is the contribution of soldiers of color, including British and French colonials and African-American soldiers from the United States. The British Empire’s Indian troops contributed 150,000 men to the conflict in Europe, and many more against the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian theater and the East African theater. Nearly 1,000 Aboriginal Australians also served with British forces. One hundred and thirty-five thousand French Colonial tirailleurs (“skirmishers” or “sharpshooters”), from Senegal, Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco fought in Europe, including battles at Ypres, and Fort Douaumont. Commonly called “Turcos” or Senegalese, these colonial troops were fierce and respected fighters. The colonial troops sustained considerable combat losses and the European winters were particularly hard on them.

During WWI, prejudice and segregation relegated most African-American soldiers to labor and service units, however, two all-black combat divisions were sent to France, the 92nd and the 93rd Divisions. The 93rd was assigned to the French army by General John (Black Jack) Pershing, who considered the black troops to be inferior and undependable and because many white American soldiers refused to serve alongside them. African-American troops suffered severe racial discrimination and poor training, but eventually over 200,000 of them shipped out for France. The French were more accepting in regard to racial issues and they welcomed the black troops.

Private William Henry Johnson, frequently misidentified as Henry Lincoln Johnson, was a former railroad porter from New York who served in France with the 369th Infantry Regiment of the 93rd Division, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” The 369th saw action in the trenches with the French 16th Division at the Second Battle of the Marne. In May 1918, Private Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were assigned guard duty at a bridge on the Aisne River at the edge of the Argonne Forest. They were serving under French command, wearing French helmets and using French weapons, but wearing American uniforms. A party of at least 12 and possibly as many as 24 German soldiers attacked their position during the night. Roberts was badly wounded by a grenade, but he fed grenades to Johnson and after they ran out of grenades Johnson repelled the attack with rifle-fire; after running out of ammunition he was forced to resort using his rifle butt and finally his bolo knifeslashing wildly at the swarm of attackers. The Germans finally withdrew with the approach of American troops. Johnson was wounded twenty-one times, but he had killed four Germans and wounded many others. The act of heroism earned Johnson the nickname “Black Death,” and the two men were awarded the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military award. 

Johnson and Roberts returned home with the 369th as heroes, and they rode in an elaborate victory parade in New York City; President Theodore Roosevelt called Johnson one of the “five bravest Americans to serve” in WWI. In spite of this brief acclaim, Johnson and Roberts were not awarded medals by the U.S., and like other African-American troops, they returned home to overt racial discrimination and hardship. His injuries made it difficult for Johnson to hold a job and his family life deteriorated. He died in 1929 at age 32. William Henry Johnson is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

Just a few weeks after our trip to France, Ned and I learned that President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Henry Johnson on June 2, 2015, in a ceremony at the White House. 

  (L) Henry Johnson wearing the French Croix de Guerre on a troopship bound for home. 1919. 
(R) French WWI postcard, "Tirailleur Sénégalis."

Quentin Roosevelt

One site that I particularly wanted to visit was a low ridge above a quiet farm field where Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, met his death. By all accounts Quentin Roosevelt was an intelligent, adventurous man and an excellent pilot who was well liked by the men of the in 1st Pursuit Group of the 95th Aero Squadron. He was killed while flying his Nieuport biplane in an aerial dogfight against German pilots on July 14, 1918, during the Second Battle of the Marne. 

In order to find Roosevelt’s crash site, we followed some vague directions from the Internet that described it as being near the village of Chamery, France. We began our search near the village by driving gravel lanes in the nearby vineyards. The orderly rows of grape vines, each vine a single pruned stem trained in a gentle double curve, were just barely sprouting new leaves. We stopped several times to ask directions from farmers, but they spoke no English and our attempts to convey Rooseveltla Grande Guerre, or avion seemed to elicit only friendly shrugs and so, it was back to Google Maps.  

It turned out that an even smaller village with same name, Chamery, was 48 kilometers away! As we drove into the village, we spotted the large memorial fountain built by the Roosevelt family, and we soon found the unpaved farm road and the trail leading to the monument that marks the place were Roosevelt fell. The Germans buried Roosevelt with honors at the crash site, but in 1955, his remains were exhumed and moved to a WWII American cemetery on the French coast and reburied beside his brother, General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., who died during WWII.

Quentin Roosevelt. Photo taken by German soldiers, July 14, 1918.
Note Kicking Mule emblem of 95th Aero Squadron just behind cockpit.

“Here Fell Quentin Roosevelt, 95th Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group,” Chamery, France

It is tempting to think that, by standing on low ridge were Roosevelt fell and looking up at the clouds and blue sky, one might be able to envision the sight of a WWI aerial dogfight and the resulting tragedy, but we are too far removed from the event in time and experience. While it may satisfy us in some melancholy way to morn the loss of a man like Roosevelt, or the infinitely less glamorous death of a soldier alone and forgotten in the mud of Passchendaele, our thoughts are our own and of little consequence in any real sense. At best, remembering and sharing the stories might help us to teach future generations––about duty and honor, of course––but also about the senselessness of war. 

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

The Women of the Western Front

With war raging on the Western Front, thousands of women worked in hospitals and for relief organizations In France, Belgium and Germany; local women were also doing what they could to continue the work of their farms and businesses and keep their families safe while their men were away at war. In combat areas, many families had been forced to flee their homes and live as refugees. 

Relief organizations, like the Red Cross, YMCA and Salvation Army, sent volunteers from around the world to work behind the lines; many volunteers, both men and women, risked their lives working at the front as nurses, aid workers, and ambulance drivers. The U.S. Army recruited and trained 233 female, bilingual, telephone operators to work switchboards near combat areas. At home, all the major combatant countries saw significant changes in traditional gender roles as women went to work at factories, farms, and home front service organizations, as well as managing and maintaining family households.

 Postcard, Y.M.C.A and Y.W.C.A. women on board transport ship for France. c. 1917

Determined women of France work their farm.
Photograph and U.S. Food Administration poster. Musée de la Grande Guerre, Meaux.

Rest in Peace?

As we continued our series of short drives between villages and WWI sites, we were reminded how close these historic sites are to one another. At almost every turn or hilltop rise we were also struck by the difference between today’s beautiful, rolling hills and villages and the muddy expanses, shell holes, and trenches of the macabre landscape that was the Western Front during the war. 

During the war, the fields and forests along the Western Front were churned to complete ruin, and most trees in the battle areas were reduced to nothing but splintered sticks. We were traveling through some of the most peaceful and attractive countryside in the world, enjoying the food, and the sunshine, and talking with friendly people in postcard-like villages while tragedy literally lay under our feet and just out of sight in the curve of time.

Western Front near Ypres, 1917. Photograph by Australian photographer Frank Hurley.  

In Warrior Against His Will, the anonymous German sapper describes the pursuit of retreating French soldiers after a battle: 

The roads we used were again literally covered with corpses; knapsacks, rifles, dead horses and men were lying there in a wild jumble. The dead had been partly crushed and pounded to a pulp by the horses and vehicles, an indescribably terrible spectacle for even the most hardened mass-murderer.

One of the WWI postcards that I have collected offers a view of destruction and chaos that was typical of many scenes on the Western Front.  The photograph shows two German soldiers standing in a devastated landscape amid destroyed artillery caissons, dead horses, and other wreckage of war. An Allied soldier must have come into possession of the card, as it has a handwritten note in English on its back: A common site, (sic) horses and caissons, for miles the ground is torn up thus.

French real photo postcard, c. 1916.

French troops duck for cover in this action photo by Canadian photographer, E. De Souza.

British wiring party going out to install barbed wire entanglements.
Postcard photograph by Ernest Brooks for the U.K. Daily Mail.

Postcards such as these were not only a means of correspondence during the war, but they also recorded the events as evidence and keepsakes for the soldiers and preserved the scene for us today. Cards similar to the "Daily Mail" postcard of the British wiring party were quickly published in London, and they became part of the "news of the day."

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, unsanitary conditions, mental and physical exhaustion, 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.

As we continued our drive through the French countryside, neatly kept military cemeteries, memorials, and monuments seemed to appear around nearly every bend in the road. Some cemeteries memorialized French and Belgian soldiers and civilians from local villages who fell during the war, and others marked the resting place of soldiers from other countries who died far from home. 

(L) Monument at Reuilly-Sauvigny to five French soldiers 
from the village who died during WWI.
(R) German Cemetery at Aprémont, Argonne Forest.
Resting place of 1,111 soldiers from 13 infantry and Landwehr regiments.

In the chaos of war thousands of soldiers were buried in temporary graves on battlefields or near hospitals, but others were left unburied in No-Man’s land. Casualty records keeping ranged from poor to impossible; countless bodies remained unidentified and thousands of soldiers were never found. In many cases shelling destroyed graves, and some bodies simply disappeared into the mud. 

In his powerful account Under Fire, Henri Barbusse describes his experience as a common French soldier and stretcher-bearer in 1915 and 1916, living among the dead in the trenches:

In the wall behind me is a hollow recess with things heaped up in it, horizontally like logs. Are they tree trunks? No: they are corpses…Then I turn and look at the dead who are being gradually exhumed from the night, showing their stiffened, spattered forms. There are four of them. They are our companions, Lamuse, Barque, Biquet, and little Eudore. They are decomposing there, right beside us, half obstructing the wide, twisting, muddy furrow that the living still care to defend.

Photograph of field grave of French Fusilier Marin Pierre Marcoux, Oct. 28, 1917.
In Flanders Field Museum, Ypres.

Postcard, temporary American Cemetery, Belleau Wood. c. 1918.

After the war, both the Allies and the Central Powers employed grave-registration services to begin the difficult task of identifying as many of the dead as possible as they exhumed and reburied bodies, and many smaller cemeteries were incorporated into larger ones. In 1919, after much debate, the U.S. War Department began shipping home the bodies of some American war dead at the request of their families, however, the majority of the Allies’ war dead remain buried on or near the field of battle.  Many of the cemeteries are small and isolated, but others are overwhelming in size, including the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, which contains the remains of over 14,000 American soldiers, the French Military Cemetery at Douaumont with 16,142 graves, and Tyne Cot Cemetery, where 11,956 British Commonwealth solders are interred.


Continuing northwest, we were approximating the route that the Germans and Allies traversed in 1914, while trying to outflank each other during their “Race to the Sea.” We soon crossed the open border between France and Belgium and entered the ancient city of Ypres. During the Middle Ages, Ypres was the hub of the very prosperous Belgian textile industry with trading partners in other parts of Europe and England.  Cloth Hall, built in the 13th century, was a huge, ornate, Gothic structure that housed warehouses and market halls for the cloth merchants and their customers.

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.

French Postcard, Cloth Hall and St. Martin’s Church, Ypres, 1912. 

French Postcard, St. Martin’s Church and Cloth Hall, Ypres, 1919.   

The Belgians rebuilt Ypres after the war with German repatriation money; today the city is a picturesque community of 20 thousand inhabitants, many of whom speak three languages or more. The cobblestone streets and the brick and stone buildings seem to be from another century, but they were all constructed in the 1920s, using the same street layout and architectural styles as the originals. The large and elaborate Cloth Hall and St. Martin’s Church took decades to rebuild; an unknowing visitor would assume that these buildings dated to the Middle Ages. Cloth Hall now houses the In Flanders Fields Museum, which presents the story of the First World War in the West Flanders front region. 

Cloth Hall in background. A pile of wooden crosses on the right, waiting to be used.  
Photograph by Antony d’Ypres, 1919. In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres. 

Mary Borden, a battlefield nurse and the author of The Forbidden Zone, describes what it was like to be near Ypres in 1914: 

On our right? That's the road to Ypres. The less said about that road the better: no one goes down it for choice—it's British now. Ahead of us, then? No, you can't get out that way. No, there's no frontier, just a bleeding edge, trenches. That's where the enemy took his last bite, fastened his iron teeth, and stuffed to bursting, stopped devouring Belgium, left this strip, these useless fields, these crumpled dwellings. 

Borden was a wealthy American living in England when the war broke out, but she served three years as a nurse on the Western Front and was awarded a Croix de Guerre for funding and organizing a mobile hospital unit that nursed men who had been wounded at Ypres and the Somme. 

The South Salient

A battlefield salient is a projection of a front line into enemy territory, so that the position is surrounded on three sides. The Ypres Salient encircled the city closely on its north, east, and south sides with dug-in British, French, Canadian, and Belgian troops facing the Germany army.  Four large battles were fought in the area of Ypres between 1914 and 1918, and numerous battlefields, cemeteries, and memorials surround the city.

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.

Reconstructed Bayernwald trenches and bunker. WWI photograph of Adolph Hitler.

The area of the South Salient endured many battles during WWI, and the battle lines surged forward and back over time. Private Charles Snelling of the Irish Leinster Regiment lost his life near Bayernwald in February 1917, when a small German force crossed snow-covered ground in freezing weather to raid his position in the British trenches. The bullet that killed him pierced his wallet and the photographs of his wife Alice and their daughter Nellie. Private Snelling is buried at nearby Pond Farm Cemetery.

Charles Snelling’s bullet pierced his wallet and photos. In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres.

Just south of Ypres, the huge explosive crater at Hill 60 bears witness to a different type of combat—underground mine warfare. While trenches, saps, and dugouts offered some protection, as well as observation and listening posts, another type of underground work was employed in many places along the Western Frontminers working 30 meters below the surface digging long tunnels under No Man’s Land in order to place and detonate explosives under enemy positions.

Ned walking the Hill 60 Crater.

Hill 60 was so named because it was 60 meters above sea level and, in the relatively flat terrain around Ypres, any slight elevation provided a distinct military advantage. The hill had been taken by the Germans in 1914, retaken by the British in April of 1915 and recovered by the Germans in May.  It remained in German hands until the Battle of Messines in 1917, when the Allies detonated of a series of mines beneath German lines along Messines Ridge. The explosion under Hill 60 was the culmination of almost two years of extremely dangerous tunneling and explosives preparation by British, Canadian, and Australian tunneling companies. The tunnel was 354 meters long and extended under the German bunkers and gun emplacements on the hill. When the mines along the Messines Ridge were fired, the explosions were some of the largest in history and they were heard as far away as London.  The line of explosions and the following artillery barrage killed over 10,000 Germans and broke open the long-held German line to Allied advance.

Australian Tunneling Co. at Hill 60, a few hundred yards from German lines.

(L) German rifle casing found near Hill 60.
(R) German Bunker, Hill 60. The soldier’s photo, left by a previous visitor, is marked,
“Robert Piers, Tenth Liverpool Scottish, Wounded 10 April, Died 23 August, 1915.”

A Short Break and a Bit of Today’s Ypres

Battlefields, memorials and cemeteries exist in nearly every direction around Ypres, but Ned and I took time out from our history lessons for a couple of wonderful restaurant meals, some delicious Belgian chocolate, and a few pale Belgian beers. Our hotel lobby even had beer in a vending machine!

The city of Ypres is a beautiful European city and a tribute to Belgian perseverance and determination. The Cloth Hall and St. Martin’s would certainly fool most observers into estimating their construction to have been centuries in the past, and the old Flemish style buildings around the town square are filled with modern restaurants and shops.  

And then, there is the story of the Cat Festival—yes, the Cat Festival.  It seems that, in the 13th century, cats were thrown from the Cloth Hall towerpossibly as a ritual to rid the town of evil spirits, but the orgin of this event is lost to time. Today, that somewhat disturbing rite is remembered with a Cat Festival and a parade during which a court jester throws stuffed cats from the tower to the cheering crowd below!  Unfortunately we missed that event by a couple of weeks.
                           Cat Festival, Ypres.                          Flemish stew, lasagna, and Belgian beer.

The North Salient

During our second day of touring from Ypres, Ned and I joined several other tourists in a small van and toured battle sites and cemeteries in the North Salient, including Essex Farm, Tyne Cot Cemetery, the German cemetery at Langemark, the St. Julien Memorial to the Canadian fallen, the trenches and museum at Hill 62, and the infamous “Hellfire Corner.”

In May 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor and artillery brigade commander, was treating the wounded in a makeshift front-line dressing station which was dug into a canal bank at Essex Farm near Ypres. After the death of a friend, and inspired by the red poppies growing among the fresh graves, McCrae wrote his famous poem, “In Flanders Fields.” On Remembrance Day in the British Empire and on Memorial Day in the United States the red poppy is still worn to commemorate soldiers who have died in in military conflict. 

Essex Farm Cemetery.

As in other war cemeteries, many of the gravestones at the Essex cemetery bare no names and are simply marked, “A soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.” Other stones stood side by side, almost touching, marking the graves of comrades who died together, but whose individual remains were impossible to distinguish.

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.  

Grave of Rifleman Valentine Joe Strudwick, Essex Farm, Belgium.   

The text of a January 22, 1916 article from Strudwick’s hometown newspaper, the Dorking Advertiser:

Another Dorking lad has achieved honour by laying down his life for his country.

Pte. Valentine Joe Strudwick, of the 8th Rifle Brigade, joined up twelve months ago last January, and at the time of his death, on Jan. 14th, he had not reached his sixteenth birthday, he having been born on St. Valentine’s Day, 1900.

His mother would naturally have liked to have kept him out of the Army for at least a year or two, but young Strudwick would not have it – a fine example to those of maturer years who have not yet joined, and perhaps a reproach!

With only six weeks’ training the lad was sent over to France. Within a short time he lost two of his chums who were standing near him – both instantaneously killed. The shock was such, with the addition of being badly gassed, that he was sent home and was for three months in hospital at Sheerness. On recovering he rejoined his regiment in France, and this week his mother received the following letter from his commanding officer, dated Jan. 15th:

‘I am very sorry indeed to have to inform you that your son was killed by a shell on Jan. 14th. His death was quite instantaneous and painless and his body was carried by his comrades to a little cemetery behind the lines, where it was reverently buried this morning. A cross is being made and will shortly be erected on his grave. Rifleman Strudwick had earned the goodwill and respect of his comrades and of his officers, and we are very sorry indeed to lose so good a soldier. On their behalf as well as my own I offer you our sincere sympathy.’

The deceased was Mrs Strudwick’s second surviving son, and her grief is the greater because of the fact that she had not been able to see him since he joined the Army. She has another son in the Royal Field Artillery.

Young Strudwick was an old St. Paul’s boy.”

The last line of the article reminded me of a bit of dialogue from the WWII classic novel by Joseph Heller, Catch 22:

Yossarian: He was very old.
Luciana: But he was a boy.

Yossarian: Well, he died. You don't get any older than that.

In 1917, during the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele, the British Commonwealth lost nearly 300,000 men in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Shortly after the armistice thousands of bodies from Passchendaele and other areas around Ypres were brought to Tyne Cot Cemetery from battlefields and temporary gravesites. Today the cemetery is the largest Commonwealth war cemetery in the world; there are 11,956 British soldiers buried at Tyne Cot, and 8,367 of those are unidentified. The cemetery’s memorial wall commemorates the names of 34,887 United Kingdom and New Zealand soldiers whose remains were never found. 

The name Tyne Cot or “Tyne Cottage” possibly refers to a barn that was the center of a group of German bunkers.  The 3rd Australian Division captured the area during the advance to Passchendaele in October 1917. The largest of those German bunkers still stands, and it was incorporated into the base for a large Cross of Sacrifice in the Tyne Cot Cemetery.

Captured German Bunker at Tyne Cot Oct. 12, 1917. Photo by Australian Forces.

(L)  German bunker remains surrounded by the base for a Cross of Sacrifice, 
Tyne Cot Cemetery, Ypres.
(R)  Langemark German Cemetery, Ypres.

Stories of pain, hardship, sacrifice, heroism, and death were universal during the war, and personal tragedy did not discern the larger political or military picture. Suffering and death fell on soldiers and civilians alike without respect for position, rank or social boundaries; the lot of the individual soldier was grim regardless of the army to which he belonged. The Langemark German War Cemetery in the Ypres Northern Salient contains the graves of 3,000 young German student volunteers who died in the Battle of Langemark in 1914. A total of more than 44,000 soldiers are buried there, including almost 25,000 unidentified comrades who are buried in a large mass grave.  


After the cessation of WWI hostilities, many French and Belgian farmers returned to their homes and began to repair the war damage by removing debris and filling in shell craters and trenches. A number of landowners preserved trench systems, realizing that the public would want to see the battlefield, and a few small museums opened, but almost none of them survived the Second World War. The Sanctuary Wood museum near Hill 62, however, still belongs to the family of one of those farmers.

The preserved sections of British trenches at the museum date to the Battle of Mount Sorrel in June 1916.  The ridge line in this area, including Hill 62, was about 30 meters above the surrounding terrain and it offered a good observation point over the approach routes to Ypres. The Germans were able to capture the heights at Mount Sorrel and Hill 62, but the British and Canadians recaptured the high ground after a number of attacks and counterattacks. The existing trenches are only a small portion of a defensive complex built by the British in 1916; over the years, work has been done to support the trench walls and to allow for public access. Shell holes have been dug to keep them open, and the site has seen significant foot-traffic wear over the past 100 years.  In spite of the changes, the area does give a feel for what it must have looked like during the war, and the museum has an interesting collection of artifacts, including some that were found in the immediate area.

Preserved British and Canadian trenches, Hill 62/Sanctuary Wood Museum, near Ypres.

Sanctuary Wood trenches shortly after the war. Photo by M. Delannoy.

On the day we left Ypres, Ned and I stopped at a busy roundabout on the eastern edge of town.  You would never know to look at it now, but this modern intersection was once known to Allied troops as “Hellfire Corner.”  The intersection was on Menin Road, and during the war it was under constant observation and fire by German artillery. The soldiers knew it as the most dangerous corner on earth; it was described as, “a sticky spot that was always taken at a trot.”

Hellfire Corner, Ypres, September 1917. Sign on right reads, “To Left Brigade Section.”
Official Australian photograph.

The only remaining evidence of the war at Hellfire Corner today is one of 12 surviving demarcation stones that mark the point of the Germans’ nearest advance to Ypres.  The 1917 photograph above looks east, with the riders approaching the corner on the Menin Road.  In our 2015 photo below Demarcation Stone No. 15, stands just to the right of Menin road looking west toward the Menin Gate Memorial to The Missing.  

Demarcation Stone on Menin Road looking back toward Menin Gate Memorial.

Menin Gate, Ypres

There is a Last Post Ceremony every evening at the Menin Gate Memorial for the 54,389 Commonwealth soldiers who died in the Salient but whose bodies were never found; their names are engraved on stone tablets inside the gate. An inscription inside the archway reads, "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – Here are recorded names of officers and men who fell in Ypres Salient, but to whom the fortune of war denied the known and honoured burial given to their comrades in death". Today the city of Ypres is known as “the city of peace” and the city government, like that of the city of Hiroshima, Japan, works to advocate that cities should never be targets of war again.  The city itself stands as a memorial to the soldiers that died there. 

South to Paris

We could have stayed in Ypres for weeks and still not visited all the nearby WWI sites, but we reluctantly left the city and headed south across the French border and toward Paris. Books from the In Flanders Fields Museum and some Belgian chocolates for our family at home were carefully stowed in our bags.  

I brought a number of WWI era postcards along on the trip, and, on several occasions, we were able to match the postcard images of war damage with the same locations today. Just north of Paris and near Meaux, where our journey began, we stopped at the city of Senlis, a site of Germans incursion in 1914, as they moved south toward their objective of Paris. Armed resistance by the local inhabitants incensed the Germans, and they executed a number of civilians and burned the town.  

A 1919 postcard view of Senlis shows artillery and fire damage to the rue de la République, and our 2015 photograph presents the same corner today. Repair and reconstruction of buildings was a major undertaking after the war; while some homes and buildings were completely destroyed, others had basic solid stone or brick substructures that could be salvaged and rebuilt. One finds similar examples of rebuilt towns and villages across much of France and Belgium.

Postcard view of Senlis, France, 1919.

Rue de la République, Senlis, France 2015

Another example of determination and recovery is a comparison of the postcard image that shows the villagers of Consenvoye, France returning home after the war and a photograph of the same village today.  Consenvoye is just north of Verdun on the eastern edge of the Argonne Forrest, and it saw years of bitter fighting during the war. Life goes on.

French Civilians Returning Home, Consenvoye, France, 1919.

Consenvoye, France today.


Driving back toward Paris, we found ourselves again in the Champagne region of France where our trip began. It was here, four years after the First Battle of the Marne, that fresh American troops bolstered the exhausted French and British armies and halted the German’s Spring Offensive and their advance toward Paris in the Second Battle of the Marne. The battles of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry were part of that Allied response. 

Didier Blanchard is the owner of a restaurant in the heart of the Champagne region and an amateur historian with a collection of WWI artifacts; we decided that a visit to his restaurant was a must before we left France.  On Sunday afternoon we found La Madelon Restaurant in the center of Mancy, one of the many small villages in this region that look strikingly like the photographs in travel brochures. The restaurant is named for a French patriotic song that was popular during WWI and tells the story of French soldiers flirting with a waitress at a tavern.  

Monsieur Blanchard was working in his garden behind the restaurant when we arrived and, despite the fact that neither he nor the waitress spoke English and our French had gotten no better in the last week, we were able to communicate our interest in his military collection and ordered a meal. I had lamb shank cooked in an amazing, rich, sauce, and Ned bravely ordered the steak tartare.

Mancy, France.

Luckily for us, Mr. Blanchard’s daughter, Jessica, is the local high school English teacher, and after she joined us, we were able to carry on a long conversation about WWI and also about the local vineyards.  The Blanchards have their own small vineyard that produces enough grapes for 250 bottles of Cuvée des Poilus champagne each year. Unfortunately for us, last year’s production was long gone, but Didier escorted us to his friend’s winery, Champagne Pernet-Lebrun. The owner of the winery graciously gave us a complete tour of the facilities and a taste of some excellent champagne. Naturally, a few bottles of Cuvée d’ Argent-Sol Brut joined the Belgian chocolates in our luggage!

La Madelon restaurant, Mancy

We discovered that Didier is a WWI re-enactor and that he and a group of friends participate in parades and other events wearing full WWI French uniforms and driving a fully restored, French WWI truck. We were given a personal tour of Didier’s collection of WWI artifacts and uniforms, and on the restaurant’s second floor I noticed a familiar item, the French Chauchat light machine rifle that caught my attention on the first day of our trip at the Musée de la Grande Guerre.

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. 

M. & Mme. Baloux of Brieulles-Sur-Bar greet American soldiers
of the 308th and 166th Infantries, after 4 years of German occupation.
The soldier on the left is carrying a Chauchat Light Machine Rifle. Photo by Lt. Adrian C. Duff.

Didier and Ned, Mancy France.

A Toast

Our brief journey along the Western Front concluded with a toast to the French poilu, the American soldiers and Marines, and the other soldiers and civilians who suffered and died during the war. Didier presented Ned and I with two French infantry uniform buttons that are occasionally found in the local vineyards. The buttons reminded us again that, while life goes on, the past never far away—and both the past and the present here are firmly bound to the earth. 

Didier Blanchard’s Champagne label, “Cuvée des Poilus.”

“In Flanders Fields,” — Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, 1915.
Digital collage, KGW.


Before we caught our flight home, Ned and I had time for a short tour of Auvers-Sur-Oise where we visited the grave of Vincent Van Gogh and saw the fields where he painted.  We topped the trip off with a drive into Paris for a meal and a stroll along the Seine, before heading for the airport  

Auvers-Sur Oise
Ken and Cher Ami at the Monument to the “Lost” 77th Battalion

Useful Links

Ypres: Lest We Forget, Battlefield Tours,
Ypres: Flanders Battlefield Tour,
Ypres: Hotel Ambrosia,
Mancy, France: La Madelon Restaurant,
Mancy, France: Champagne Pernet-Lebrun,
Meaux, France: Musée de la Grande Guerre,
Reuilly-Sauvigny, France: Champagne B&B

A guide to the Battlefields and History of the first World War,
Picture Postcards from the Great War,

Recommended Reading

Anonymous. Warrior Against His Will. Trans. J. Koettgen. New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1917. Liskeard: Diggory Press, 2006.

Barbusse, Henri. Under Fire. 1916. Trans. Robin Buss. New York: Penguin Group, 2004.  

Blunden, Edmund. Undertones of War. 1928. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Borden, The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse’s Impressions of the First World War. 1929. London: Hesperus Press, 2008. 

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.

Freidel, Frank. Over There: The Story of America’s First Great Overseas Crusade. Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1990.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory. 1975. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Macdonald, Lyn. They Called it Passchendaele. 1978. London: Penguin Books, 1993.

Remarque, Eric Maria. All Quiet on the Western Front. 1929. Trans. A. W. Wheen. New York: Random House, 2010. 

Wharton, Edith. Fighting France. Stroud, UK: Amberley Publishing, 2014.