Exploring World War I in France

Written by  Monique Burns

EUROPE France
In Western Europe, the World War I Centennial continues with the 100th anniversary of the day, April 6, 1917, that the United States officially entered the war. Our troops fought only eight months, but they actually helped turn the war’s tide.
France was the largest site of U.S. involvement, though major battles also were fought in Belgium’s Flanders province. From Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy southeast to Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, France’s Western Front stretched more than 300 miles.

Leaving Paris, take the high-speed TGV train from Gare de l’Est, or drive Highway A4, 45 minutes east to Champagne. In Reims (www.reims-tourism.com), home of famed Champagne cellars Mumm and Taittinger, check into Best Western Plus Hôtel de la Paix (www.bestwestern-lapaix-reims.com) or Grand Hôtel des Templiers (www.grandhoteldestempliersreims.com).
Before heading east to sites like Belleau Wood and Verdun, take Highway N31 an hour northwest of Reims to the reopened National Franco-American Museum (http://museefrancoamericain.fr). It’s housed in 17th-century Château de Blérancourt, where Anne Morgan, daughter of American financier J.P. Morgan, established an aid organization for war-torn France. Treasured World War I artifacts include a Model T Ford ambulance like those Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein drove.
Back in Reims, drive 31 miles southwest to Château-Thierry (www.chateau-thierry-tourisme.com). Just 8 1/2 miles south of Reims is the Quentin Roosevelt Fountain. The long stone memorial, with lion’s-head spout, honors Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, whose plane went down on Bastille Day, July 14, 1918.
Four days later, the Battle of Château-Thierry was fought. Approaching town, you’ll see the columned Château-Thierry Monument on Hill 204, a favorite retreat of 17th-century fabulist Jean de la Fontaine. The monument honors the U.S. 3rd Division, the “Rock of the Marne,” which held the river’s south bank against the Germans. In nearby Temple Mémorial de Château-Thierry, stained-glass windows depict U.S. Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing and several French generals.

BATTLE OF BELLEAU WOOD
A 15-minute ride northwest by car or taxi is Belleau where the U.S. Marine 4th Brigade fought the famous Battle of Belleau Wood, June 6-26, 1918. The Marines, who lost more men than in all the Corps’ previous history, fought so fiercely that the Germans nicknamed them teufelshunde, or “devil dogs.” Not surprisingly, the Marines later adopted the bulldog mascot.
See exhibits on the Marines and World War I at the Musée de la Mémoire de Belleau 1914-1918 (www.musee-memoire-souvenir-belleau.com). In the nearby battlefield, dotted with cannons and shell craters, is the Marine Monument, a bronze bas-relief of a Marine attacking with rifle and bayonet.
Below Belleau Wood, in 42.50-acre Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, 2,289 U.S. soldiers rest. The French Romanesque-style chapel’s stained-glass windows depict warrior archangel St. Michael and 13th-century Crusader
St. Louis.
Fourteen miles northeast of Château-Thierry, in Fère-en-Tardenois is the Memorial of the 42nd Division, a poignant bronze statue depicting an American soldier carrying a fallen comrade. Composed of 26 National Guard units from around the country, the “Rainbow Division” lost 14,683 men during the war.
In Seringes-et-Nesles, a mile east, visit 36.50-acre Oise-Aisne American Cemetery with its curved, rose-colored colonnade. Here lie 6,012 U.S. soldiers among rosebushes and towering trees. Among them: American poet Joyce Kilmer, whose 1913 poem, “Trees,” begins “I think that I shall never see/A poem as lovely as a tree.”

VISITING VERDUN
From Reims, take Highway A4 75 miles east to Verdun (www.verdun-tourisme.com), “Capital of the Great War.” Near the popular Alsatian cities of Nancy and Strasbourg, it’s about 150 miles from Germany’s border.
The city’s Victory Monument recognizes one of World War I’s longest engagements, the 303-day Battle of Verdun. Beginning February 21, 1916, the battle protected the Allied supply route called La Voie Lactée, or Milky Way. For panoramic views, climb 73 steps to the stone tower topped by a statue of a knight. Also in Verdun: The World Center for Peace, in the 18th-century Palais Episcopal, mounts exhibits, concerts and other events.
Five miles northeast is Fleury-devant-Douaumont, destroyed during the 1916 Battle of Verdun and an official “village that died for France.” Reopened in February 2016, the high-tech Verdun Memorial (www.memorial-verdun.fr/en), with more than 2,000 artifacts, overlooks the famous battleground.
From there, it’s a five-minute drive northwest to Douaumont Ossuary (www.verdun-douaumont.com) to view a new 20-minute film and visit the 449-foot-long Cloister containing remains of French and German soldiers. Climb the 151-foot-high tower, with flashing red-and-white lights, to see Verdun Battlefield and Douaumont Military Cemetery, France’s largest World War I cemetery.
Just north is the Bayonet Trench Monument. Built by Buffalo, N.Y. banker George F. Rand, it recognizes French soldiers buried in their trench during the Battle of Verdun and later discovered by their bayonets sticking up through the ground.
American Expeditionary Forces did not arrive in time for the Battle of Verdun. But they did participate in the nearby Meuse-Argonne Offensive. World War I’s bloodiest operation, it lasted 47 days, from September 26 until November 11, 1918, and employed 1.2 million U.S. troops.
Among the most famous was the “Lost Battalion.” Isolated in the Argonne Forest from their 77th Division, 554 starving men, mostly New Yorkers sporting Statue of Liberty emblems, managed to force a German retreat. Another Meuse-Argonne legend: Medal of Honor-winner Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee who almost singlehandedly killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 others.
In Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, 29 miles north of Verdun, 130.50-acre Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is Europe’s largest U.S. military cemetery. Gravestones of 14,246 soldiers rise in neat rows toward a central pool and a chapel with stained-glass windows depicting their units’ insignia.
Seven miles south, the Montfaucon American Monument also recognizes U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Rising 200 feet above Montfaucon-en-Argonne, the granite column is topped by the figure of Liberty. Climb 234 steps for splendid battlefield views. Then head to nearby Reims or Epernay to toast our American heroes with bubbly
French Champagne.

VISITING VERDUN
From Reims, take Highway A4 75 miles east to Verdun (www.verdun-tourisme.com), “Capital of the Great War.” Near the popular Alsatian cities of Nancy and Strasbourg, it’s about 150 miles from Germany’s border.
The city’s Victory Monument recognizes one of World War I’s longest engagements, the 303-day Battle of Verdun. Beginning February 21, 1916, the battle protected the Allied supply route called La Voie Lactée, or Milky Way. For panoramic views, climb 73 steps to the stone tower topped by a statue of a knight. Also in Verdun: The World Center for Peace, in the 18th-century Palais Episcopal, mounts exhibits, concerts and other events.
Five miles northeast is Fleury-devant-Douaumont, destroyed during the 1916 Battle of Verdun and an official “village that died for France.” Reopened in February 2016, the high-tech Verdun Memorial (www.memorial-verdun.fr/en), with more than 2,000 artifacts, overlooks the famous battleground.
From there, it’s a five-minute drive northwest to Douaumont Ossuary (www.verdun-douaumont.com) to view a new 20-minute film and visit the 449-foot-long Cloister containing remains of French and German soldiers. Climb the 151-foot-high tower, with flashing red-and-white lights, to see Verdun Battlefield and Douaumont Military Cemetery, France’s largest World War I cemetery.
Just north is the Bayonet Trench Monument. Built by Buffalo, N.Y. banker George F. Rand, it recognizes French soldiers buried in their trench during the Battle of Verdun and later discovered by their bayonets sticking up through the ground.
American Expeditionary Forces did not arrive in time for the Battle of Verdun. But they did participate in the nearby Meuse-Argonne Offensive. World War I’s bloodiest operation, it lasted 47 days, from September 26 until November 11, 1918, and employed 1.2 million U.S. troops.
Among the most famous was the “Lost Battalion.” Isolated in the Argonne Forest from their 77th Division, 554 starving men, mostly New Yorkers sporting Statue of Liberty emblems, managed to force a German retreat. Another Meuse-Argonne legend: Medal of Honor-winner Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee who almost singlehandedly killed 28 German soldiers and captured 132 others.
In Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, 29 miles north of Verdun, 130.50-acre Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is Europe’s largest U.S. military cemetery. Gravestones of 14,246 soldiers rise in neat rows toward a central pool and a chapel with stained-glass windows depicting their units’ insignia.
Seven miles south, the Montfaucon American Monument also recognizes U.S. forces in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. Rising 200 feet above Montfaucon-en-Argonne, the granite column is topped by the figure of Liberty. Climb 234 steps for splendid battlefield views. Then head to nearby Reims or Epernay to toast our American heroes with bubbly
French Champagne.

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