VERDUN, France — What the Europeans called “The Great War” was not going well in the early spring of 1917. The generals on both sides were gambling with young lives like spendthrifts in a grim and grisly game of death across a network of trenches separated by 40 yards of desolation called “no man’s land.”
“I am waiting for the Americans,” said French Gen. Philippe Petain.
The wait of the Allies was rewarded on June 26, 1917, when the first Americans, 14,000 untrained and ill-equipped young soldiers, seen off to the strains of George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” arrived to fight in France. By the end of the war in November 1918, that number had grown to 2 million battle-hardened men. More than 50,000 of them did not come home.
Verdun, the Somme, the Marne, Belleau Wood, St. Mihiel were names that would be inscribed in American memory along with the likes of Jamestown, Gettysburg and Iwo Jima. American volunteers — soldiers, nurses, ambulance drivers and pilots — were part of the war from the beginning in 1914.
Today, grass and wildflowers blanket the valleys. Verdant rolling hills and lush green forests belie the agony wrought 100 years ago when the hills were bare and the battlefields were moonlike terrains of trenches, barbed wire, shell holes and the bodies of dead and dying young men. Spent bullets, bones and skeletons are recovered in these battlefields to this day. Some of the American tourists arriving to inspect these fields swear that on a lonely dusk they can hear faint and ghostly echoes of battle.
A visit to the battlefields, museums, memorials and cemeteries is a fascinating and moving experience. Of the countless places to visit, here are a few highlights.
A good place to start is in Verdun, an attractive small town in northeastern France on the Meuse River and the site of the longest battle of the war from January to December 1916. During the battle, 3,000 men lived in Fort Douaumont without electricity or running water, and a hand-operated ventilation system. The noise, vermin, stench and lack of fresh air drove men to madness.
In the 17th-century Citadelle, visitors glide through 2 miles of underground galleries on small electric carriages, stopping at audiovisual sites where holograms depict soldiers, nurses, bakers and corpsmen going about their duties.
Visitors can enter the underground galleries of the Caverne du Dragon — Dragon’s Cave — where French and German soldiers spied on each other for several months in 1917 in darkness, surrounded by the stench of gas and decaying bodies.
In the town of Albert, tableaux of battlefield life can be seen in the Museum of the Somme’s underground tunnel (built in the 13th century to protect the populace from invaders). The exhibits, pertaining mostly to British forces, contain artifacts, weapons, tools and other equipment.
Artifacts of war
Three fine museums to visit are the Memorial in Verdun, the Historical Museum in Peronne and the Franco-American Museum in Chateau de Blerancourt. The Verdun Memorial exhibits artifacts of war and means of transportation, photographs and a series of interactive kiosks.
The Peronne museum offers an absorbing perspective of the three warring nations — France, Britain and Germany — through civilian and military artifacts, works of art, documents, weapons, uniforms, household goods, toys and archival films.
The Franco-American Museum in the Blerancourt chateau was created by Anne Morgan, daughter of the Wall Street baron J.P. Morgan. She raised private money to set up a network of relief organizations for civilians left without food or shelter by the German invasion of northern France. She purchased the ruined chateau in 1919, where she and her staff had been billeted during the war, and turned it into a museum celebrating the long friendship between France and the United States. The museum specializes in works by American artists painting in France, and French artists who worked in the United States.
Trenches, though tempered by vegetation, still zigzag through the countryside, some only 40 to 60 yards between opposing sides. Originals are particularly evident in the St. Mihiel salient, at Bois Brule in the Marne region, and at Belleau Wood in the Aisne, where the American Marines earned the enduring gratitude of the French. A reconstructed fortified trench, which shows mess and first-aid dugouts, is open to visitors at La Main de Massiges in the Marne region.
Cemeteries dot the landscape. The U.S. Battle Monuments Commission maintains the American cemeteries, memorials, monuments and markers here as in 15 other nations. The largest American graveyard in Europe is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, where 4,246 Americans are laid to rest. An interpretation center was opened on Nov. 11 last year to explain to visitors the Meuse-Argonne offensive and its critical importance.
Nearby stands the Montfaucon American Monument, a massive granite column soaring 200 feet above the ruins of a village. A splendid view of the territory conquered by the Americans in the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918 rewards visitors who trudge the 234 steps.
A visit to the Western Front is not limited to war sites. Reims, France’s premier Art Deco city, and Amiens, both not far from Paris, are sites of magnificent cathedrals. Reims is the center of the Champagne region, and a tour of the Taittinger house includes a visit to the underground vaulted Gallo-Roman limestone cellars, used as a hospital for French soldiers during the war, along with a taste of the bubbly.
Near the Amiens cathedral, the Jean Trogneux chocolate shop, owned by the parents-in-law of French President Emmanuel Macron, specializes in macarons unlike the Parisian variety. Amiens’ Hortillonnages is a patchwork of floating gardens, formerly market gardens but now dedicated primarily to flowers. Flat-bottomed boats take visitors through the canals on a journey of pure delight.
The best madeleines in France are made in the village of Commercy in the Meuse region; many shops in the area carry them. Visitors to Verdun can tour — and sample the wares at — the Braquier factory, where Braquier makes the prized sugar-coated almonds known as the dragees de Verdun.
Picardy (as it was called) produces excellent regional wines. There are pretty villages with fairy-tale castles, good hotels and restaurants offering local specialties.
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