By Richard Rubin
New York Times News Service
It’s not entirely our fault: Americans have been conditioned by nearly a century of British revisionist histories to believe that the United States didn’t do much in World War I, and by countless anecdotes about rude cabdrivers and haughty waiters to believe that the French don’t much care for Americans.
But both beliefs are, in fact, mistaken, and a big reason the second is untrue is that the first is quite far from true, and the French know it. They have never forgotten that when the war was mired at a grim stalemate and they and their British allies were exhausted nearly to the point of collapse, it was the Americans — fresh and eager to fight and showing up in great numbers — who stepped in, just in time, and tipped the balance.
True, the French don’t speak much English, and they charge an outrageous amount for a small bottle of Coke; but they are grateful. Very grateful. They remember. Go to France and they’ll remind you, too.
One afternoon this summer, I set out from the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, in the French region of Lorraine, to find a certain farmhouse. I had spent the morning tromping around local fields and through forests, searching for vestiges of the Great War, including places connected to some of the three dozen or so U.S. World War I veterans, ages 101 to 113, whom I had interviewed starting in 2003. The house I was looking for now, though, had a more notorious association: In 1914, as the Germans were first taking the area, a young second lieutenant named Erwin Rommel stopped there to eat and rest.
A guide I know drew me a map to the place. Good thing: Like a lot of Lorraine, in the northeastern corner of the country, this area is quite rural, and much of what you might want to see here is not accessible by the kind of roads many Americans would recognize as viable thoroughfares.
I managed to find the place, took some photos and was about to get back into my car when a silver Nissan four-wheel drive pulled up. A ruddy, thickset man in his 60s with bright blue eyes climbed out and greeted me, friendly but clearly wondering what I was doing there. I asked him, in rudimentary French — he spoke no English at all — if he knew about Rommel and this house. He didn’t; but that house, he quickly added, gesturing at a smaller edifice a half-mile off on the other side of a couple of small gates — Douglas MacArthur had been there in 1918. “Do you want to see it?” he asked, smiling.
I climbed into his truck as he unlatched the first gate. When he stopped on the other side to close it again, several cows and calves lumbered up amiably. His land, he explained, comprised several old farms; the one to which we were heading had been known in 1918 as La Tuilerie. It, and all of what was now his property, was then part of the Kriemhilde Stellung, a stretch of formidable German fortifications that was part of the Hindenburg Line, the invader’s ultimate chain of defenses in France.
“There was a German narrow-gauge railroad running all through here,” he explained, gesturing up at a rise to his left. “There was a station up there. And they had four machine-gun emplacements: there, there, there and there.”
He stopped to unlatch another gate. “MacArthur,” he said, pointing at some forested hills to his right, “came from over there, early in the morning. Division 42. October ’18.” The French don’t feel the need to specify the century when talking about that war, which they call “ ’14-’18” as often as La Grand Guerre.
The Tuilerie house looked as if it hadn’t been inhabited in a long time; it still had four walls but no roof. “MacArthur was here,” my host announced, a bit awed.
It was Oct. 14, 1918; La Tuilerie was the site of some particularly fierce fighting, the Germans raining fire down upon the Americans from a nearby hill, the Côte de Châtillon. (The Germans, you quickly learn, always seemed to have topography on their side.) Young MacArthur, the legend goes, had been ordered to take Châtillon or show 5,000 casualties for the effort. He famously responded that he would, or his name would be first on that list.
Into the field
Now my host gestured at a tree line not far away. “Those woods,” he said, “are full of German trenches. Want to see?” We bushwhacked until we came to a series of ditches, 8 feet deep or more, jagging this way and that every few yards, sometimes intersecting with other deep, zigzaggy ditches. The passage of a century had not eroded them much; there was no mistaking them for anything else. I slid down into one and darted around until I saw him gesturing again, deeper into the woods.
“Out there,” he said, “are two German blockhouses. Want to see?”
We bushwhacked for another five minutes or so until we came upon two massive concrete bunkers crouching in a depression. They were quite stark and, like the trenches, unmistakable, though so covered in flora and fallen trees that it took a while to figure out how to get to them. Finally, I grabbed a vine and swung down to one, my host calling me “Tarzan.” (We still hadn’t exchanged names.)
I pulled a flashlight out of my pocket and climbed inside the first one, then made my way over to the other. They were empty but solid, remarkably well-preserved considering that the Germans had abandoned them 96 years earlier. One had a hole for a periscope.
Soon he was telling me about something else and asking, yet again: “Want to see?”
We spent nearly five hours together that afternoon, driving across fields and through little villages where this or that had happened in the fall of 1918, until we ended up on a rugged dirt trail atop a wooded ridge. A few yards below on both sides were more networks of German trenches, some trailing off to pits that had held machine-gun emplacements or howitzers.
This was the Côte Dame Marie, high ground of paramount strategic importance to the Germans. For four years, they had used it to repel French assaults and thus retain possession of a large chunk of the Argonne Forest, the key to controlling a vast area.
Then, in October 1918, the American 32nd Division, National Guard troops from Wisconsin and Michigan, managed to wrest it from them, at the cost of many American lives.
My host, Jean-Pierre Brouillon, beckoned me over and gestured down the hill through a section where the trees weren’t too dense so I could see the grade of the slope, which looked to be around 60 degrees. He pointed at the foot of the hill, a few hundred yards below.
“They came up from down there, into machine guns, rifles, artillery, everything,” he said, and looked at me with an expression that said: Can you believe that?
“The French didn’t drive the Germans out of here,” he declared, visibly moved. “The English didn’t do it.” He shook his head at the thought of what it must have taken to charge those heights. “Just the Americans,” he said. “Only the Americans could do it.”
Remembering the war
The Great War’s centennial, which starts this month, presents Americans with a fine opportunity to explore the important role their country — and their ancestors — played in that conflict. But there are some challenges: The war happened a hundred years ago and 4,000 miles away; and beyond that, it was so, well, great, in every conceivable metric, that it can seem impossible to grasp.
You hear things — nearly a million men fell just at Verdun in 1916; in four years, the combatant nations suffered a total of 40 million dead, missing, and wounded; more than 116,000 Americans died in just 19 months; billions of shells and bullets were fired; the map of the entire world was forever redrawn — and you can’t help but wonder: What can I possibly make of this? How do I even begin?
You could start big, at one of the enormous American World War I monuments in France, or one of the vast U.S. cemeteries Over There. Or you could start as small as a single name. There are people who fixate upon MacArthur, or Col. George Patton or Capt. Harry Truman or Sgt. Alvin York, or their own grandfather or uncle or that nice man who used to cut their hair when they were growing up.
But you can also just visit one of those U.S. cemeteries — perhaps one of the “smaller” ones, such as Belleau Wood (officially known as Aisne-Marne) — and pick one at random. Here you go — Section B, Row 6, Grave 51: Earle W. Madeley. 102 Inf. 26 Div. Connecticut. July 21, 1918. There’s nothing on his marker (or anyone’s) about where or how he died, but history books record that in July 1918, the 102nd Infantry Regiment, part of the 26th Division, was fighting to drive the Germans out of the village of Belleau, just a few hundred yards behind where you’re standing.
The stone does mention that Earle W. Madeley was a corporal, probably a man of some initiative, courage, leadership. Perhaps that’s what got him killed.
He and the other 2,287 Americans buried at Aisne-Marne have been gone for nearly a century, but somehow when you stand there, it doesn’t feel that way at all. That’s because it is in France, where William Faulkner’s famous statement that “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past” seems insufficient when it comes to 1914-18. The French still speak of World War I with such emotion that you’d think it was 1914, not 2014.
Mention the war — and in France, “the war” always means ’14-’18, not ’39-’45 — and you will hear passionate declamations about generals, tactics, credit, blame, what might have been. Arguments are frequent, and fraught: France lost more than simply a generation of men; in some areas, every last village was destroyed. Many were never rebuilt, though they’re still listed on French maps and still appoint mayors.
You can hire a guide — there are plenty — or just be your own. Step into almost any patch of woods in certain parts of Lorraine or Champagne or Picardy, and you will find lots of trenches and shell holes, even some massive craters. Climb any hill and you may well find pillboxes, bunkers, blockhouses; stroll through any freshly plowed field and you might just spot shrapnel, cartridges and bullets atop the furrows. And maybe a shell.
Don’t touch that last one: It may still be live. Even now, people are being killed and maimed by World War I ordnance.
Faulkner wasn’t kidding.