California Couple Visit France Investigating WW1 & Make a Connection for Two Cities - Part Two
[Part Two of a Two Part Article]
(To read Part One click here)
California WW1 Centennial Task Force Co-Director and Fiancée Take Enviable Trip to the WW1 Monuments of France and Find Treasures and Unexpected Surprises.
Choosing to commemorate the centennial of World War One by taking a trip to the battlefields of France, one of our own Co-Directors of the California WW1 Centennial Task Force, Courtland Jindra, traveled with his fiancée, Melissa to the battlefields and monuments to do just that. To read Part One click here. Following is the continuation of their journey from Melissa's journal, picking up on:
Saturday October 13th
After breakfast we checked out of our chateau and drove to Marre, France, a small town outside of Verdun. The drive was beautiful; more scenic roads passing vast fields of crops and yellow flowers, and forested areas with leaves changing colors. Some roads were wider, and some were very small! We took a detour to the Sommepy American Monument, which was way, way off in the countryside, but maybe our favorite monument yet. We had the place to ourselves. It sits on the hilltop of Blanc Mont, in the middle of vast farm fields. It commemorates the achievements of the Americans and French who fought in the Champagne region of France, and sits at a spot that was hard to capture from the Germans, who had dug into the hill and fortified it well. The monument itself is a tall tower that one can ascend from within the structure, which we did and had lunch at the top. The view from the top is amazing, and gives a 360 degree view of the battlefields and terrain. The monument is surrounded by grounds that are filled with trenches, dugouts and artillery emplacements. We walked around for a bit before reluctantly leaving. It is truly a hidden gem of France.
As we left, we saw a military Humvee with a few guys who looked like they were hanging out on the road right in front of the monument. Then down the road as we left the monument behind, there was a lone soldier standing on a hill by the road. We guessed that they were doing some sort of exercise. As we got back into the closest little town, we passed another Humvee. We were starting to wonder if something was going on that we weren't aware of, perhaps another French Revolution, but then Courtland saw the driver of the Humvee looking irritated with his passenger, who was holding a big map in front of him. Clearly, they were lost, and it was a comfort that tourists aren't the only ones who get lost on the roads of France. As we left them behind, they made the correct turn toward their companions. I guess between the two of them they figured out the map!
We arrived at our hotel around 2:30pm. The hotel is situated in a VERY small town about 15 minutes outside of Verdun.
Sunday October 14th
After our run this morning along the country road that runs through our small village, we had breakfast at the hotel. The breakfast area of the hotel restaurant is in a circular stone room that looks like something out of Lord of the Rings; very neat! We're lucky they're open on Sundays, most places aren't!
After getting ready, we drove to the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial. This was the closest we would come to my Fatherland of Germany (about 150 miles away), and to where Courtland's great grandfather served in WWI in Epinal, France (about 75 miles away).
St. Mihiel Cemetery has 4,153 Americans buried there, with 117 unknown soldiers. Unlike other cemeteries, which generally are limited to soldiers who died in a particular vicinity, this cemetery has fallen Americans from all over France, including nurses. We briefly visited the reception center and then walked through the grave plots. There is one medal of honor recipient and we also found Greayer Clover's grave. Courtland brought his first edition book of A Stop at Suzanne's with us to France so that he could set the book on his grave and get a photo. Not sure if anyone else has ever done that, but we did! The book is a collection of his short stories, published by Clover's family after the war. In the center of the cemetery is probably our favorite aspect of it, a large white stone eagle facing north surrounded by striking red and pink flowers encircling it. On the sides of the cemetery were sculptures of a Doughboy and of an urn. At the back of the cemetery is a large memorial with numerous white stone columns. To each side are rooms with a chapel to the left (whose walls are covered in a golden mural made by tens of thousands of tiny glass tiles, depicting the Angel of Victory) and to the right a marble wall map of the battle at St. Mihiel. That wall map actually isn't the original; the original fell off the wall and broke due to the humidity, and thus both rooms to the sides of the monument had dehumidifiers in them. Here, as depicted on the maps, the German army's defensive line bulged (known as a "salient") into France and the Allied Forces fought for four days to eliminate this final salient of the German army. They were ultimately successful and this paved the way for the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
Behind the memorial are beautiful willow trees with low branches. The tress within and outside of the cemetery were all still changing color for fall, which continues to please us. In the center of the memorial is a pink granite urn with a Pegasus, which symbolizes taking the souls on their voyage thereafter. We then met up with the assistant to the supervisor at the cemetery, Marie, who showed us around some more and was very kind to see us during her lunch break!
We then drove into town less than a mile away and walked to the church, which is bullet ridden from both World Wars. Next to the church is a statue of an American Doughboy and a French Poilu shaking hands, and symbolizes the friendship of the two nations. Fittingly, we parked near a building in town that appeared to be a residence whose window boxes were filled with French and American flags. The statue was also bullet ridden from WWII, when the same town was attacked again.
After the statue, we drove to the Montsec Monument. We could see it for miles before we got to it. It was the biggest hill of the monuments on hills we'd yet seen, and a giant monument itself! It commemorates the reduction of the St. Mihiel Salient by the U.S. First Army and the operations of the U.S. Second Army, as well as all combat services of other U.S. divisions in the region. After driving up the hill, one is greeted by many stairs leading up to the circular colonnade monument. The view from the hill was amazing; we felt like we could see all the way to Germany from there, and had great 360 views of the valleys and Meuse River below. And it was very windy up there! We had lunch on the monument, which was the most well-visited monument we've seen our whole trip. Motorcyclists and European tourists favor the site. We walked around for a bit and even went back up to the monument a second time before departing.
We went back to the hotel for a few hours before meeting up with Courtland's Facebook friend Randy Gaulke, who lives in France a good bit of almost every year and is a tour guide. We drove to Verdun and had dinner at the Sherlock Holmes pub and restaurant, which was very good. After dinner, he offered to drive us to the Montfaucon monument lit up at night. It was very prettily lit and we walked around a bit before heading back to the hotel. Another full day ahead tomorrow!
Monday, October 15th
We began our day with a run on some of the town roads, which turned quickly into gravel farm roads, radiating from the town center, which is the church. Got a pretty good workout going up a hill, upon which we spotted our first and potentially only poppy flowers on the trip. The nice weather might have tricked them into blooming so late in the season.
After that, we headed for the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. It is the largest American WWI or WWII cemetery in Europe, and thus the largest one we'd seen. It is home to 14,246 Americans, and 954 names on the walls of the missing. Whereas most cemeteries we've seen have had two to four grave sections, this one has eight. We began at the Visitor's Center, and decided to eat our lunch before we got started. Thanks to poor signage, we parked incorrectly and were admonished by a security guard.
The visitor reception area is probably the most well-done one we saw at any of the cemeteries. It had various information boards, a short film, and some displays of artifacts. From there, we drove to the middle of the cemetery and parked (not sure if that was allowed, but another car did it and Courtland said he's seen photos of cars parked there before). My favorite element of the whole cemetery was there in the middle – a large circular pool surrounded by roses with a dainty fountain in the middle. It was very pretty. The roadways in the center of the cemetery and the pathways along the grave sections are lined with trees, which weren't quite as glorious as we'd seen at other cemeteries but it is edging closer and closer to winter, so I can't fault the trees. We walked up stairs to get to the level of the graves. We walked past them to the Memorial chapel, hoping to hear the carillons play at the hour, but we didn't hear them the whole time we were there. The chapel was pretty, with stained glass that had numerous insignia of the various divisions that fought in the area. To the sides of the memorial are hallways with decorative columns. The halls include the names of the missing. As we left (the chapel,) some British soldiers came in many carloads to do a ceremony (the security guard admonished the first one not to park where he had, as well. At least he was rude to everyone, not just us. But the joke was on him, the military guys ended up parking everywhere because there were so many of them).
From there, we walked the grave sections, finding the first American woman killed in the war, who entered the service from California, Marion Crandall. We found Benjamin Bowie, from Los Angeles. We found Frank Davis, who was planned to be on the Victory Memorial Grove tablet but his name never ended up on it. We also found an Isaac J. Hoover from Pennsylvania – maybe one of my kin? We then went back up to the Visitor center and briefly talked with some of the staff members, thanking them for taking care of the cemetery, before leaving.
About a mile away in the town of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon is a private collection of WWI artifacts, turned into a Museum by its owner, Jean Paul de Vries. They said he'd found 95% of the collection within a three-km radius of the museum. It was nestled to the side of a lunch café, and very impressive. Hundreds of shovel heads cascaded down a wall, along with collections of guns, swords, bayonets, barbed wire, horseshoes, helmets, canteens, bottles, canisters, medicines, ceramic pieces used to string wires, dog tags, ammo, buttons, clothes, mess kits, and thousands of other pieces of war relics they'd found. He'd built stairs into two or three levels of displays, as well as "bunkers" you could go into to see how crammed they lived during the war, if one was lucky enough to be crammed into some sort of structure. Outside of his museum, he had things for sale such as "trench art," which are large ammunition casings carved into designs of plants and other objects.
After leaving there, we tried to get to the monument to the Lost Battalion, which features Cher Ami, the heroic homing pigeon who carried a desperate message from the battalion, which was trapped for days and getting fired upon by both the enemy and their own American units, to the American units to have them stop shooting at them. She got her leg and one of her eyes blown off completing the task, which was better than the previous two birds' fate before her, but she did it and is credited with helping to save the Lost Battalion survivors. Unfortunately, we got about 2 km away and the road was closed for logging, we think, so we had to turn around without seeing the monument
We went to the Montfaucon Monument, which we saw last night in the dark, to climb it. Kind of like ascending the leaning tower of Pisa, many, many stairs circle to the top from within the tower, over 200 feet tall. At the top, there are four doors leading out to four sections for viewing 360 degrees around the tower. We spent some time up there, looking out from each vantage point, before climbing back down.
We then walked around the ruins of the town around the tower. It was demolished during WWI, and the ghostly remains of the town are being reclaimed by time and the forest. The best remains still standing are from the massive church that once stood there. They've since rebuilt the town to the west of the monument. There were also the remains of German bunkers and trenches in the area. We watched several tour groups and buses come by the monument, but most didn't even stop there and let people out, they just saw it from the windows and left. Made us grateful that we are doing our own touring!
We ended the day with dinner in Verdun. Tomorrow will be our last full day in the Verdun area.
Tuesday, October 16th
After lazing about and breakfast, we set out just before noon on our adventures for the day.
We began at the State of Missouri monument, erected by the state to honor those from Missouri who had died during the war in the area. Particularly, the 35th Division suffered the greatest losses, as the Meuse-Argonne offensive was their first combat experience. Initially they did well, but gradually they were decimated by the Germans. It was a moderately sized monument, at the top of stairs, at the top of which had a lady in bronze holding a wreath up to the sky.
Next, we drove to the Pennsylvania monument. This one was on par with the size of the bigger monuments we'd seen on the trip. Dedicated in 1927, it honors the Pennsylvania soldiers, particularly the 78th Division, and they liberated the town of Varennes, where the monument sits atop a hill. Its centerpiece is a large bronze eternal flame (which sadly wasn't lit, but we weren't about to try to light it). Upon the eternal flame is inscribed, "The right is more precious than peace."
From there, we drove to see the Cher Ami, the brave pigeon, and Lost Batallion (77th Division) memorial. We laid our hands on the bird, which sits upon several doughboy helmets. We tried to see the marker depicting a location of the Lost Battalion, which is supposed to be half a km away, but the road was closed for logging and we eventually chickened out walking it that we might get in trouble, so we went back!
From there, we drove to the Sgt. Alvin York memorial in Chatel-Chehery. There is a bronze plaque set in a polished black granite stone describing his role in the war. We drove a short distance away and parked to walk a 40-minute trail depicting the sites of his famous battle. Essentially, in that area, he was part of a unit that was charged with clearing the Germans from the forest. The Germans had fortified the area with trenches and machine gun nests and were difficult to eradicate from the thick forest. His unit worked its way through the area, capturing Germans along the way. His commander was killed and he became the acting leader of the platoon. At one point, he single-handedly fought off a bayonet attack, and picked off enemy soldiers one at a time, capturing a machine gun nest at a critical moment of the battle. The enemy was so astonished at their ferocity, one of the German majors looked at him and after York told him they were Americans, the major immediately offered to surrender his unit if York would just stop. He and his fellow soldiers were able to capture 132 Germans, which impressed his commanding officer Brigadier General Lindsey, who told him, "Well York, I hear you've captured the whole damned German army." He told him no, that he "only had 132." His bravery led him to be promoted to Sergeant.
Finally, and fittingly, we went to a small monument at the top of a hill behind surrounded by fields honoring the official last doughboy to be killed in WWI combat, at 10:59am on the day of the Armistice. We picked wildflowers along the gravel road on the way to make a small bouquet to lay at the monument. As we walked back, the sun was starting to lower in the sky and the shadows were beginning to set on this peaceful place, though every place around here is peaceful and beautiful! Henry Gunther, perhaps with a chip on his shoulder after being demoted for writing a letter home that was read by the censors in which he was critical of the army and war effort, and for being of German ancestry, might have felt a deep need to prove himself. Thus, knowing the armistice would occur at 11am, in the final minutes beforehand, he and one of his commanding officers advanced on a German position on that hill. The Germans were incredulous, but began shooting at them anyway. His commander got down on the ground and ordered Gunther to stop, but Gunther kept advancing and was shot in the temple and killed.
Afterward we took our last walk in town and gazed up at the night sky. Tomorrow will be our last night here, staying right by the airport, and we are sad to say goodbye to France.
Wednesday, October 17th, 2018
We tried our best not to be too sad today, as it was our last full day in France, and a travel day. We ran through town, snapping pictures along the way, including the poppies we had seen growing along a dirt road heading up one of the hills of farmers' fields. After breakfast and checking out at the hotel, we drove into Verdun. We had found a walking tour map at our hotel that we'd been meaning to try if we had time, and since we did, we decided to walk it.
Verdun, whose name comes from the words "strong fort," has a lot of history, mostly of being attacked and destroyed time and time again, since at least the 4th century. We saw a War Memorial, which was originally for WWI and then WWII was added, for the citizens of Verdun who died in both world wars. It is comprised of five statues – a cavalryman, an engineer, an infantryman ("poilu"), an artilleryman, and a reservist. They form a human wall symbolizing the motto of the city – "They will not pass." We also saw a war memorial dedicated to the women of Verdun during WWI, who not only bore the burdens of raising children, taking care of the elderly, and working/farming while their male family members were off fighting and dying in war, but the burdens of dealing with the aftermath and with injured and emotionally scarred men who returned. There was also a monument to victory and to the citizens of Verdun at the top of a long set of stairs overlooking the city center. A warrior faces the Eastern front, and the monument symbolizes the victories of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and the signing of the armistice in 1918. 85% of Verdun was destroyed during the war, so it also symbolized the rebuilding of the city.
Among other landmarks, we passed the Notre Dame Cathedral, which has stood since the 10th century, and has been rebuilt in the Middle Ages and the modern period. They were working on part of it as we walked by. We also stopped at a tower dating back to the 14th century, which sits on a stream running into the Meuse River. There, we reluctantly returned our WWI bullets we'd been given at the cave near Chateau-Thierry to the ground, as we don't think we're allowed to take them home.
After our walking tour, and filling up the tank with gas, we drove along the Voie Sacree briefly (the "Sacred Way" – the only road that was able to supply men and materials for the French during the siege at Verdun in WWI) and then the A4 autoroute back to Paris. We tried to get to bed early, since we plan on rising early for our 10:20am flight tomorrow back to Los Angeles.
Epilogue by Courtland Jindra
As the months have passed obviously things aren't quite as crystal clear, but experience of traveling the AEF sites in France was unforgettable. While Melissa and I did not see everything we could have, our nearly two weeks there was an amazing time that I cannot properly put into words. William Faulkner famously wrote "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." Being in rural France you feel the weight of those words - Frenchmen still live with the war in a way that is hard to explain.
No disrespect to the Greatest Generation, but the American sites to the Great War are just as worthy to visit as those for WWII. Normandy gets over a million visitors a year - I would guess all of the American cemeteries put together don't get half that many. If there is one thing I would hope for in the future, it's that more of our countrymen would stop by these places of memory. I can't wait to return someday. Perhaps I will see some of you "Over there" with me.