WFA East Coast Chairman Highlights Fort George G. Meade Legacy on the Eve of American Centennial

On Veterans’s Day 2016, Western Front Association East Coast Branch Chairman Paul Cora was invited to speak at the US Army’s Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, to honor the heritage of the Post in the context of America’s entry into World War I.  Mr. Cora’s remarks, below, sought to place into context the experience of the State of Maryland and Fort Meade as a microcosm of the American experience in World War I.

Military historian Paul Cora speaks about the role Ft. Meade played in World War I and subsequent wars.

WFA East Coast Chairman Paul Cora speaks about the role Ft. Meade played in World War I.

“One hundred years ago, when this was still farmland, America was neutral and deeply divided on the issue of the European war which in two years had grown into a world war. An agricultural and industrial powerhouse, America was also very much a land of immigrants. For those Americans of German descent – which after decades of steady immigration was the single largest ethnic identity in the country – the issues of American neutrality and the battle for public opinion were especially troubling. This time 100 years ago, however, it was not necessarily unpatriotic to express pride in one’s German heritage, or even to defend the cause of Germany and Austria-Hungary in the European war. Indeed, just up the road in Baltimore, the vibrant German American community there was still basking in the public celebrations of the arrival of the merchant submarine DEUTSCHLAND which docked in Baltimore on its maiden voyage that summer. All this, however, was shortly due to change.

In February 1917, the German High Command elected to roll the dice and risk bringing the neutral United States into the war through resuming the practice of unrestricted submarine warfare on the high seas – that is, the sinking, without warning, of all ships, even those flying the flag of a neutral country, suspected of carrying war materials to Britain and France. By their calculations, the millions of men and millions of tons of war material that America would provide to the Allies wouldn’t matter – Britain would be starved into submission, France would capitulate, and the war would be over before America could even mobilize.

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Once the United States declared War in April 1917, German-Americans were forced to subordinate their feelings of ethnic pride, to a new and emerging sense of patriotic national identity. “Germany was the land of our ancestors”, wrote one Baltimore German-American at the time, “but America is the land of our children.” And so the forging of a unified national identity from many ethnic backgrounds is in many ways a product of World War I, just as America’s emergence as a World Power resulted from our role in “The War to End All Wars” and its aftermath.

The genesis of what would be Camp Meade beginning in the summer of 1917, was part of a massive mobilization unprecedented in American history – within 18 months, some two million American troops of the AEF – the American Expeditionary Forces – had arrived in France – some 400,000 of these passing through Camp Meade in the process.

For Britain and France, the arrival of millions of American Doughboys beginning in 1918 offered boundless opportunities to replenish their decimated ranks – parcel out the Yank battalions among the British and French armies desperately reeling under the weight of the of the latest German offensive, they argued. But this was not to be the case – in a contest of wills, emerging American nationalism won out and an independent American army would be formed in France under General John “Blackjack” Pershing.

General John J. Pershing

General John J. Pershing

For Americans of color, the unprecedented mobilization of World War I provided a catalyst for advancing the cause of equal citizenship. Against the initial plans of the War Department in 1917, African American leaders insisted that conscription should apply to blacks as well as whites, and so as America mobilized in World War I, African American males were drafted into the armed forces.   While serving in segregated units, many of which were relegated to the services of supply – loading and off-loading cargo in seaports and building roads and railroads in France – two African-American infantry divisions were deployed to Europe where they fought with distinction under French command. Elements of one of these – the 93rd Division, trained here at Camp Meade before embarking for France.

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The creation of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917-18 involved not only a nucleus of regular troops, but the dramatic expansion of the army through the federalization of the National Guard, and the creation of national army divisions made up of conscripted men. Ultimately the AEF’s ranks numbered 8 regular army divisions, 17 National Guard, and 18 National Army divisions.

Maryland can be seen a microcosm of the national experience in World War I. While Camp Meade was busy training new recruits in the use of rifle, bayonet and gas mask, the State’s first combat unit to arrive in France was Maryland’s 117th Trench Mortar Battery. Originally a company of the Coast Artillery, the 117th was the smallest Maryland unit to see action numbering just 185 officers and men. They were assigned to the 42nd “Rainbow” Division made up of National Guard troops from 26 states and the District of Columbia, and they arrived in France in on October 31, 1917, less than 7 months after the American declaration of war. The men of the 117th were outfitted with the French 58mm trench mortar and trained to provide front-line fire support to the Rainbow division’s two infantry Brigades, and it was while carrying out this role Private Edgar Potts was killed by German counter battery fire on March 9, 1918 – the first Maryland soldier to be killed in World War I. Seeing action in Champagne-Marne operation, Aine-Marne sector, the Battle of St. Mihiel, and finally the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the 117th was Maryland’s smallest but longest-serving combat unit with 172 days in the Front Line by the time of the Armistice.

While Edgar Potts’ death with the 117th Trench Mortar Battery marked him as the first Maryland soldier to fall, another Marylander serving with the regular army was destined to be the State’s first officer to be killed in Action. Baltimorean 1st LT George Buchanan Redwood of the 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, “The Big Red One” had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery in leading a patrol into German front lines on March 28, 1918, capturing several valuable prisoners for interrogation. After this feat, Redwood, was promoted to Regimental Intelligence Officer and remained so until his death on May 28 at the battle of Cantigny. There, during the US Army’s first offensive operation of the war, Lt. Redwood moved forward alone under fire to observe and sketch German positions and was mortally wounded before returning with the vital intelligence. He was posthumously awarded a second DSC, and later the City council voted to rename Baltimore’s German Street “Redwood Street” in his honor.

Maryland’s contribution to the 29th Infantry Division, made up of National Guard troops from Maryland and Virginia, should not be overlooked. The Division’s 115th Infantry, created from the Maryland 1st, 4th and 5th militia regiments, saw bloody fighting in the Argonne Forest, where in 23 days of combat, the Division sustained nearly 40% casualties.

Among those troops which passed through Camp Meade, I can think of none more fitting to speak of today than those of the 313th and 314th Infantry regiments which made up the 157th Infantry Bridge, 79th Infantry Division.   The 313th was made up of so many natives of Baltimore, that the regiment would be known as “Baltimore’s Own,”; while it sister regiment 314th Infantry drew men conscripted not only from Maryland, but many more from Eastern Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. The wartime experiences of these two regiments brigaded together would be closely shared.

According to one observer, when the men of the 313th and 314th regiments arrived here in September 1917, Camp Meade “resembled perhaps nothing so much as a western mining camp in full blast; workmen here , there and everywhere with the whole world resounding to the buzz of saws and clang of hammers as barracks after barracks sprang into being.” As feverish as the actual completion of the camp seemed, the pace of the soldiers training was no less feverish: learning to drill, learning to shoot, to dig trenches, don gas masks and charge with bayonets.

When the men of the 313th and 314th arrived in France on July 16, 1918, they were among more than 300,000 American Doughboys who set foot in Europe that month alone – the greatest monthly total of the war – “Lafayette, we are here” was a popular saying of the day. For the American Expeditionary Forces, everything was focused on preparing for the coming “Big Push” against the German lines.

That “Big Push” would come in September in what was destined to be known as the battle of the Meuse-Argonne – the largest All-American offensive of the war.

On September 25, 1918, the 79th Division went “over the top” to attack the German front line at the start of the great battle. Among their first objectives was a fortified ridge atop which sat the ruins of an ancient village called Montfaucon – a fortress position which the Germans had occupied and improved for over four years. There from within the remains of the medieval church was a reinforced observation post named after the German Crown Prince Friedreich Wilhelm; from this and from this vantage point observe for miles into the allied lines, calling down deadly artillery fire on every approach route.

After two days of heavy fighting, the 313th Infantry, supported by the 314th on its right, fought its way up the fortified ridge, through barbed wire entanglements , entrenched machine guns and murderous artillery to capture the heights on September 27, 1918.

The ruins of Montfaucon village, France, today.

The ruins of Montfaucon village, France, today.

So astonished was French Premier Clemenceau, when he heard the news that Montfaucon had fallen to the Americans, he immediately set off for the front to view the legendary section of the German line with its hated observation post which after four years was now in Allied hands.

Today, atop the ridge of Montfaucon, stands one of the most impressive American monuments on the Western Front with its 200-foot memorial tower dedicated to the memory of the 79th Division.

Almost within the shadow of Montfaucon, by the nearby village of Romagne, on ground personally selected by General Pershing, is the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the largest in all Europe and the final resting place for more than 14,000 Doughboys of the AEF including so many men of the 79th Division killed fighting in the Meuse Argonne. This ground has been granted to the United States by France in perpetuity – forever – in recognition of the sacrifice of American troops in the liberation of France in World War I.

For the men of the 313th and 314th Infantry, the fighting at Montfaucon was not the end, but rather the beginning of their Meuse-Argonne experience. Throughout the month of October and into early November , they continued the bloody advance through the Argonne as the German Army stubbornly withdrew.

In a final Maryland chapter of the Great War, on the day that the Armistice took effect – November 11, 1918, Private Henry Gunther of the 313th would be killed while attempting to capture a German machine gun position at 10:59 hours – one minute before the cease fire ending the war took effect. Ironically, Gunther was an American of German ancestry. Today Private Henry Gunther of the 313th Infantry Regiment, 157th Infantry Brigade, 79th Division – Private Henry Gunther of Baltimore, Maryland who trained here at Camp Meade, is recognized as the last soldier to be killed in combat in all of World War I.

Early on in the 1920s, American writers and historians largely stopped writing about the war, to some extent this was a result of disillusionment with the peace treaty of Versailles, and with political battles at home over the ratification of the treaty with its League of Nations clause so dearly championed by President Woodrow Wilson. By contrast, British writers and historians never stopped writing about the First World War, and so the narrative which we as Americans inherited has been largely that of our British allies – a narrative in which the American contribution was nearly an afterthought when the war was drawing to a conclusion already. Historians from all backgrounds today, however, agree that the American contribution in the war’s final Hundred Days Offensive in which Allied armies under French Marshal Ferdinand Foche maintained continuous pressure along the front, was vital in bringing the war to an end when it did.

We today are familiar with the term “The Greatest Generation” which has often and rightfully been applied to our World War II veterans. In his book THE LAST OF THE DOUGHBOYS author Richard Rubin described the American veterans of World War One as the “generation which raised the ‘Greatest Generation’.”   What a POWERFUL statement this is about our World War 1 veterans. Rubin further went on to describe the unique character of the last living American veterans of World War I as “nineteenth century men and women, living in the 21st Century self-reliant, humble and stoic; never complaining, still marveling at the immensity of the war they helped to win.”

The American veterans of World War One are all gone now. In my own lifetime, I was fortunate enough to have met and talked with a handful of them, but now their memory will exist only in the histories and memorials that are left behind.

The men of the 314th Infantry in particular never forgot what they and their comrades in the 79th Division went through in the World War. The log-cabin style Officers Mess, built by the men of the regiment during their time here at Camp Meade, has survived to the present day after being purchased from the government and moved to Valley Forge, PA in 1922. There it became the repository of their World War One mementoes, souvenirs and artifacts and a place where they could come together to remember.   Cherished, handed down from generation to generation among their descendents, the 314th Infantry Cabin and its collection of artifacts represents a unique and otherwise unattainable means of connecting with the now gone Doughboys of World War I.

I am delighted by the idea that this time next year, on the eve of Veterans Day 2017, when we are truly in the midst of America’s WWI centennial, visitors to the 314th Infantry Memorial Cabin, reassembled just over there within the fenced area, will be able to feel and experience a connection with the Doughboys of World War I inside a structure built by their own hands 100 years ago. And they will likewise be able to interpret and understand their experiences by viewing and appreciating the irreplaceable collection of artifacts displayed at the Fort Meade Museum – occupying a vital place in the story of Fort Meade, and our country.”

314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin as it appeared at Valley Forge from 1922 until 2012.

314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin as it appeared at Valley Forge from 1922 until 2012.

For more information on the 314th Infantry AEF Memorial Cabin, visithttp://www.314th.org/

Journey to Romagne

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France.  At center in the distance, is the memorial chapel.

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. At center in the distance, is the memorial chapel.

As a young man in my mid-20s, more than 20 years ago,  I had been teaching high school history for several years, right out of college.  I was passionate about my job and eagerly seized professional enrichment opportunities whenever they appeared – and travel was form of enrichment that I particularly enjoyed.

Having a strong interest in the history of the First World War, I decided one year to spend the spring break visiting some of its battlefields, and so I booked a flight to Luxembourg City from which a rental car would put me in easy reach of the Alsace-Lorraine region of France.  I’d never been to the continent of Europe before, and so this would be a landmark trip for me, though I would undertake it alone as none of my friends was particularly interested in spending a potentially dreary week in March driving around the French countryside.

As an undergraduate, my consciousness of the First World War had been sparked by the publication in the mid-1980s of Siegfried Sassoon’s Long Journey – an abridged version of Sassoon’s Sherston Memoirs edited by Paul Fussell.  I was captivated by the story and from that point on I read every narrative I could find and eventually became particularly focused on the British experience in Flanders, and the French experience at Verdun.  My understanding of the contributions of the American Expeditionary Forces was limited, though I had been fortunate to have grown up with a World War I “Doughboy” as a next-door neighbor – a kindly old gentlemen who had been in the front line in 1918 as a sergeant in the Signal Corps.

Arriving in Luxembourg City in March ’92, I loaded my travel possessions – a backpack, a 35mm camera, and a few pre-digital-era roadmaps – into a tiny Renault rental car and set off for Verdun.  Heading southwest through the Luxembourg countryside, I crossed the border into France near Longwy, making my way along a winding, hilly route through rural towns and villages with names like Longuyon and Etain.  As I drove, the miles of French countryside seemed dotted with remnants and markers of numerous European conflicts – wayside crosses from 1870, crumbling pillboxes from the First World War rising up from newly plowed fields, and an occasional Maginot Line outpost jutting unexpectedly from a hillside.  As the road crested a few miles east of the Meuse river that first day, I recall looking down and seeing in the distance the unmistakable twin spires of Verdun Cathedral which seemed so familiar from all the images I’d seen – “Wow,” I recall thinking at that very moment, “I’m actually here!.”

Armed with a large-scale battle map from the French national geography institute titled “Forets de Verdun ed du Mort-homme” I spent the subsequent days exploring the lonely and haunting ruins of the battlefields where in 1916 the armies of both France and Imperial Germany were nearly “bled white.”  Forts Souville, Vaux and Douamont, the command post of Colonel Driant, the trench of the bayonets, the Ossuary, and the ruined village of Fleury were just a few of the key stops in my explorations. Wherever I looked, the ground seemed scarred with the overgrown remnants of trenches and shell holes, and along the roadsides I often came upon small piles of unexploded artillery rounds unearthed by farmers working their fields.  The evidence of what had taken place there some 80 years prior was dramatic and unescapable.

Driving northwest from Verdun through the small farm hamlets of the Meuse river valley, I eventually began to see fewer of the French and German monuments and markers so familiar in the previous days, and instead became aware of an increasing number memorials to the Doughboys of the AEF.  More than one million American troops had fought here in the fall of 1918 taking part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive which was the culminating event of the American experience in The Great War.

Eventually I found myself at a place called Montfaucon where atop a 305-meter rise lies the remains of a medieval village which in 1918 was a key position in the German line.  There in the ruins of the ancient church, high above the surrounding landscape, the occupying Germans had hidden a reinforced observation post named for Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm.  From this commanding position, they dominated the region for miles, bringing down artillery fire on anything which moved in daylight. On September 26, 1918, this seemingly impregnable position was captured in bitter fighting by the 314th Infantry, 79th Division AEF.

The ruins of the ancient village and church at Montfaucon.

The ruins of the ancient village and church at Montfaucon.

 

 

Adjacent to the ruins of Montfaucon stands the American memorial to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.  Atop a towering Doric column – the central feature of monument – sits a small observation deck which affords a splendid view of the region in all directions.  Approaching the outwardly deserted monument on the day of my visit, I was disappointed to find that the entrance was locked, but then as I turned to leave one of its French caretakers appeared.  In halting English he asked if I was an American and then explained that the tower was closed on weekdays, but he would open it if I wished to climb to the observation deck.

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Ascending the 234 steps of the winding interior stairwell, I reached the observation platform some 200 feet above the entrance, and from there I could see the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne, and indeed those of Verdun in the distance, spread before me as a panorama as far as the eye could see.  Contemplating the view from the quiet solitude of the tower, high above the sparsely populated countryside, I felt utterly alone.  It was then, for the first and only time on that solo trip to Europe, that the adrenaline of the adventure gave way to pangs of homesickness.

Returning to ground level, the Frenchman and I began a brief conversation – he in broken English, and I in broken French – and it soon became apparent that he thought it terrifically important that I, as an American, visit another nearby site; “Romangne,” he kept repeating “Romagne” and after retrieving my map, he pointed to the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon with its notation “Cimatiere Americaine”.

Taking his advice I drove toward Romangne, though I didn’t really know what to expect and wondered what I would find.  Passing through the village and following the signs I soon saw what the caretaker had thought so important for a young American to see – rising from a nearby hillside the unmistakable outline of thousand-upon-thousands of trim headstones segmented among perfectly manicured tree lines and hedgerows.   This was the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery –  largest American cemetery in all Europe;  larger than that in Normandy, larger than that for the Battle of the Bulge, and in fact second only to the American Cemetery in Manila for the number of war dead interred there.

Situated on ground personally selected by General Pershing, the cemetery occupies more than 130 acres and is the final resting place for over 14,000 Americans, most of whom were killed in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive of September-October 1918.  More than 500 of those buried there are unidentified and the cemetery also features a monument to some 954 Americans missing in action during World War I, including those from the expedition to North Russia in 1918-19, who have no known graves.

Acre upon acre of headstones at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Acre upon acre of headstones at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Beautifully landscaped, wonderfully cared for, the cemetery contains acre upon acre, row upon row of white Latin-cross and Star-of-David headstones; it is a place of incredible peace and dignity.

As I walked that afternoon among the headstones, reading names, and recognizing the familiar home states of the deceased – Maryland, and Pennsylvania, Delaware and Virginia, and indeed every state and territory in the Union at that time – I suddenly felt not quite so alone, nor as homesick as I had been standing atop the monument at Montfaucon.  I felt a sense of connection with those laid to rest there, so very far from home.  Taking in the scope of this memorial, it dawned on me for the first time what a remarkable and unprecedented effort the mobilization of American manpower in 1917-18 had been.

At the time of the Armistice on November 11, 1918, more than 2 million Americans had arrived in France, and more than a million of these had fought in the Meuse-Argonne. Their collective experiences were something that their generation alone could fully appreciate, and yet I as a young American, born more than 50 years after the start of The Great War, felt profoundly moved by this haunting parcel of American ground tucked away in rural northeastern France.  As we approach and experience the centennial of the First World War, I am hopeful that today’s generations of Americans will come to feel that same sense of connection with those who went “Over There”, and those who stayed.

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