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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