I’ve been interested in First World War history for many years now. I’ve occasionally blogged about it here, too. However, in all that I’ve read about, and of all the WW1 sites I’ve visited in Europe to date, the American experience of that war hasn’t really featured. Until today.
Recent events regarding Syria have reminded me of that all too common joke about the USA being keen to be first into the next World War, to make up for being late for the last two. It was 1917 when the American troops joined the struggle against the Kaiser. What I’d not realised was the extent of the US dead, nor the short time-frame for the annihilation of so many soldiers. Until today.
On my journey through France, the first leg of my trip out to the Dolomites in Italy, I left Reims this morning, without much of a plan in mind, except that I needed to be in Baden-Baden, in Germany, in the evening. My meandering route eventually took me north of the French “war and peace capital” of Verdun, to the area known as the Argonne. This is wonderful, wild, wooded and rolling country of immense beauty. In 1917 it was a key strategic gap in what we now call “The Western Front”. Unless protected, it represented part of the shortest German “bee-line” to Paris. The US “Doughboys” were poured in.
I ended up at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. This would actually quite hard to find if you were looking for it (I wasn’t, to be honest) and it’s still the largest American burial-place in Europe. Bigger than anything from WW2. You can read more here. The size of the place, and its simplicity, was overwhelming. Regardless of colour or status, every soldier here has the same white marble cross (or Star of David) bearing name, rank, home State, and date of death. So, so many had died in October or November 1918. The crosses cover such a large area it’s almost impossible to do them justice with a photo at ground level.
I was there around midday. It was sombre as the cemetery chapel clock struck twelve, but I was completely reduced to tears by what followed. The chapel chimes played “The Star Spangled Banner” and then “John Brown’s Body”, or The Battle Hymn of the Republic, as the tune is properly known. Nothing could be more fitting for this place.
I spent almost two hours wandering amongst the crosses. The names alone were a flavour of America, with Italian, Greek, Slav, Irish surnames, and many more. In one sector, I found a Reagan and a Nixon buried almost side by side. I found a Patton too. Wonder if any were relatives? The names alone brought it home to me, in the way nothing ever has before, that this was a World war. And the world was fighting itself.
I felt truly chastened as I left. The stereo came on a mile or so down the road, with the CD tracks set to random play. First up was Leon Russell’s inimitable 1971 track “Stranger in a Strange Land”. That’s exactly how the American soldiers must have felt.