The Doughboys Turn the Tide - Tour Diary & Images - October 2018
The Doughboys Turn the Tide with Dr Bruce Cherry Tour Diary, 3rd - 7th October 2018 - written by Francoise Clifton
We arrived in Paris on the Eurostar a little after 12, finding Shaun and Christian, our tour manger and driver for the week. Leaving Paris by coach, we made our way to the Musee de la Grand Guerre du Pays de Meaux. The museum was very impressive. There was an interactive trench scene, with different sounds and sights and a large display of the uniforms of each nation that took part - I was surprised at how many there were. Though small, the section on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was detailed, with lots of models and propaganda posters.
Leaving the museum, we drove to the American memorial at Belleau Wood. Bruce gave us a brief introduction to the First World War, tracing the events and actions that led up to the AEF fighting in the Meuse-Argonne. The memorial itself is in the centre of the road, flanked by machine guns used during the fighting by both sides. The wood stretches away on every side, the worn trench lines and fox holes clearly visible when you take ten paces in any direction. Bruce took us to one of the fox holes to explain the close hand-to-hand fighting the soldiers would have encountered and how they were unprepared for this close warfare, having been trained in the trench warfare that had been characteristic of the Western Front for the previous four years.
We drove on to the Aisne-Marne American Memorial atop Hill 204. Walking around the monument, you can see why it was necessary for this strategic point to be taken, with brilliant, beautiful views of the surrounding valley in every direction. We gathered at the front where Bruce used the detailed map carved into the stone to show us the different AEF positions, their journey through the region and the path that we were going to follow over the next few days.
In the last of the light we made our way back to the coach and drove to our first hotel on the outskirts of Reims. Check in was smooth, giving us time for a quick drink in the bar before dinner. The food was delicious and many of us stayed up late, trading stories before turning in.
We started our second day by driving through the mist-heavy Champagne Valley to Memorial du Domans. The atmospheric journey was made even better when we left the bus behind and walked through the park to the church at the top of the hill. Below, mist stretched across the valley like a second river, and behind was a beautiful, white stone church, reminiscent of Montmartre. We had a bit of time to walk around, taking in the tranquil cloisters and looking at the tanks at the foot of the church. Bruce explained the American advance along the Marne Valley as we left, before stopping in Chateau Thierry to get a better perspective of the machine gun positions and the tragic story of the decimated 3rd Army.
A short drive down the road was the evocative Memorial de la 42 Division US. Framed against the ruined Croix Rouge Farm and the empty barren farmland, the memorial is one of the most detailed and plane speaking of any other permeant memorial that I have seen. Where other American Memorials have clean lines, imperial structures and huge, dominating outlines, the 42 Division Memorial is a statue of an American soldier carrying his wounded comrade. The clothing is tattered, a shoe is missing, and there are pained and tired expressions on both men. Everyone was moved by what we saw.
We drove on to Fismes for lunch, briefly stopping to look at Chateau Fere du Tandoise along the way. We had some free time in the town, spreading out across the boulangeries and bakeries to buy our baguettes and sweet treats as well as wonder around the town centre.
After lunch, we took the bus across the river to Fismette to hear about the heroic efforts of soldiers tasked with reconnaissance of German held Fismes. Bruce told us how this was a turning point for the AEF. Up until now, American soldiers had been under joint command of American and French generals. After the severe communication difficulties at Fismes, General Pershing decided that American soldiers should only be under the command of an American General. The river scene itself is now picturesque: an old water mill turns in the background, fish can be seen in the water, trees sway in the warm breeze and the hot October sunlight glints on the slow-moving water. A world away from the wire clogged water, muddy banks and shelled buildings that would have been there 100 years ago.
Leaving Fismette behind, we continued our drive through the Champagne Valley to the Blanc Mont Memorial. Another imperial style structure, those of us that wanted to, climbed to the top of the platform and surveyed the AEF approach and German trench lines. The whole area was open. It wasn’t hard to imagine the fear and courage needed by the American soldiers to advance, in clear view of the German machine guns. While surveying the remaining trench lines, now only dips and hollows in the ground, Bruce described the relentless and reckless will of the fresh American troops and the disbelief of their French comrades when they broke through the German lines comparatively quickly, after the French had been entrenched for years.
We continued to Verdun, our base for the rest of the tour and checked in to our hotel, a converted officer’s quarters facing onto the river. Everyone was very impressed, and that evening enjoyed a quintessential French dinner of pate, beef bourguignon and a large slice of chocolate mousse for desert.
We spent the morning of our third day at Vauquois. There is no evidence of the village that once stood here. Instead, there is a moonscape of massive craters, overgrown with grass, weeds and thorns. Walking along the edges of the craters, you can see why this ridge was so important from the vast views of the surrounding landscape and why so many soldiers died to defend it. We were lucky enough to clamber down into the entrance of one of the tunnels that stretch throughout the ridge and see the glaze clay they were carved from. It was easy to forget in our excitement that an estimated 8000 German soldiers are still lost in the 141km of tunnels that stretch under this ridge, their bodies unrecovered.
On our way to Verreys du Argonne for a mid-morning coffee, we stopped at the 35th Kansas American monument where Bruce read out an account of the battle of Shearing written by the then Colonel Pattern. The town had a sleepy atmosphere, hiding a bloody revolutionary past. Walking up to the Pennsylvania Monument we passed an unassuming clock house where it transpired Louis XVI and his wife were discovered hiding from French soldiers. They were betrayed by the local populace and returned to Paris to be executed.
We left the town and headed up Mount Foucon. Along they way we drove through Epinville, where Bruce explained how one battalion of engineers and one machine gun band were able to hold off an entire German counter-attack. Mount Foucon itself had clearly been an important stronghold for the Germans, with clear sightline across the valley and multiple bunkers surrounding the top of the ridge. Had the German’s been fighting at full strength, it would have been impossible to take. However, as Bruce explained, the AEF were lucky when the Germans choose a strategic retreat, showing the total difference in the fresh, enthusiastic and reckless American soldiers compared to the tired, war weary Germans.
After a simple, but hearty lunch in Romange, we went to the Meuse-Argonne cemetery. There was silence. No birds, no one speaking, just thousands of white crosses spreading out in every direction. It was harrowing. We searched for three soldiers who were given medals of valour. Once we had found them, Bruce told us their stories, reading from letters and eyewitness accounts. His retelling of Lt. Bleckly’s role in attempts to locate the Lost Battalion, his determination to “…make the delivery or die in the attempt” to fly supplies to the stranded battalion, despite the hazardous flight taking their plane within range of German guns, stands out in particular.
We left the cemetery behind to find where Sgt. York singlehandedly took 147 prisoners. There is no evidence of the trenches or ravages of war on the farmland now. Instead, there is a tranquil scene looking down a hill to a field surrounded by trees with natural pools flooding the remaining ruts. Bruce read out Sgt. York’s account of taking the prisoners, further highlighting the sheer demoralisation of the German soldiers in the last months of the war.
We ended our day by driving through the Argonne Forest. We walked around a German cemetery, examining the differences between the German, French and American cemeteries that we had seen. On the way back to Verdun, we had a lively debate about different actors, literary and sporting figures of the time and how many of them fought together in the same divisions and battalions. I came away with a long list of films to watch!
We had dinner at a small restaurant in the centre of Verdun. Our group filled the entire restaurant, spread across the small tables and taking in the warm atmosphere. We were served a veritable feast of French cuisine, including the notable Quiche Lorraine before walking back to the hotel.
We started our penultimate day at the Flirey German trenches de Saint Baussant. Walking five minutes into the woods there is an intact trench line, complete with fox holes and fire steps. Some walked along the path above the trench while the more adventurous of us walked through the trench itself. As we explored, Bruce explained the conditions the Germans faced in their trenches, how bleak they were compared to freshly resupplied French and the fast-moving AEF and what led to the German withdrawal from this particular trench line. On the way out, Bruce took us through the deliberate misdirection and tactics employed by the AEF, but how they were ultimately ineffective as the Germans kept retreating, ceding the land to provide reinforcement along the Hindenburg Line.
We left Saint Baussant for the Mont Sec Monument, our route taking us through Seicheprey, the scene of the first AEF action in 1918 and the jump off point for Patton’s tanks. The monument was ‘understated’; a huge circular structure reminiscent of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. In the centre of the memorial was a 3D topographical map of the St Mihiel Salient which Bruce used to take us through the path the AEF took and the main battles that they fought.
We left for the Apremont Le Foret Bois Brute, Croix de Redouts. Bruce led us to the wood and then let us explore. Five metres into the forest was a warren of trenches, taken over by trees, bushes and undergrowth, but left exactly as they had been when the war was ended. A few of us found some battlefield detritus; a button and a piece of shrapnel that had been embedded in a tree stump. We could have explored for hours, but the call of lunch was much stronger.
After lunch in the town of St Mihiel, we made our way to the Saint Mihiel American Cemetery. As with the Meuse-Argonne cemetery, it was a harrowing experience, mainly due to the four rows graves marked ‘Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God’. Unlike the Meuse-Argonne, we found a lot of graves marked with dates after the end of the war, those who died of wounds or of the influenza that spread through the barracks and hospitals. We met the cemetery Superintendent, who answered some of our questions and gave us an overview of the site. We discovered that among the 4153 graves there are 17 women, including the first American woman to die in a plane crash.
We left the cemetery and headed back to Verdun, the rest of the afternoon free to rest or explore the centre of the town, in particular the cathedral and the war memorial opposite our hotel across the river.
Dinner that night was at a riverside restaurant. For the last time we were treated to traditional French cuisine, good wine and great company.
We started our last day at Fluerrie du Dumont. On route, Bruce explained what the Verdun ridge would have been like during the fighting: the constant shelling creating a barren mud bath in winter and a dust bowl in the summer. Initially, the Verdun ridge should have been impossible for the Germans to take, as there are forts stationed in an inner and outer circle along the ridge, each fort protected by its neighbour. However, the area had been quiet until 1916 so the French had removed the guns from the forts and only had minimal occupation of some of the forts.
Fluerrie du Dumont itself is a haunting place. Unlike Vaquois, there are still visible remnants of the village, stumps that were once building foundations or doorways, discarded bricks at the bottom of craters and signs showing what there used to be. The school, the butchers, a farm house, all unrecognisable in the face of the 27 separate battles that took place on this one hillside. As we walked around, Bruce described the conditions to us, challenging those of us brave enough to try walking up the hill with our eyes closed to get an idea of what it would have been like for the soldiers fighting up the hill during a night attack or during the summer when the dust would choke the air so that you couldn’t see ahead.
We left Fluerrie du Dumont for Fort de Veax. Climbing to the top of the fort, we could see that the roof was pitted and cratered from the incessant shelling it was subjected to. Inside, the fort was damp and cold, with the beginnings of stalactites descending from the ceiling. It must have been miserable and absolutely desperate. As we walked along the cramped corridors, we saw displays of the hospital, the soldier’s bunks, three to a bed and the commanders’ quarters. As we left, Bruce talked us through the surrender of the fort by the trapped French troops; the heroic story of the young soldier sent to fetch reinforcements too late and the troops resorting to barricading the corridors, descending to hand-to-hand fighting in the narrow corridors as the Germans broke in.
We briefly stopped at Fort Douaumont before continuing to the Douaumont Ossuary. The building is designed to look like the hilt of a sword that has been struck into the ground. After a quick coffee, we made our way to the train station, saying goodbye to Bruce, Christian, our driver and a few friends in the group who were going on straight on to another Cultural Experience tour. We caught the train to Paris, enjoying a free hour in the French capital before catching the Eurostar back to London.
View details of this tour - The Doughboys Turn the Tide