Along the Western Front
A visit to the shrines and battlefields of the war that ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month
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BY JACK BEATTY
THE stretched WESTERN 466 miles, FRONT from OF THE North 1914-1918 Sea to WAR the Swiss frontier, forming a scar across the face of Europe. On summer vacation, with my wife and young son, I toured the front. It proved a strange vacation: an excursion across a deathscape.
The war on the Western Front began and ended as a war of motion, with the two great German offensives of late summer, 1914, and spring, 1918. In the years between, it was a static war, with only little mockeries of movement here and there along the whole expanse. Imagine a giant S inscribed across the top of France, its tail grazing a corner of Belgium: the Germans held the north and east side of this curving line, in places just yards away from the Belgian, British, and French troops facing them on its south and west. The line had no strategic significance whatsoever; it was simply where the million-man armies had wound up after Germany’s failure to destroy the Allies in the quick war-opening battle of annihilation that its General Staff had been planning for years. A complicated series of actions beginning on Septembers, 1914, known to history as the Battle of the Marne, had checked the German drive just short of Paris. Thereafter the armies had tried to outflank each other in a weeks-long “race to the sea.” At the Belgian coast they ran out of room to maneuver and, exhausted, dug in. The Western Front was born of their digging.
The first section of the front lay in Flanders, and there, in the tidy Flemish city of Ypres, we began our tour.
Ypres was not the actual start of the front; that distinction belongs to Nieuport, a city on the North Sea twentyodd miles down the river Yser from Ypres. Belgian troops held the line of the Yser between the sea and Ypres, where the British sector began. Ypres is pronounced Eep, but in the doggerel the British Tommies wrote about it they dubbed it “Wipers”:
Where German snipers can’t snipe at me.
Damp is my dug-out,
Cold are my feet,
Waiting for the whizz-bangs
To send me to sleep.
Whizz-bangs were a species of shell that came in on a Hat trajectory and made no sound warning of their approach.
The British position at Ypres was an exposed one; it lay in a salient, or bulge, of the front that was enclosed on three sides by German troops, who, to make matters worse, occupied the high ground. Despite its precariousness the British held fast to the salient for the duration. They did so for political reasons. In a treaty signed in the nineteenth century the British had pledged themselves to defend Belgian neutrality, and they had declared war on Germany because, by invading Belgium, it had violated that neutrality. Thus Belgium furnished the British with their casus belli in the First World War. That is why they were reluctant to quit the small slice of the country they held for more defensible positions just across the border, in France. It was a matter of British honor. You can see what it cost in the fifty-odd cemeteries around Ypres, as well as at the single most affecting monument we saw on our trip, the Menin Gate.
We arrived in Ypres (a four-hour drive from Paris) at dusk. After checking into an inn we had dinner in a restaurant on the town square. We were almost finished when we noticed a stirring among the diners at the other tables. To judge by their accents, they were British tourists, and they were on their way to the Menin Gate. We paid our bill and followed them.
The Menin Gate is a massive arch that spans the road leading out of the town center. Built by the British in the late twenties, it is inscribed with the names, ranks, and regiments of more than 50,000 British servicemen who, in the words of the dedication, “fell in the Ypres salient in the 1914—1918 war and who have no known grave. “ As my son and I climbed the stairs leading to the park above the monument, the sounds of British accents filled our ears. “Look, Tom, isn’t that Da’s lot?" an elderly woman asked her husband as she pointed to a list of the Manchester dead. “Da,”it turned out, had belonged to a different unit.
It was almost eight o’clock when the little knot of people in the park started to file dow n to the sidewalk beneath the gate. A last car drove by. Then two Belgian policemen appeared at either end of the gate and held up their hands. All traffic stopped. A man (we later learned that he was a town fireman) detached himself from the crowd, walked into the middle of the road, and raised a bugle to his lips. Mothers shushed their children, a couple in front of me clasped hands, an old man doffed his cap and held it to his breast. Silence. Then, under the echoing arch, the bugler commenced to play.
The tune was “The Last Post,” the British version of taps, and it went on and on, filling the gate with a keening sound that stretched our emotions taut until, at last, it quavered and broke. For long seconds no one moved. Then, with the men turned away from their families to hide their tears, the little crowd of military pilgrims slowly dispersed.
The ceremony at the Menin Gate is a gesture of perpetual remembrance from the Belgian people to the British, New Zealand, Australian, Indian, Maori, Canadian, and South African troops who fought and died here to make good on Britain’s promise to Belgium. From 1940 to 1944 Ypres was occupied by the Germans, w ho forbade any show of piety toward their British enemy. But at eight o’clock on the evening of the day the Germans left, “The Last Post" was played at the Menin Gate, and it has been played every evening since.
In a book kept in a kind of tabernacle inside the gate, visitors are invited to leave their names and nationalities and to comment on the ceremony. Not all of the visitors are British, and indeed I saw some German names, but most of them are. A Graham Vincent, of Edinburgh, wrote this: “Let us remember not so much those who gave their lives here as those whose lives were taken from them, and from that learn a lesson for the future.” Many visitors found that Kipling summed up their feelings; “Lest We Forget” appeared regularly in the comments column. But the mood of Menin was perhaps best caught by a woman who wrote, “Words are few, thoughts are deep.”
THERE ARE NO TRENCHES AROUND YPRES, BUT SHELL craters pock the wooded hills, and at intervals on the low Flanders plain, pillboxes loom up like so many cement haystacks. The Salient War Museum is on the town square, in the (doth Hall, which was built between 1260 and 1304, destroyed by German artillery between 1914 and 1918, and rebuilt with German reparations, mostly between the wars. There the visitor can obtain maps showing him what to see in the Ypres area. He can also buy a copy of Before Endeavors Fade, by Rose E. B. Coombs, M.B.E., an invaluable guidebook not only to Ypres but also to many other battlefields on the Western Front. We tried to follow Coombs’s detailed itineraries (“To return to the Ramparts and the moat; just beyond the cemetery, the walks meander over the corner bastion known as the Lion Tower which like the Lille Gate . . .”) but, frustrated, failed. Thereafter we confined ourselves to visiting the places where the soldiers fell—Polygon Wood, Messines Ridge, Mount Kemmel, Pilkem Ridge, and New Irish Farm, where “a number of Chinese Labour Corps are buried beneath the chestnut trees,”according to Rose Coombs. The British lost 908,371 men in the Great War, and most of them are buried in these Flanders cemeteries. By far the largest is Tyne Cot, a twenty-minute drive northeast of Ypres, near a village called Passchendaele.
Passchendaele “has come to be ... a synonym for military failure—a name black-bordered in the records of the British Army,” Basil Liddell Hart wrote of the British offensive fought between July 31 and November 4, 1917, and named for the village where, “in a porridge of mud,” it stalled. The motives behind the offensive give it a patina of plausibility. The French Army was near mutiny, having been pounded for nearly a year at Verdun and then decimated in a foolhardy April attack across the Chemin des Dames, far down the front from Flanders. A British drive out of the Ypres salient would lift enemy pressure on the French, giving them time to save their army before it melted away. Also, it would give the British the chance to seize the Belgian ports of Ostend and Zeebrugge, where there were large German submarine bases. Since the previous February the Germans had been conducting unrestricted submarine warfare from these bases—sinking one of every four ships leaving England—and the Admiralty feared that Britain might not be able to hold out through 1918 unless, somehow, the submarines were stopped.
Initially the British met with success. The longer the battle lasted, however, the more thoroughly did their artillery destroy the dikes and drainage systems of the tenuously reclaimed fields over which their infantry would have to attack. Worse, fall is the wet season in Flanders, and the sky poured rain. I nder such aquatic conditions the offensive slowed to a crawl and then stopped altogether. Seven miles of mud had been taken, at a cost of 300,000 casualties. “Good God. did we really send men to fight in that?” a British general exclaimed upon seeing the swamplike condition of the battlefield. Liddell Hart’s lapidary judgment on that comment applies equally to many other generals of the Great War: “If the exclamation was a credit to his heart it revealed on what a foundation of delusion and inexcusable ignorance” the British plan had been based.
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“They died in Hell, they called it Passchendaele,”Siegfried Sassoon wrote. Tyne Cot, once a suburb of this hell, is today a garden of death. Red and pink roses, lavender hydrangea, livid monkshood, exuberant daisies, orange gaillardia—each of the 12,000 gravestones is Hanked by these or other flowers. Behind the cemetery is a wheat field, across from it the first of many farms extending over the plain to the horizon, and the spire of Ypres Cathedral poking over the last hill. We got there in the late evening of a rain-washed day and watched as the westering sky turned a tortured red, with bruises of black and flashes of vellow showing through. To stand amid those flowers in that perfumed air and watch the slow guttering of the daylight made one feel as if Nature were in a conspiracy with Man to deny what had once gone on here. The loveliness of Tyne Cot is a sort of reaction formation against the memorv of hell. That is the aesthetic principle behind these British War Graves Commission cemeteries, or so I came to conclude. They are transfigurations of the terrible. They serve to remind us that the civilization said to have been destroyed by the Great War, that “old bitch gone in the teeth” of Ezra Pound’s bitter postwar poem, still remembers how to mask death with beauty.
That is one face of our civilization; the back wall of the Tyne Cot cemetery recalls another. It is a big wall, and it is inscribed with the names of thousands of soldiers to whom, in the words of the dedication, “the fortunes of war denied the known and honored burial given to their comrades in death.” That stately language is another mask. Those men have no individual graves because they were killed by means that obliterated them. What Wilfred Owen called “the monstrous anger of the guns” claimed far more victims than did bullets in the Great War. At the start of the Passchendaele offensive, for example, the British fired 4,500,000 artillery shells, and the German guns replied with a comparable prodigality. Men were dismembered, cut in half, punched into the earth by shells they often could not hear coming, fired by gunners they could not see. It was a spectacle of mass technological death, and it made courage as meaningless as mercy. The memory of this impersonal, inconceivably destructive violence is one of the Great War’s legacies—a permanent shudder in history.
In the visitor’s book at Tyne Cot someone has written, “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/in Flanders Fields.” But how, after all this time, can we keep faith with them? John McCrae’s poem, from which those lines are taken, also bids its readers, “ lake up our quarrel with the foe:/To you from failing hands we throw/The torch. . . .” That appeal meant something while the war still raged, but not now. What foe should we take up arms against? And what are we to do with the torch?
WE CAME TO EUROPE TO SEE “THE TRENCHES”; I even had the droll notion of spending a day walking a length of them. That, I discovered, is not possible. Seventy years of farming in the meticulous French manner, of road-building and town-extending and city-reconstructing, have combined with the destruction wrought by the tank battles and the aerial bombings of the Second World War to expunge the trench system of the Great War. Still, in a few places bits of the trenches have been restored—at Vimy Ridge, for instance.
Vimy Ridge is a spectacular and, for parents traveling with a small child, frightening battlefield to visit. It lies perhaps thirty miles down the front from Ypres, just north of Arras, in the department of Artois. To quote Rose Coombs, Vimy Ridge is today “preserved and owned in perpetuity by Canada,” for it was Canadian troops who, on April 9, 1917, stormed and seized it.
Vimy Ridge nicely illustrates the strategic problem faced by the Allies from November of 1914 to March of 1918, when the Germans stood on the defensive and the Allies mounted attack after attack—at Ypres, Loos, the Somme, Lens, Arras, La Bassee, Neuve Chapelle — against a trench barrier that daily grew thicker, as more and yet more trenches were dug behind the front line. During an Allied bombardment the Germans would withdraw from the front trenches by means of communications trenches and scuttle to the comparative security of the rear trenches, or they would burrow into dugouts thirty feet deep and wait out the shelling in safety. The shelling over, they would clamber up from the dugouts or race down the communication trenches and be ready to machine-gun the advancing waves of British infantry. Thus the pattern of stalemate—and slaughter.
Winston Churchill summed up the Allied dilemma in a war memorandum: “We must, therefore, either find another theatre or another method.”That is, either the Allies had to go around the trench barrier or they had to devise a way to break through it. Churchill’s Dardanelles expedition was an attempt to find another theater; it failed. So did the new method of poison gas. Introduced by the Germans at Ypres in 1915, it was quickly copied by the British and as quickly neutralized by their enemy. The method that finally broke the trench barrier was, of course, the armored tank. But that deliverance was not fully matured until 1918. Meanwhile, other methods were tried.
At Vimy Ridge the Canadians had miners dig up to the German front trench, place heavy explosives beneath it, and then blow it up at the moment of attack. The mining worked: the Canadians achieved a complete tactical victory (which they were unable to exploit into a strategic breakthrough, however). Today two enormous mine craters, perhaps fifty feet deep and a hundred feet wide, testify to the success of this new method. My son and I scrambled tip and down those craters for what seemed like hours one hot August afternoon. From then on, for the rest of the trip, at the most inconvenient times, he would demand to see another “craber,”until, exasperated, I gave in.
Vimy Ridge can also be recommended for its opposing rows of restored trenches, so close that you could hear your enemy sigh, and for the Canadian Memorial on the flank of the ridge opposite the trenches, an easy ten-minute walk away through the intervening Memorial Park. To keep the grass in the park clipped, the Canadians allow goats to roam free behind a wire fence. Do not try to feed the goats—the fence is electrified. “It’s raining,” my son said as he felt the mild charge of the wire against his flesh. We didn’t know what he was talking about until we brushed against it ourselves.
But that is the least of the dangers in the park: the woods are liberally strewn with unexploded gas and artillery shells, and red signs phrased in the imperative mood of several languages warn visitors to stay on the road. “To you . . . we throw/The torch” — but who would have guessed that the flame would still be burning so many years later?
The Canadian Memorial is a huge, grandiloquent sculpture. Part abstract design, part figurative rendering, it shows the Spirit of Canada weeping for her dead sons. Placed at the crest of a bare, steep ridge, the memorial commands panoramic views of the Scarpe Valley, the Douai Plain, and the coalfields and slag heaps around Lens. It is girdled by an ample meadow pocked with shell holes —and is out of bounds because of unexploded shells.
One of Kipling’s “Epitaphs of the War” is a memorial to Canada: From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame.
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won for you to keep!
Again that familiar note: We must give meaning to their sacrifice.
Canada lost 66,655 men in the Great War. Kipling lost his son.
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THE CANADIAN DEAD WERE IN OUR THOUGHTS AS WE drove away from Vimy Ridge, and so were those Germans blown out of an April morning by the Canadian mines. Earlier we had visited the German cemetery at Neuville St. Vaast and looked out over 37,000 graves, row’s of black metal crosses with many Stars of David breaking the symmetry. Less than a half mile away was a British cemetery; beyond it a billowing tricolor marked the location of a French cemetery. Divided in life, united in death—you couldn’t help thinking in such Family of Man clichés; you couldn’t help being moved, either.
In the visitor’s book at the German cemetery someone had written: “When you are visiting your dead hero’s grave/Remember too the German soldiers/Who wrere loyal and brave.” See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation. . . . This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not fora long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancee, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in I nter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. . . . This was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. . . . All my beautiful lovely safe world blew itself up here with a great gust of high explosive love.
Indeed they were. Germany had staked everything on the one big war-opening battle. When that failed, its chances of winning disappeared. It could not hope to prevail in a prolonged two-front war (Russia was a combatant right up until 1918), for the Allied blockade would slowly cut the muscles of the German war effort. Yet the soldiers held on, serving with a loyalty that their leaders, the criminally stupid Kaiser, and Ludendorif the Nazi-to-be, did not deserve. Germany lost 1,800,000 men in the Great War.
IN Diver K. SCOTT and some FITZGERALD’S of his friends TENDER take IS time THE out NIGHT, from their DICK strenuous dissipations in Paris to drive to a Great War battlefield far to the northeast of the city. Caught up in the mood of the still-ravaged land (the time is the 1920s), Diver delivers himself of this remarkable speech:
Notice the distinction Diver makes between “first Marne” and “this western-front business.” The former belonged to the brief weeks of the war of motion, the latter to the four years of the war of stalemate. In Diver’s mind the essence of the Creat War lies in the classic Western Front battle fought in the place that he and his friends have driv - en to visit. It began on July 1, 1916, and though its official designation is the Battle of Albert, to almost everybody by now it is known as the Somme, after the river that flows nearby.
Dick Diver lays a rare stress on the affective psychology of the soldiers who fought in the Somme, on their capacity to be linked by memory to love. He is on to something big here, another legacy of the Great War. Students of mass conformity, of fascism and totalitarianism, of nationalism and patriotism, could profitably confront the Somme with a disturbing question: What made them do it?
“It” was to march, in an orderly way, rank by rank, column by column, to their death. That is what 20,000 British soldiers did on July 1, most of them falling between 7:30 and 8:30 A.M., the taste of tea and bacon still fresh on their lips. They got out of their trenches and marched to their death, or to some form of mutilation—total casualties for July 1 came to 60,000. They had been told that the German trenches facing them, uphill, in the hard clay ground of Picardy would be cleared of the enemy. At worst they would be lined with dazed and dying soldiers, victims of the tremendous, days-long British artillery barrage. Instead the trenches were full of machine gunners, who had sat out the barrage in deep “bomb proofs.”Methodically these gunners raked the British formations. Methodically new formations set out, were shot down in no-man’s-land, were replaced by other formations, and so on, turn and turn about, through the long day.
North of Albert, near the village of Beaumont-Hamel, is the Newfoundland Memorial Park. You can stand in the restored British trenches there, look 500 yards across to the German trenches, and ask yourself if you could do what the 752 members of the Newfoundland regiment did on July 1—attack across that piece of ground. Private F. H. Cameron, of the 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who had been wounded in an earlier assault on the German position, lax in no-man’s-land watching the regiment attack. “On came the New foundlanders, a great body of men, but the fire intensified and they were wiped out in front of my eyes. I cursed the generals for their useless slaughter.”The attack lasted forty minutes, and fully 91 percent of the Newfoundlanders were shot down in it.
“You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment"—that or be mad, I thought, as my son and I scuttled across no-man’s-land at the Newfoundland Park one afternoon. We got halfway, climbing up and down the gullevs and shell holes and swales where the Pommies had tried to hide from the killing fire, and then started back, my son waving to my wife, who sat on the parapet of the German trenches, waving back. We mix love and obedience in our children’s psyches, making them susceptible to authority—fearing it, identifying with it, wanting its approval. So it’s no Lise putting all the blame for a slaughter like the Somme on the State; we soften our children up for
the kill by weakening their will to rebel with mithridatic doses of guilt. Obedience to authority is a liability of our natures, and the Newfoundland Memorial is one of its monuments.
We drove away in low spirits. Next stop, ChateauThierrv.
To C;KT TO TIU-; AMERICAN SKCTOR OK THE WAR from the Somme battlefields you drive east and then south, down the valley of the Marne. The drive east, from Albert to Peronne, is very beautiful. The road runs along the high ground and offers generous view s of the French countryside. Every few miles you pass a British cemetery. The introductions to the registers of these cemeteries, it is useful to know, contain brief histories of the fighting in the area. Some of the funerary monuments are impressive, others “hideous, but done in good faith,” as one visitor wrote of the Thiepval Monument.
From Peronne you drive through St. Quentin, with its monuments commemorating the American assault on the Hindenburg Line; past Laon, where you can still see the emplacement of the great German gun that lobbed shells over fifty air miles into Paris; and then through Soissons and on into Chateau-Thierrv. Here, in June of 1918, in front of this provincial city nestled in a bend of the Marne, the raw American Army and Marines stopped Ludendorff’s lunge for Paris. Of 310,000 U.S. soldiers engaged, 67,000 became casualties. A rather fascistic white monument, but done in good faith, honors the American dead. Set on a bluff overlooking the Marne Valley and the Champagne country beyond, it includes a relief map depicting where the fighting took place. The names of the battles—Crimpetes Wood, Vaux, Fismes, Missy-auxBois—were all unfamiliar to me, except one.
The Bois de Belleau—Belleau Wood—ranks with Gettysburg and Omaha Beach as one of the great place-names in American military history. Lying perhaps a dozen miles outside of Chateau-Thierrv, deep in the country, Belleau Wood is today the site of a surpassingly lovely cemetery, its large white crosses and Stars of David arrayed in graceful curving lines, its grass rich and well cared for, its stands of roses huge and, against that white and bright green background, passionately vermillion. Behind the cemetery one can walk in the Bois, which contains numerous guns and plaques recording acts, usually fatal, of Marine valor. Altogether, the cemetery makes one proud to belong to a country that can afford to honor its dead with such tasteful munificence.
Just down the hill is the hamlet of Belleau, and there, on the lawn of a tiny park across from the mairie, we had a picnic. The scene was beckoningly pastoral. Five or six dun-colored stucco farmhouses, with red tiled roots and green shutters, filled the foreground. Behind us was an apple orchard, in the middle distance a hill speckled with black and white cows. It was as if we had stepped out of history and into art—a painting by Cezanne, say.
By the side of the road was a rustic water pump, the sort of humble prop that lends pathos and authenticity to French landscape paintings. Close inspection revealed it to be a gift to Belleau from a Pennsylvania regiment. So much for escaping from history.
North from Chateau-Thierrv, on Route 380, the views are delightful, the tiny villes so many brief and charming anecdotes. On one side for much of the trip is the valley of the Marne, steep and serpentine; on the other are the lush wheat fields and arching arbors of the Champagne country. On a high point of the road just beyond Bligny sits a rare sight on the Western Front—an Italian cemetery. Buried there are 5,000 Italian soldiers who, in the words of a nearby monument, died “pour la France 1914—1918.” The main pathway through the cemetery, paved with round white pebbles and bordered with tall cedar bushes, might be an old Roman road. The setting is deeply Italian in feeling. Across Route 380 are more graves and another novel sight. Walking through this cemetery annex, I noticed the familiar shell welts scalloping the surrounding ground. A vagrant impulse led me to leap the wall and make my way to an adjacent copse. There I was startled to find an old rusting cannon: ”1916 Fried. Krupp,” it said on the breech. The barrel was grotesquely bent back, the way gun barrels are in cartoons. Had a shell hit it head on, or had it been spiked by the Germans to keep it from falling into enemy hands?
In Reims there is the cathedral to see, the champagne cellars to tour (no samples), and the military museum at Fort Pompenelle to visit. West of Reims is the battlefield of the Chemin des Dames, scene of epic butcheries; east of it the Argonne Forest and Verdun. We took the road east.
THE SHOCK OF THE I.FDENDOKFF OFFENSIVE IN THE spring of 1918 caused the Allies to reform their command structure. A generalissimo of all the armies was appointed to coordinate the Allied counteroffensive. He was Marshal Foch, and it fell to him to give orders to the British and American generals under his command. John J. Pershing among them. The relationship of these two commanders did not go smoothly.
Pershing wanted to command an independent American army in the field, Foch to parcel out the American div isions to fill the gaps in the French ranks. Foch’s motivation, historians speculate, was as much political as military. In the summer of 1918, with Germany’s defeat now only a question of time, the French feared that an American army crow ned with triumphs might enhance President Woodrow Wilson’s bargaining position at the inevitable peace conference—might even give him the leverage to write his too-generous Fourteen Points into a treaty with the hated Boche. In the event, Pershing won the argument with Foch, but only after agreeing to attack with his independent army at a site of Foch’s choosing. This was the Argonne Forest, where Pershing’s army came to grief.
Driving into the Argonne off the A-4. which runs between Reims and Verdun, you can glimpse something of Pershing’s problem. Here is no bois but a teeming fecundity of tall trees and dense undergrowth. The Allies had never dared to attack through the Argonne, leav ing the Germans four unharassed years to construct defenses twelve miles deep. It is no wonder that the cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaueon, deep in the Argonne, is the largest American military cemetery in Europe, containing the remains of 14,246 soldiers.
Opened on September 26, 1918, Pershing’s attack soon stalled. His troops, most of whom had been drafted just two months before, were so green that old-timers were charging as much as five dollars to show them how to load their rifies.
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In the dark woods, following Pershing’s order to push ahead “without regard of losses and without regard to the exposed conditions of the flanks,” units quickly became cut off from each other. One, the 1st Battalion of the 308th Infantry, was lost for five days. After word leaked to the press, “The Lost Battalion" became front-page news in America, as well as an embarrassment to Pershing. Subject to ferocious German counterattacks—spearheaded by flamethrowers—the battalion held its ground, encircled and depleted but game. Through a captured doughboy the Germans demanded the battalion’s surrender. Its commander. Major Charles Whittlesey, refused. Immediately he did so, a shout went up from the American foxholes: “You Heinie bastards, come and get us!" Which they did. However, thanks to the flight of its only remaining carrier pigeon, Cher Ami, the lost battalion had at last been found, and relief was quick in coming.
Cher Ami became a national hero; after his death, a year later, he was stuffed, and today he is on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. Major Whittlesey was awarded a Medal of Honor, but that was not enough to heal his scars. In November of 1921 he jumped off a ship headed for Cuba. One of his business associates later told reporters, “He was a victim engulfed in a sea of woe. He would go to two or three funerals every week, and visit the wounded in the hospitals, and try to comfort the relatives of the dead.”
Not all went badly for the Americans in the Argonne, and closer to the Meuse River you can see plaques and monuments to their victories; the roads secured, bridges taken, villages liberated—Varennes-en-Argonne, for example. A tank attack led by the young George Patton freed this v illage in September, 1918. Yarennes now boasts a first-rate military museum, featuring photographs of the Argonne fighting and, in a cabinet of curios, a snapshot of Captain Harry Truman, who commanded an artillery battery here. Outside the museum is a bosky park leading to a modest yet majestic plaza, through which we had to walk to get to our car. Children rode their bicycles in circles on the plaza while their parents and grandparents sat on its walls talking and laughing—and our hearts swelled when we saw a plaque say ing that the plaza was a gift from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Surely these Ardennois, happy and free, are what men like Major Whittlesey were fighting for. If only he could come back today to see what their suffering had made possible—the tranquil life of this forest village—the demons of his memory might be stilled, allowing him, a very old man, to die at peace with himself. Peace: Varennes-en-Argonne reminds us that sometimes it must be won.
We PICNICKED IN THE TOWN FOREST OF VERDI N, in a little clearing between the road and the woods. My son had no appetite for lunch. He preferred to climb up the bank leading to the woods. I ran after him—and shivered at what I saw. Beneath the thick overhang of branch and bush the ground was gouged with deep holes, like the face of a leper under his beard. The holes were filled halfway Lip with stagnant water, and trees grew out of them at grotesque angles. Seventy years ago this forest was cruelly punished in a ferocious battle from which neither it nor the French nation has fully recovered.
I make a poor guide to Verdun. The place depressed me. You have to be French to know how to respond to it. Or so I concluded as I watched the French tourists who swarmed over its monuments and crowded its museums.
They seem awestruck, as if Verdun were a kind of Lourdes without the miracles. In the hallways of Fort Douaumont, window less and lit by yellow light, they shuffle by with the stricken air of mourners at the funeral of someone very dear. They mourn the death not so much of heroes as of heroism. Brave men fought and died here, pour la France. From the observation tower on Fort Douaumont you can look down on the forested hills to where the noble Colonel Driant held out to the last against the Germans’savage opening attack. For generations after the battle every French schoolboy honored his name. To the west lie the ruins of Fort Yaux, where Commandant Ravnal and his fevv-score men fought for days against thousands of storm troopers. Ravnal, too, is a national hero. Perhaps because the commanding general at Verdun was Henri Retain, who dishonored his fame by collaborating with the Nazis during the Second World War, Verdun is remembered not for its commander but for the valor and more: the stoicism in adversity of its ordinary soldiers. Yet the cult of Driant, Raynal, and the others like them serves less to reveal what life was like for the poilu. the common French fighting man, than to mask the reality of Verdun. More than Passchendaele, more than the Somme, Verdun shows the essential irrelevance of the martial ideal in the world of industrial warfare. It was shell against flesh here, and the bodies lay thick upon the ground. In his splendid book The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916, Alistair Horne wrote: “The compressed area of the battlefield became an open cemetery in which every square foot contained some decomposed piece of flesh.” A nation can’t raise its sons to courage on such images. Hence the necessity of men like Driant and Raynal. If they did not exist, France would have had to invent them.
An infernal strategic logic lay behind the carnage of Verdun. In December of 1915 Erich von Falkenhavn, the German commander on the Western Front, submitted a memorandum to the Kaiser sketching out a plan of victory. Germany would lure the French Army into defending a position “for the retention of which the French General Staff would be compelled to throw in every man they have. If they do so the forces of France will bleed to death. . . .” Since France was “England’s best sword,” a defeat of France would compel England to capitulate. Alistair Horne wrote: “Falkenhayn’s memorandum made military history. Never through the ages had any great commander or strategist proposed to vanquish an enemy by gradually bleeding him to death.” The old fortified city of Verdun was picked for this macabre experiment because it lay in a salient all but surrounded by German forces. Also, because its forts were thought to be impregnable, French morale would be irretrievably dashed if Verdun should fall.
Falkenhayn’s strategy nearly worked. The French rotated seven tenths of their army through the meat grinder of Verdun. A colonel’s order to his regiment gives the deathheavy flavor of the battle: “You have a mission of sacrifice. . . . On the day they want to, they will massacre you to the last man, and it is your duty to fall.” The losses on both sides were appalling—perhaps a million and a quarter casualties in all. (The ossuaire at Verdun is full of the bones of the 150,000 unidentified and unburied corpses.) In short, Verdun was a demographic catastrophe for France. Yet, following Retains famous order “Ils ne passeront pas!” the French Army held Verdun for the ten months of the battle—an epic of courage and endurance but not of victory. The standoff of Verdun, in the words of Alistair Horne, “was the indecisive battle in an indecisive war; the unnecessary battle in an unnecessary war; the battle that had no victors in a war that had no victors.”
We traveled beyond Verdun, down into the plains of Lorraine, which, in the summer of 1914, were carpeted with the corpses of French soldiers; follow ing the doctrine of “offensivea outranced they had charged the hungry German machine guns with their bayonets fixed, their scarlet pantaloons billowing in the breeze of their rush. We had thought to drive on, through the high Vosges, where French chasseurs and German Alpine troops had fought a mountain war, and then down the valley of the Moselle, past the strong points ofEpinal and Belfort, which Falkenhavn had considered attacking instead of Verdun, to Besanyon and the end of the front a’t the Sw iss border. That was our plan. But time pressed, the skies poured rain, and the grim spell of Verdun failed to release us from its grip. We cut short our trip and returned to Paris. Before we left France, I wanted to tour Versailles, where the Allies wrote the script for the Second World War, the vilest legacy of a Great War so ripe with evils.
We share a kinship of hazard with the soldiers of the trenches, living as we do under what President John F. Kennedy called a “nuclear sword of Damocles,” which may fall on us at any moment as the shells fell on them. Their helplessness before their fate prefigures ours, or so we brood when we despair of ever making the world safe not for democracy but, this time, for life itself.
“On or about December 1910 human nature changed.”
The date is off by four years. Still, Virginia Woolf’s pensee captures the sense of one world dying in the years of the Great War and another being born—one cruder and without security. Only a year into the war a Belgian poet, speaking of himself in the third person, dedicated a book on the invasion of his country with these words: “With emotion, to the man he used to be.” He changed, we changed, somewhere along the Western Front. □