I’ve been to a lot of battlefields: from the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Most are neatly marked with “this thing happened here” or “Robert E. Lee’s horse drank from a puddle here.” I’ve even been to a few from the Soviet-Afghan War and Operation Enduring Freedom, although I saw those less by choice and more out of necessity, and they lacked any type of interpretive signage other than “This is a no-salute area” and “Do not stand on the seat to go to the bathroom.” Until this past week, I’d never seen a World War I battlefield.
As some of you may know, we’re in the middle of the World War I Centenary. It’s been 100 years since the world went entirely mad with killing, and millions died in circumstances nearly too horrible to even imagine. It’s a war that bears remembering, for it happened far too easily and swiftly for comfort. And although those who began the war have blood on their hands, the men who lived and fought provide us examples of heroism, courage, and determination.
Which is why, on a three day trip to Paris, I chose to take one day and make a trip out to Chateau-Thierry, a smallish French city about an hour east of Paris by train. Why here? Because Chateau-Thierry and its environs were the site of some of the nastiest fighting that the American Expeditionary Force faced in the summer of 1918. And also because it was close enough to Paris for a day trip; pragmatism, people.
Arriving at the Chateau-Thierry railway station in the morning fog, I detrained upon the same platform where wounded soldiers and Marines from the 2nd Division were cared for 98 years ago.
The platform is little changed to this day, minus the grim, still forms. I met my guide for the day here, Gilles Lagin, who is a fantastic tour guide. He is so marvelous that the Commandant of the Marines Corps has made him an honorary Marine for his work preserving the battlefield at Belleau Wood. Hopping into Gilles trusty Mercedes 4×4, we sped off to our first stop, the Aisne-Marne American battle monument. Situated on the hills above Chateau-Thierry, the monument is…impressive, to say the least.
A brief note on the battle: the Aisne-Marne Offensive, also called the Second Battle of the Marne, was the fight that drove the nail in Germany’s coffin. The German summer offensive had failed to break the Allied lines; they had bent, to be sure, but they did not break. On July 18, 1918, General Ferdinand Foch unleashed a massive Allied attack against the German “bulge” near the Marne. In three weeks of heavy combat, the Allies drove the Germans back and took the offensive momentum, which they would retain until the end of the war. So, if you remember anything, remember that the Aisne-Marne was the beginning of the end. And remember that the Americans and French fought side-by-side.
The front of the monument shows the majestic American eagle, of course, while the names of the individual fights that made up the Aisne-Marne Offensive ring the top. On the reverse (second photo from the top) stand representations of the United States and France, joined together in solidarity. It’s a pretty heady monument.
But that wasn’t why I’d come, and Gilles knew it: I’d come to see where the New Englanders of the 26th “Yankee” Division had fought and bled from July 18-25. We set off into some of the loveliest French countryside one could ever wish to see, under a brilliantly blue sky. Our first stop was on the edge of a forest. Here, the men of the 103rd Infantry Regiment had replaced the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments on the night of July 4, 1918. The Marines had been through hell, literally, having broken the German offensive with the rifle and bayonet. The men of the 103rd – National Guardsmen from Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont – lay out in this field for days, with no cover, and under constant artillery fire and gassing. Over 26,000 gas shells fell on the 26th Division between July 5-15.
On July 17, the three battalions in the 103rd Infantry received their orders for the next day: they were to finally make an assault. The night of July 17 was marked by a pouring rain that soaked the men, who struggled to get into position with their heavy packs and equipment. The men of the 3rd Battalion made their way through these woods to reach their jumping off point.
World War I ended only 98 years ago. When my guide, Gilles, developed an interest in the war as a child, there were still plenty of veterans alive to talk to. Over thirty years of studying the battlefield, Gilles has a quick eye to spot old trenchlines or dugouts.
On the way back to the car, he casually pointed out these two well-preserved dugouts. A good dugout could mean life or death for a soldier or Marine. This sector had been nicknamed the “Pas Fini” – Unfinished – Sector. Unlike much of the rest of the line, there were no elaborate trenchworks. No one had time to dig any; they had been too busy killing and dying.
We drove out of the woods, skirting the ravine where the 3rd Battalion had prepped before their assault. The day was so lovely that it defied any thoughts of death. And yet, over these fields and wounds, thousands had died, and tens of thousands had been maimed. It is something I have always felt as surreal, when visiting battlefields, and perhaps since this one had changed so little in 98 years, I felt it even more.
It is one thing to study a battle on maps. It is another thing entirely to to walk the ground. I had been all over this battlefield on original maps and even on Google Earth. I was shocked to see the rolling ground in what I had assumed was a flat land. The terrain tossed itself in ridges and humps across the horizon, and all of a sudden, the battle plan made sense. The 26th Division, with the French 164th and 167th Divisions on its left flank, was to seize the sweeping high ground above Chateau-Thierry and drive inwards. The target for the 3rd Battalion, 103rd Infantry, was the little village of Torcy, which you can see on the left, below. To the right lies the town of Belleau, also along a ridgeline. And behind them rises the wooded crest of Hill 193. Terrain is all-important in battle, and Hill 193 proved to be the key to the whole position.
We drove down into the ravine and drew to a stop near a pen of cattle, who viewed us with vague interest. Tromping into the woods, we came across small signs of battle: shell holes, entrenchments. We rose above the crest and stood along the newly sprouted stalks of wheat. By July, this will be a tall and fruitful harvest, just as it was in 1918. Except the wheat fields of 1918 were swept by machine gun fire and strewn with the detritus of war. From this spot, we could see where the 3rd Battalion went over the top at 0435 on July 18 and executed a flanking movement on the village of Torcy, near where the trees are today.
The assault on Torcy was textbook. The troops followed a quick barrage and were in the town before the Germans could react. You can see this same terrain in the photos below.
We drove up towards Torcy, stopping for a moment before we entered the back of the town (left). From here we could see the rising blackness of Belleau Wood (center, rear) and the open fields and woods to the right where the 103rd Infantry had sat for two weeks.
Left of the town rose the commanding height of Hill 193, visible below, crowned with trees. It was relatively bare in 1918, affording the German gunners a perfect line of site on everything happening in the valley below.
We drove on, into Torcy. Gilles told me only three buildings of the original town survived the war: the church, city hall, and a solid French farm. Everything else was rubble. The church had to be rebuilt, as can be seen from the comparison of photos below.
The green grass and deep blue sky stood in stark contrast to the war-torn version of this town I was used to seeing in photographs, such as the one below.
After taking the town, the Doughboys pressed on to the edge, down into the valley, where they seized a railroad line. Gilles pointed out to me where the track would have run, and then pointed up at Hill 193. It stopped the Yankees cold.
We drove back up through the town, Gilles relating how he developed a passion for World War I and the American experience since he was a nine-year old boy. His roots in the countryside run deep. He showed me the town hall, pock-marked with bullet holes from the battle, yet standing still.
From here, we drove out of town and up the back roads to the summit of Hill 193. On July 18, the 3rd Battalion had taken Torcy and pushed patrols into Belleau, which was taken by the 104th Infantry later in the morning. Based on the battle plan, the two regiments could advance no further until the French 164th Division pushed the Germans off Hill 193. But the French were having a hard time of it facing the hill, and the 164th could not advance until the French 167th Division on their left broke through.
From the summit of Hill 193, the Germans could have seen all of this. As you can tell from the picture below, they had perfect visibility on anything the Allies were doing.
It was the French 174th Infantry Regiment that finally broke through on July 21, Gilles told me. He pointed out a marker where a French lieutenant had fallen alongside his men, in the final charge on the German machine gun nests. He shook his head at the thought of the carnage of the war.
Just inside a little copse of trees near the summit of the hill were a line of entrenchments, still easily visible after a hundred years. Shellholes marked the earth nearby. This marked the last German position on Hill 193.
We drove back down the hill, Gilles relating local politics and history to me as we went. He was a marvelous guide; he specializes in reuniting family members of service men who fought in the Aisne-Marne with the battlefield. He will comb the record books to find out where their ancestors were in the battle, and then lead the family members through in their footsteps.
Our next stop was at the far right of Belleau Wood. As the 3rd Battalion was taking Torcy, the 2nd Battalion was trying to get into position for its attack along the right. Guides got lost in the dense woods, the rain confused everyone, and so the battalion was late getting to its jumping off point.
We walked over the trenchline that zig-zagged its way through the woods. I tried to think of what young Captain Hosford, then commanding the battalion, was thinking as he stood there, viewing the long expanse of open ground his men would have to cross.
At 0730, the 2nd Battalion had their barrage repeated, and then rushed out of Belleau Wood towards the railroad track in the valley below.
We drove out, down the route of the 2nd Battalion’s attack, crossed the stream, and then parked on the opposite slope. From here we could look back and see Belleau Wood and the wheatfields the 2nd Battalion swept through, down into the valley.
They didn’t make it further than the railroad track. Machine gun fire from Hill 190 to their front, Hill 193 to their left, and the weatfields around Bouresches to their right kept them pinned down all day. The Doughboys tried to advance, but were badly cut up. Private George Dilboy, of Company H, attempted to take out a German machine gun nest on his own. He did, killing two Germans and causing the rest to flee, but at the cost of his own life. He fell mortally wounded somewhere in this area; he was later awarded the Medal of Honor, the first National Guardsman to receive that prestigious award in World War I.
The war is ever present. In the spring, when farmers till their fields, brown lumps appear on the surface. These are bits of shells. The lead French shrapnel balls have turned a milky white color, making them stand out against the tilled earth.
We drive up to our last battle position of the day: Hill 190. On the evening of July 18, the 2nd Battalion pulled back from the railroad track; they could not reinforce or resupply, so Captain Hosford led his men back. On the morning of July 19, the 2nd Battalion was replaced by the 1st Battalion, still on the edge of Belleau Wood. No one did much of anything on July 19, as the 3rd Battalion was still pinned by Hill 193 and the French were trying to work in from the flank.
On the morning of July 20, the 1st Battalion assaulted Hill 190. Company C led the way, followed by Company B, out through the open wheat fields, bayonets gleaming in the sun. They crossed the railroad and started up the slope, when suddenly the lines of German machine guns opened up on them, mowing them down. Within a matter of seconds, Company B was now leading the attack. Companies A and D were badly cut up in the initial advance and did not make it to the top of the hill until nightfall. All day long, small groups of Yankees led by sergeants and lieutenants worked their way up Hill 190, outflanking machine gun nests and working their way forward. By nightfall, the hill was in U.S. hands. But Major James Hanson, commanding the 1st Battalion, had only 200 men left, out of the approximately 900 he began with.
We stood on Hill 190 and gazed out over the ground over which the 1st Battalion attacked. German machine guns were said to have been spaced about every seven yards from each other, and had expended all their ammunition by the time they were captured. That attack must have been hell.
This was the end of my battlefield tour, for time’s sake. It was by no means the end for the 103rd Infantry and the 26th Division. They fought on until July 25, seizing twelve kilometers of ground and losing thousands of men. It was a bloodletting, plain and simple.
Lastly, we stopped down at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Inside the chapel are inscribed the names of the missing, as the flags of the U.S. divisions engaged flank the altar.
We walked together up the steep slope behind the chapel, and looked down on the cemetery, the town of Belleau beyond, and the indomitable Hill 193.
This was the view from this spot in 1918. Belleau Wood was a horror.
Below is where the Marines made their final push and ended their drive, retaking Belleau Wood, back in June of 1918. In gratefulness to their bravery, the French renamed the whole place the “Bois de le Brigade de Marine,” or “The Woods of the Marine Brigade” and gifted the land to the United States.
We walked back down into the quiet rows of crosses: the final resting place of thousands of U.S. Soldiers and Marines.
Crossing over the road, we paid a visit to the Belleau church, which was restored by donations from the 26th Division after the war. The 26th Division’s commander, Major General Clarence Edwards, did not get along well with General Pershing. In fact, Pershing had Edwards removed from command about a month and a half before the Armistice. So it is no coincidence that the Yankee Division church stands just opposite the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, which Pershing helped design.
You have to get the key to the church from the cemetery caretakers. It is worth a visit. All the 26th Division’s war dead from the battle are listed on the walls inside the church and stained glass windows tell the story of the partnership between American and French soldiers.
From the center hang all the flags of the New England states, as a reminder that the Army was here too; the Marines and the regular Soldiers of the 2nd Division may have started it, but the National Guardsmen of the 26th Division, 42nd Division, and 28th Division finished it.
And with that, I was done. Gilles dropped me off at the station and I was off to Paris again. It was hard to shake the feeling of what I had seen. It was a landscape still scarred by war, a war that most Americans know little to nothing about. Yet I had walked over ground that had been soaked with American blood and seen the thousands of graves of young Americans who would never see home. The stubborn French mud still clung to my shoes, in a mute reminder of the travails of the Doughboys. Was their sacrifice in vain?
I am continuously drawn back in my mind to those sun-filled fields and woods, where farmers till in peace and raise their families with no fear of war. No, their sacrifice was not in vain. I think if the dead buried in the Aisne-Marne Cemetery could rise from their graves, just for an hour, and their eternally young forms stroll the hills and streams and woods, the sight of peace and tranquility would bring them comfort.
For in the end, they were victorious. And we must never forget them.
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5 Replies to “Walking a World War I Battlefield”
Thank you for the tremendous read. I particularly enjoyed your moment of understanding the plan as you put the plan and the terrain together. This is something all Soldiers all do…that moment of epiphany may serve in a future operation.
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WW1 battlefields are especially powerful. I’ve visited a few over the years. The true horror of war hits you when you walk through the cemeteries with their endless white headstones. I visited the Somme about 20 years ago with a friend who is now a Lt.Col. We were both well read and he’d even lost a soldier from his platoon in NI (and some in GW1, although he wasn’t with them there).
Intellectually we knew about the casualties, so the first cemetery with thousands of graves wasn’t a shock. Nor was the second or the third, all within a mile or so of each other. As we got into the afternoon (we had a whole week of battlefield tours, starting with Eben Emael and working back to the Somme) we began to realise that the whole place was covered in graves. There were tens of thousands in a few miles radius. It really brought home the scale of the slaughter.
The lines of sight were something else too, it explained why certain small patches of ground had been intensely fought over. If you stood on it you could see everything for miles around. There were areas not much larger than football fields that had seen hundreds of deaths.
It’s amazingly powerful. So much so that now RMA Sandhurst has made it a mandatory part of the course for all regular officers.
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Great piece on your findings. As bad as it must have been to be a private, I can’t imagine facing Maj. Hanson’s burden of losing almost 700 men.
Dan Carlin does a podcast called “Hardcore History”. He just completed an extensive piece on the First World War called “Countdown to Armageddon”. It was very informative and entertaining, for anyone interested in a comprehensive overview of the conflict.
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Thanks so much for the history lesson. Your writing did the brave soldiers of America and France a service. They are never to be forgotten.
My Grandfather trained for WWI as a young man and the war ended before he could be shipped off to Europe. His flag sits in a place of honor in our home. I was never able to ask him how he felt about his time in the US Army as he prepared for battle, but it must have been a mixture of bravery and fear.
Thanks again and my kids will all read this article.
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I live in Meaux (30 miles from Belleau Wood). Your story sums up the feelings I have every time I visit this battlefield (I visited it for the first time in 1986 when I was 15). Very good work.
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