Dispatches From the Front
A 2015 Battlefield Tour Journal - Sept. 25 - Oct. 3, 2015
Imperial German Army on the Western Front
Following previous successful ventures to the Great War battlefields of the Western Front and Gallipoli the time arrived to study the German soldier’s experiences on the Western Front for the National World War I Museum and Memorial's 2015 Battlefield Tour. This fresh and original concept for a tour focused on the story of the Imperial German Army and their actions on the Vosges, Verdun, Cambrai and the Hindenburg Line. The tour used official German accounts, British and French evaluations of the German Army, and was punctuated by a wealth of personal accounts and anecdotes from the time.
Join us each day as Museum Curator of Education Lora Vogt provides a glimpse of experiencing the Museum's latest tour of the German Western Front.
The business of everyday life encourages us to separate history from its geographic places. We do it daily in our own cities, busily passing buildings - or if you're me walking into a national memorial- thinking about the to-do lists and projects ahead.
Thousands of miles vanished beneath a 747's wings to bring me into Paris - a city that is known for its lights and love, but gave its name to the peace treaty of the World War. Beyond the Louvre, the Touilleries, even Versailles... there are millions of World War I stories that were lived and many that we are lucky enough to have archived at the National WWI Museum and Memorial.
With an iPad full of photos from our Edward Jones Research Center, an afternoon and a little help from Google, I found myself standing still on the corner of a wide avenue humming with traffic and tourists, staring intently at a bustling and beautiful neoclassical hotel... that nearly one-hundred years ago was fluttering with American flags as the U.S. Red Cross Headquarters. I've worked with an international team that researched stories of American volunteerism for the past three years in preparation for our upcoming 2016 exhibition. But standing there, that was something else entirely - that moment when history and place collide in the conscious - it causes a deep breath and a pause to consider the very footsteps of the lives that went before me. And this is just the beginning.
For the next eight days, I have the amazing opportunity to join others in putting down the reading and exploring the very real and vibrant places of these events that forever shaped our current day. Enjoy the journey with us!
"No plan survived contact with the enemy after the first minute. And some plans don't survive that long."
From across the United States, travelers met at 9:30 a.m. this morning in a hotel near Charles DeGaulle airport. Not most importantly, and it may be the jet lag talking, but every cup of coffee I've had in France has been sublime with the one sipped while we came together particularly delicious. When all bags and beings arrived, we kicked off with introductions and context from Jack Sheldon.
In the 20th century, Germany many times has been painted as villains, but that is shortsighted. The defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo was won by the King's own German Legion, which marched to Wellington's aid. Every military has good men as well as honorable, lazy, generous, cruel, thoughtful, and, in particular in the German armies of the First World War, deeply religious men (both Christian and Jewish in percentages that mirrored the population). During the next week, we focus on the story of the Imperial German Army and follow the movements through the Vosges Mountains, Cambrai, Verdun and more.
All people and luggage accounted for, Mike Scheil shared sage military adage fit for both war and travel, "No plan survived contact with the enemy after the first minute. And some plans don't survive that long." In promptly fifteen minutes, we setoff across France toward the Alsace region, passing by Gothic and Romanesque cathedrals, then on through the Champagne region and ending the evening at the lovely, family owned Hotel Roess for the night. It was a day of fabulous views ending on a mountaintop with Alsatian wines and new friends.
For many, the vision of a World War I battlefield is flatlands similar to the Somme. This, however, is the breathtakingly beautiful Alsace region with towns tucked among the Vosges Mountains that flank rich, flat fields of an abundant wine region.
Around Christmas of 1914, Germans took Le Linge, a strategic area with historic pride for the French. We walked the top of the ridge, known as Lingekopf for the Germans; kopf meaning hilltop. In 1915, the French fighters fiercely climbed and claimed a portion of this mountain with trench knives and a death-defying passion to protect this terrain that had been fought over for thousands of years. In the end, nine meters (about 30 feet) separated the German trench, which by 1918 was unimaginably well-fortified, and the French front line. Nine meters.
A bit further down the hill, we visited Barrenkopf, where more than 16,000 died and, at the time, was a toothpick forest. Mother Nature has embarked on her own defiant and calming commemoration in this place – nearly every shell crater has a coniferous tree or opulent combination of moss, ferns and wildflowers that I can't begin to name.
Clearly, this region was forever changed by the battles of WWI. Across this idyllic landscape, dairy cows traverse the pockmark vestiges of shell craters and zig-zagged echos of former embankments along the hills. Pillboxes and monuments are framed by the fall foliage alongside roads that lead to immaculately kept cemeteries.
It is as though the whole of nature seems to echo this inscription in the German World War cemetery:
"Wanderers, stop for a moment… passerby, pause and think and tell them at home how we fell as men faithful to the homeland.”
As we drove to our destination, it was clear to see why they called it the wine walk – vineyards as far as you could see on both sides. Combined with the iron ore of Lorraine, the reason for hundreds of years of battles fought over this region are abundantly clear. We drove up a switchback road, occasionally used for the Tour de France, to begin our next battlefield tour.
Hartmanswillerkopf boasts the most intensive German fortifications on the Western Front. Walking the summit for nearly four hours today, we merely covered a snippet. But, what we did see were goosebump rendering spaces – dark and murky bunkers, dining rooms that still boasted original wall stenciling, mortar placements and memorials.
This high point – from which you can see France, Germany and Switzerland on a clear day – was of extraordinary strategic importance. Whomever controls the hill controls the roads in the Rhine Valley beneath it.
Want to learn more? Pick up The German Army on the Western Front 1915 by Jack Sheldon, or if you read German, Dance of Death on the Hartmanswillerkopf.
We left Hotel Roess after fortifying ourselves on fresh French rustic breads with homemade jams and yogurt and traveled on a meandering route that took us toward Verdun.
Our first stop was in Pont a Mousson, where we visited the only memorial dedicated to the volunteers of the American Field Service (right photo). After three years working with AFS on an exhibition that will debut in 2016, it was particularly moving.
After lunch, we drove out of the city and finally down the type of single lane, tree canopied roads that makes you think the bus driver is lost. He wasn't. We disembarked the bus and we walked into a forest to create a memory of a memory.
"Behind us, clumps of earth whirled up out of a white cloud and smacked into the boughs. The crash echoed through the woods. Stricken eyes looked at each other, bodies pressed themselves into the ground with a humbling sensation of powerlessness to do any- thing else. Explosion followed explosion. Choking gases drifted through the undergrowth, smoke obscured the treetops, trees and branches came crashing to the ground, screams. We leaped up and ran blindly, chased by lightnings and crushing air pressure, from tree to tree, looking for cover, skirting around giant tree trunks like frightened game. A dugout where many men had taken shelter, and which I too was running towards, took a direct hit that ripped up the planking and sent heavy timbers spinning through the air."
We continued along the footsteps of Ernst Junger and stood in the woods where the above quote, inscribed within the National World War I Museum and Memorial’s Main Gallery, occurred. Goosebumps.
After a pause at a small German cemetery with well-crafted battlefield stone markers and an exploration of a, still, deep German communications trench, we journeyed to our end destination this day, the Meuse-Argonne cemetery.
Not yet 20, Fred Maixner was a favorite uncle and young man who went off to the World War as a private in the 3rd Infantry Division. He was killed less than three weeks before the armistice was signed. Today, his great-nephew and great-niece were the first family members to visit his burial site. They shared about his life and honored him.
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning. We will remember them."
There is great diversity of the land within the physical geography of the Western Front and we are within a rich agricultural region whose village names ring with delicious familiarity to Americans – Lorraine, Muenster, Alsace, Bourgogne and Champagne. Up to nine years after the war, these fields yielded a iron harvest. Very little was grown, but the land was cared for and tilled of the invasive and environmentally damaging remains of war. It is still an everyday part of farming life here as up to 180 tons a year of unexploded ordinances are brought out of the land each year – part of the heritage of the First World War.
Also part of the heritage, and commemoration, of this war are eight honorary villages in France. These villages are part of Zone Rouge – an area declared by the French as having such contaminated soil and so much death that it would be a place where no crops would be grown again. Citizens no longer live in these areas, but mayors are still elected and weddings occur (if you are from the village).Trees were replanted, and as you get into the hills, particularly now in the Autumn, it really is beautiful. And it challenges the imagination, because this is Verdun.
Verdun is east of Paris along the river Meuse, making it a tactically important area and increasingly fortified for thousands of years. The Romans had a citadel, the Prussians strengthened defenses when they controlled the area in the 1870s and, at the beginning of World War I there were three very important forts: Vaux, Douamount and Souville.
Geography dictates war. It is a motive for whether there is a battle and informs how a battle is fought - its direction, intensity and pace. It determines individuals' actions and outcomes of wars. Geography determines Verdun.
Verdun was really a war within a war; its intensity ground men into the mud. Impossible to concentrate into a travel update, let me share three more key ideas:
-Germany entered Verdun as a war of attrition, with the notable quote from Falkenheim, "We will bleed the French white."
-If you get any battle off on the wrong foot, it is very difficult to claw your way back. Get it right from the start. Germany did not. Verdun became a war of attrition for both sides.
-It is a battle that was never definitively won.
It makes one grateful for the sacrifice and efforts of the photographers of the Great War to capture the complete destruction for present and future generations. One can scarcely imagine the absolute devastation that caused the tremendous scarring still left on the land.
I've pages of notes for and from that day as letters were read, stands made and photos shared. But what clearly stands out in my mind this evening is standing in a lush green, shell-crater pocked field of Verdun under golden tipped trees of early fall, as the words of an infantrymen were shared: "Darkness has filled the ravines ... Bits of the dead every where, today's dead, yesterday's dead, and the dead of weeks ago..."
We traversed from Verdun to Cambrai today, taking in six separate sights, in what was later described by a fellow traveler as the "insider’s tour" and it was extraordinary.
Honoring the 161st French Division, also known as the U.S. 369th infantry regiment, a granite obelisk bears witness at the base of Hill 188 where Medal of Honor recipient Corporal Freddie Stowers heroically gave his life. Viewing the same rise of land and standing in the footsteps of these men whose names are so familiar was incredible.
At the back of a sugar beet farm field and beneath a tall tree, we stopped at the lone remains of a German battle cemetery: a granite stone carved with a nurse of mercy wiping the head of a soldier, the inscription much eroded, with a stone bench built into the back. That memorials built by the defeated are kept by the people who prevailed speaks to the character of the victors. The individual artistry on the German commemorative sculpture reflects a deep respect and desire to honor those who fell that was not limited to their own countrymen. Many French officers were able to be repatriated to a communal French cemetery after the war because of a German military perspective on honoring the dead and because of the individual efforts of those who not only buried them, but took the time to share their name and whatever information they had. These German cemeteries only remain in pockets areas that were once battlefields.
Our lunch stop was in the medieval and modern city of Reims, whose soaring Gothic cathedral is a masterpiece of medieval architecture and was an artillery firing target during the First World War. The oldest artifacts in the Museum collection are from this building completed in 1516. In 1926, the French government sent remnants of the cathedral for the archive so that this sacrifice might also be catalogued in our memory. The cathedral is currently under construction, as it has been since World War I to repair the damage. The sharp marks of artillery shells remain on interior columns.
The other three stops, which took up the greater part of the day, are located on private property and I am unable to share images or specifics, per request of property owners. What I can share are the words penned by another traveler, Todd Harvey, as we finished this day:
I went to the wood to search time and remembrance; contemplating life not my own. Visiting places, both high and low, where death's bitter harvest once was sown.
I marched through the peaceful mists of morning, on and on my heart was led; to a place forgotten by the living, to a place remembered by the dead.
I tarried on that ground of battle; fleeting shadows made not a sound; to my mind as if through a glass and darkly, their anguished faces crowded round.
I communed with men who marched and bled, with men who struggled and fought, and there in that great quiet solitude, the lessons of sacrifice taught.
Leaving their homes and the love of their mothers. Leaving the arms of their wives. Ready to taste the sharp sting of battle. Ready to give up their lives.
I then thought of toils and troubles of life in which I daily engage, and how compared to what those men did seem petty, and little and strange.
Cambria, our last primary stop for the journey, is in the northern region of France, near Arras and Amiens. As we are ending our trip, we are reflecting more on the end of the war and, understandably, American involvement. With a lovely breakfast overlooking the enchanting gardens of the family run Hotel Beatriz, the tour began with a visit to the Riqueval Bridge. Still in the same form as it was back in the war, the bridge created the main artery over the St. Quentin Canal, and was controlled by the Germans prior to September of 1918.
About three miles east of this bridge is where Wilfred Owen, a member of the Second Manchester battalion, part of the 32nd Division, was directed in action to take this region (more specifically Joncourt). For this Owen received the Military Cross.
After a deep conversation on the Hindenburg line along with a visit to a memorial to the U.S. 27th and 30th, we visited with Jeff Hays of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) in the Somme-American cemetery. Though it is a common misperception that such cemeteries are "American Territory" (which would be an organizational and diplomatic nightmare) it is land that was a gift from the French government and is impeccably cared for by the American government and many locals in the area. It is also here that Missourian William Fitzsimmons is buried, along with a nurse who gave her life for a patient by sharing her gas mask with him during a gas attack.
There were visits to two more cemeteries this day: a British cemetery, with the gentle peace and landscaping of an English garden, and a German cemetery with beautiful craftsmanship and clean lines honoring those who died from four nations.
I end today with a portion of another poem, one written by Wilfred Owen around the time of his action near Cambrai. Like many poets at the time, Insensibility seems to reflect on a brotherhood forged in the horror of war among soldiers of all sides:
Happy are these who lose imagination:
They have enough to carry with ammunition.
Their spirit drags no pack.
Their old wounds, save with cold, can not more ache.
Having seen all things red,
Their eyes are rid
Of the hurt of the colour of blood for ever.
And terror’s first constriction over,
Their hearts remain small-drawn.
Their senses in some scorching cautery of battle.
Now long since ironed,
Can laugh among the dying, unconcerned.
Want to further research your own relatives? Take a look at our partner project with Ancestry.com or search information for burials by visting the search sites of ABMC (US), CWGC (UK) or VDK (Germany)
Our last day is upon us. Writing this in Compiegne, about 40 minutes outside of Paris, it is difficult to believe this is the last day. It seems like no time and yet a world of time has passed.
Our final day had us exploring underground chalk caves, originally a medieval quarry, later expanded by Germans during World War I to create an entire complex that roughly 100 men could live in, complete with chapel and smoke art on the ceilings in some rooms. These passageways provided safe supply routes in a region that saw significantly less fighting, which preserved its form. A group of volunteers – living historians and passionate educators – have worked for the past decade to restore this vast network of tunnels. They, quite literally, moved the earth (tons of it) to create a privately run, non-profit educational opportunity. It is wild to walk these halls, take the spiral steps leading to battlefields and view the remains of defensive gas attack measures notched into the rock.
Most moving on our last day, for me, was the continued witness to the human cost of war and hearing of those who remember and successfully strive to create spaces of meaningful commemoration – articulated in two distinctly different locations. We visited the Commonwealth War Graves Commission offices in Arras where skilled artisans maintain the standards of original craftsmanship and construction for nearly 23,000 cemeteries and memorials around the world. Out of 30 different types of stone, we watched the carving of particularly granite that would be shipped to match a cemetary in Poland, and passed by stones destined for Tanzania.
In October of 1915 near Arras, German Hugo Muller wrote family at home with this note: “I am enclosing a French field-postcard which I want you to put with my war souvenirs. It came out of the letter case of a dead French soldier. It has been extremely interesting to study the contents of the letter cases of French killed and prisoners. The question frequently recurs, just as it does with us: when will it end?” This question still resounds.
Our other site of commemoration this day, as we left Cambrai, was an extraordinary German cemetery, originally constructed in 1917. Cambrai was an important town at the back of the German rear area whereseveral German hospitals were constructed to care for all the injured. Dr. Wilhelm Kreis, who later was an architect and leader of Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge (the German War Graves Commision and a non-profit charity run primarily by volunteers that meticulously looks after cemeteries) thoughtfully designed this cemetery in 1917 to create a permanent burial space to honor all who sacrificed. The intentionality with which this space was created, the symbolism, the space for all nationalities (British, French, Russian and Germans are all buried here) and religions reflects the high importance Germany placed upon commemorating and honoring the individual. After the armistice was signed, Germans pleaded for this location to be preserved. Thousands upon thousands of commemoration sites built by Germans were destroyed, leaving bodies without names placed in communal graves – both of German and French soldiers. This space, fortunately, was spared.
Talking with a fellow traveler, we agreed it is difficult to articulate how this trip has changed us and our perspectives of the past and the present. These experiences confront some of our everyday worries and encourage a more proper perspective. Numbers become names as you stand in cemetaries, the devastating loss of life and loved ones and the sacrifice of both citizen and soldier - leaves you awestruck. Though I have an indepth knowledge of images and details surrounding the World War, my cognitive understanding is forever altered by being present in these places. The depth of the enduring impact of the Great War is inescapable on the physical, cultural and emotional landscape of this region.
This trip has left me with new friends and a continued pride at the work done by the board, volunteers, staff and supporters both past and present who dedicated themselves to the creation and continued flourishing of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, and for all who endeavor to remember, interpret and understand the Great War in the United States and around the world. From standing on a mountain with a monument overlooking three countries to a small and nearly forgotten German statue in the middle of French farmfields, I am grateful to and humbled by the individuals who strived to keep this world-altering event in our conscious. I am thankful to be part of that continued endeavor, to be part of a international community who remember those who sacrificed and engage in thoughtful reflection on lessons of this war.
“These have dared bear torches of sacrifice and service: Their bodies return to dust, but their work liveth forevermore. Let us strive on to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
– inscription on the Great Frieze at the National World War I Museum and Memorial