World War I on the French Front by Kasia Dietz

  • © Kasia Dietz

    © Kasia Dietz

  • © Kasia Dietz

    © Kasia Dietz

  • © Kasia Dietz

    © Kasia Dietz

World War I on the French Front by Kasia Dietz Meuse fr

This year marks 100 years that American soldiers entered World War I, assisting their allies in winning the war. The best way to understand the events that took place and exactly how this Great War shaped humanity is to visit the French regions of Lorraine and Meuse Argonne where these unfathomable tragedies and heroic events took place.

World War I implicated regions including Europe, Russia, the United States and the Middle East from 1914-18. In an attempt to avoid this or any war between the great powers. defensive alliances were formed in Europe. The Triple Entente included France, the United Kingdom, Russia and their colonial empires, and the Triple Alliance included Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and their colonial empires. What provoked a conflict that escalated into World War I, was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914.

The First World War deeply affected the world on a global scale, and for decades to follow, lasting for four years and killing 9.5 million, 1.4 of them French. The longest battle during the Great War took place in Metz which was then annexed, and Nancy which remained French. But the war concerned more than territories, it encompassed humanity as a whole.
The Lorraine region of France grants entrance into the setting for what was considered the “war to end all wars”. The city of Metz was then German, due to the King of Prussia defeating Napoleon III in in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. The northern part of Lorraine and Alsace were also part of the Second German Reich.

The medieval Gallo-Roman city of Metz now houses the Centre Pompidou-Metz. Inaugurated in 2010, it serves as a modern contrast to the nearby Neo-Roman style train station, a symbol of the power during the German empire. The majestic Saint Etienne Cathedral boasts stained glass windows from the 13th to the 20th centuries, some designed by artist Marc Chagall. An icon of the city is a small fortified castle, featuring the Porte des Allemands (German Door), named after the Teutonic Knights who founded a hospital nearby in the 13th century. This castle is the largest part of the medieval ramparts still intact, a regal sight to behold.

Situated 80 kilometers from Metz in the Meuse Argonne region, Verdun was the setting for the most intense warfare that took place during WWI. This French and German battlefield remained in French hands, but not without horrific losses of life from both sides. The Battle of Verdun in 1916 lasted 300 days and 300 nights with non-stop fighting. Tragically, more than 300,000 soldiers died or were considered missing, with over 400,000 French and German soldiers wounded. A visit to Verdun might be the only way to truly comprehend this unprecedented loss of life from both sides. Whether French or German, an entire generation of men was lost, making this battle more humanistic than patriotic. Isn’t all life valued equally?

The Butte de Vauquois provides insight as to the depth of devastation during the Great War, and just how grueling daily life was for the soldiers. Marked by mine warfare which created giant craters in the surface of the land, it is here that a massive network of underground galleries was created, with over 17km of wells, tunnels and gullies. German soldiers spent entire weeks within these dark, damp galleries, another mark of grave inhumanity, regardless of the side.A great testament to humanity can be felt at Romagne ’14-’18, a museum created through 30 years of collecting wartime objects within the woods around Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, the life work of Jean-Paul de Vries. Here the various items used by soldiers tell the story of everyday life. From collections of grenades, rifles and helmets to items including combs, forks, watches, shoes and love letters. Discovering these personal items, you realize that this was a war fought by young men filled with hopes and dreams.American soldiers certainly played a role in helping France win the war. It was on April 6th 1917 that the United States officially entered the war, mobilizing over 4 million able-bodied men. Their aid had already begun in 1915, when young Americans began volunteering as ambulance drivers to save French lives. 

Victory with the aid of American soldiers in 1918, ended the mine warfare in Verdun. The American Monument at Montfaucon d’Argonne is one of many testaments to America’s loyalty to France. This 60-meter high monument commemorating American victory in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, faces the front line of the American First Army on the morning of September 26, 1918, the start of the offensive. This battle was then the biggest in American history.

The Ossuary is one of the national French memorials to the First World War, and a remarkable tribute to brave men. Here the remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers are laid to rest. Whether they were from the German or French side, these soldiers are united as uniformed men who lost the battle for their lives. 

Nearby Fort Vaux is a symbol of French heroism. It was here that Major Sylvain-Eugene Raynal, after running out of water, medical supplies and food for his men, sent several messages via homing pigeons. It was his last pigeon that brought relief for his soldiers. This pigeon named Le Vaillant, released from Fort Vaux Fort on June 4, 1916, was awarded the Order of the Nation. 
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the final resting place of the 14,246 American soldiers who lost their lives during World War I. On November 11th 2017, the largest American graveyard in Europe, held a ceremony with 3,000 candles in remembrance of these soldiers. Next year for the Centennial on September 23, 2018, there will be one candle lit for every soldier who fought alongside the French. This event will honour the promise made by General Pershing: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds”. 

The Verdun Memorial provides a comprehensive history lesson on the Battle of Verdun. You are greeted by the image of a Verdun soldier, unaware whether he is French or German. This recently renovated museum is filled with original photographs, bone-chilling eyewitness accounts, and 2,000 wartime items. Personal items include crafts made by the soldiers during many idle hours, and letters sent home to worried families. 

In addition to an important lesson in the history of the world, this journey through the Lorraine and Meuse Argonne regions can also bring us closer to the heroism and tragedies of all these young soldiers, regardless of the borders that defined their nationalities. 

Things to see

Point of interest