World War I is often eclipsed in the American collective consciousness by World War II. The generations that lived from 1914-1918 are gone, and in high school history classes, the Great War was often taught as a precursor to the atrocities of World War II. It was the June 28, 1914 assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, that lit the fire for World War I. Thanks to Germany’s concern over the French and British Colonial expansion and the desire for more of Europe’s coastline, this conflict in the Balkans quickly escalated to an all-out war, which ultimately included approximately 100 countries.
Evil was a mustached face during World War II, but the Great War wasn’t so black and white for the USA. President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to enter the war. The country was only 50 years removed from a bitter Civil War and American citizens didn’t think the European conflict was ‘their’ fight.
Beginning on August 3, 1914, America’s two oldest allies, France and Great Britain, were embroiled in conflict with Germany, Italy, and the Austria-Hungary Empire (the Triple Alliance). Belgium and France were engulfed by the enemy. Alsace and Moselle were annexed and most of northeastern France was occupied by Germany. The Western Front was steadily being pushed back, with the coast and Paris being the ultimate prizes.
Had Great Britain not intercepted a message to the German ambassador of Mexico, the United States might not have entered the Great War. In the message, Mexico was asked to start a conflict with the United States. The Germans believed that this would keep the Americans busy, thus out of the European conflict. In return, it was promised that Mexico would receive Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona after the war was over. Incensed over this, President Woodrow Wilson entered World War I on April 6, 1917. Terribly conflicted, it’s reported that the president wept upon his decision. This was the first war fought outside American soil with a real military.
In one year and eight months, the United States deployed to France nearly two million soldiers. Although America entered the Great War late, the impact was immense. France and Great Britain were in dire straights. An influx of soldiers, equipment and supplies was sorely needed. The USA’s first offensives came at Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.
Since America’s war effort was concentrated throughout the Meuse Department, there are a significant number of memorials in this area. As the centennial anniversary of the end of World War I approaches, we continue to honor and remember those who served their country by spotlighting some of the American Great War memorials in eastern France.
Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery
As the largest American cemetery in Europe, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the final resting place for 14,246 soldiers, most of which died during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. A blanket of white crosses and stars of David, some with names and others unknown, cover approximately 130 acres. A chapel with stained glass windows with the insignias of the American Divisions and larger units that were part of the American Expeditionary Force, along with the Tablets of the Missing, further honor those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. A recently renovated visitor center pays homage of those who died through photos, films, personal stories, and interactive displays. On Armistice Day (September 23, 2018), a ceremony will take place on the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I, which will include a lit candle on each of the 14,246 graves.
Montfaucon American Monument
Located seven miles from the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is the Montfaucon American Monument. Commemorating the successful American Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918, this massive 180-foot column is topped with a statue representing liberty. After climbing the dramatic steps to the foot of the monument, walk into the foyer to see an engraved operational map, tribute to American soldiers, and an account of the battle. Ascend the 234 more steps to the top of the column for an impressive view of the battlefield. In addition, behind the monument is the 6th century ruins of Saint-Germain Abbey.
Montsec American Monument
Located on a strategic hilltop used in the Saint-Mihiel offensive, the Montsec American Monument honors American soldiers who fought in Meuse. The wide steps lead to a colossal circular colonnade. In the center is a bronze map demonstrating the Saint Mihiel offensive’s military operations from September 12-16, 1918. The memorial also honors American divisions who fought throughout Lorraine and Alsace. Engraved on the monument are the names of area villages liberated by Americans. Just 12 miles from the Montsec American Monument is the Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery, the final resting place of 4,153 U.S. soldiers.
Perhaps one of the most remarkable World War I tributes is Romagne 14-18, a museum created by Jean-Paul de Vries. This Franco-Dutch man began collecting Great War artifacts in the woods around Romagne-sous-Montfaucon when he was just a boy. Thousands of personal artifacts of American, French, and German soldiers fill a barn not far from Verdun. It’s not just a story of war, but the men behind the guns. Letters, shoes, silverware, and photographs are just some of the thousands of items on display. It’s a museum that reveals the human side of war, as well as the passion of one man. Next to the museum is a casual restaurant and gift shop. If you’re fortunate, Jean-Paul de Vries will give a personal tour of his life’s work.
Pennsylvania Memorial at Varennes en Argonne
Many soldiers who fought and died in World War I were from Pennsylvania. In honor of their service, the State of Pennsylvania erected several monuments in the Meuse Department, including the Pennsylvania Memorial at Varennes en Argonne. This large Greek-style memorial overlooks the Aire Valley and is located at 1 Rue du General Pershing, a street named after the legendary American military hero. Varennes-en-Argonne is also where an escaping Louis XVI was arrested in 1791.
On Memorial Day 1919, in a speech at the American Suresnes Cemetery near Paris, President Woodrow Wilson said, "The Americans who went to Europe to die are a unique breed.... (They) crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, which they knew was the cause of humanity and mankind. These Americans gave the greatest of all gifts, the gift of life and the gift of spirit." Nearly a hundred years have passed, but the effects of the Great War remain. The tragic events and sacrifices of American citizens in France should never be forgotten.