Celebrating the Franco-American Alliance Tour - Day 3

Written by: Judy Ekeler, Nebraska Honorary State Regent
October 11, 2017

On April 15, 1918, a 24- year- old farmer from  Nebraska, boarded the ship Madawaska at Newport News, VA, headed for France, embarking on what he titled “My Trip with the A.E.F.”, in the little book he carried with him throughout his service in World War I.  Beginning with the landing at St. Nazier, France, on April 24, until the return voyage from Brest, France, on the ship America, he kept a daily log of his locations and activities.

His experiences in the 4th Infantry were far removed from the daily life on a Nebraska farm, but he embraced the opportunity to serve his country and developed lifelong bonds of friendship with fellow soldiers.  

This week I am privileged to travel with fellow DAR members on a tour “Celebrating the Franco-American Alliance”, and to view first-hand some of the sites noted in my Grandfather’s log.  I know that his experiences were similar to the thousands of American soldiers who fought in the war – fathers, grandfathers, uncles, friends and neighbors – of today’s DAR’s.  I hope the experiences relay in this blog will be of interest to many of you.

Tuesday’s activities began with a high-speed train trip of 167 miles to Meuse, then to Verdun, where from 1914 to 1918, France fought the German army.

We visited the Douaumont Ossuary, which contains the bones of 130,000 WWI soldiers, both French and German.  Approximately 230,000 men died during the nearly year-long Battle of Verdun.  We gazed upon the bones of soldiers in heaping piles, a daunting testimony to the scale of death during WWI. 

Engraved bricks bear the names of some soldiers but thousands of others are forever nameless.

The Ossuary, dedicated in 1932, contains a death bell and a death lantern which shines across the cemetery opposite the Ossuary.  The necropolis, or cemetery, contains 15,000 crosses, the largest French necropolis of the Verdun battlefield.  

We continued on to Fort Vaux, located just outside Verdun, a 19th century defensive structure, the second fort to fall in the Battle of Verdun.  The fort was surrendered on June 7, 1916, but was recaptured by the French infantry on Nov. 2, 1916, repaired and garrisoned.  At the fort we viewed underground casements, the command bunker and machine guns used to defend the area.

The next stop was Fleury-devant-Douaumont, one of the six French villages in the area which were destroyed in WWI.  During the Battle of Verdun in 1916 the village was captured and recaptured by the French and Germans, 16 times.

The village, once home to 422 inhabitants, was completely destroyed and the land around it contaminated by explosives, poisonous gas and corpses, so the decision was made not to rebuild it.  The site of the village is today a wooded area next to the Verdun Memorial and the village is known as “the village that died for France.”

Following lunch, we traveled to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial, a 130-acre WWI cemetery located in Romagne-sous-Monfaucon.  The cemetery, dedicated in 1937, is maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission and contains 14,246 American military dead and 486 unknown burials. 

Eight grave sections are arranged behind a reflection pool and the chapel contains stained glass windows depicting the insignias of American units.  Behind the altar in the chapel are the flags of the principal Allied nations.  Memorial loggias in the chapel are inscribed with the names of 954 Missing in Action.

In the visitor’s center, exhibits contain personal stories, films and displays relating to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and its importance in World War I.

At the end of the day, my thoughts returned to my Grandfather.  Despite daily log entries like Hill 204, Chateau-Thierry and Verdun, he was one of the fortunate ones who returned home to a proud and grateful family.  Thousands of other soldiers, not so fortunate, perished on the battlefields of the Great War.

We remember them, as we commemorate the 100th Anniversary of World War I and the Franco-American Alliance in “The War to End All Wars” on this week-long tour.

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