- Historic Sites
Still Quiet On The Western Front
Half a century ago the glitter of the prewar world was extinguished forever in a 400-mile-long quagmire of barbed wire and mud, dead men and dying hopes. Recently AMERICAN HERITAGE sent a perceptive journalist-historian to revisit the scenes of that longest of all battles. Here is the peaceful present at such places as Verdun and Belleau Wood: the lawns are neat and green, but scaring memories remain.
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
The First World War began on this road. There is a monument on the exact spot. It celebrates Jules André Peugeot, corporal of the 44th Regiment of Infantry. On August 2, 1914, some thirty hours before the declaration of war between Germany and France, Peugeot and four soldiers with him gave letters home to the local mail carrier, who took them and went oft. There was a house then where now there is the monument. The daughter of the house went across this road to the spring from which the family and the soldiers got their water. At the edge of a field she saw horsemen. They wore spiked helmets. The girl ran, screaming “The Prussians!” Corporal Peugeot came out of the house carrying a rifle. He stood on the slight rise where his monument is now and saw, coming toward him at a gallop, a German officer on a horse. He raised his rifle and shouted, “Stop there!” The German, who was Lieutenant Camille Mayer, held a revolver. On it was written in Latin, “For the War.” He fired three times past his horse’s head. Peugeot fired back.
Mayer swayed in the saddle. His horse passed the house and kept going. Peugeot turned and reeled. Four shots.
It had been a very hot summer, and the roads and fields of this wet region would have been drier than usual. So when Peugeot fell across the threshold of the house, and Mayer slid out of his saddle, each would have found dust rather than mud. The site of their encounter was never to be important again. The nearest big battlefield is a few miles north, on a high peak whose actual name is Hartmannsweilerkopf but which the French soldiery of fifty years ago termed “Old Armand.” It is part of the eastern face of the Vosges Mountains, which looks down across the flat plains of Alsace leading the few miles to Switzerland.
On Old Armand the trench lines wind off in all directions, resembling choked medieval moats. Moss grows from the top of dugouts and there are great piles of rusting barbed wire. It is difficult to walk over the area; the barbed wire hidden in the undergrowth tears at the shoes, and one falls into shell holes. Parents warn their children to be careful of the rusted sheet metal dangling from the dugout ceilings, and scold them when they scrape themselves on the barbed-wire spiurs, which, perhaps dulled by the long years, are no longer really very sharp. Through the holes cut in the thick steel of the machine-gun emplacements—the little doors to cover the holes still swing gratingly shut —the children bend and squint to see Switzerland’s mountains in the haze. There is a cemetery and a crypt on Old Armand. In front of each grave, with its insignia MORT POUR LA FRANCE, a rosebush is growing, and before some, relatives have long ago placed little memorials: a crucified Christ, a few stone flowers. In front of one of the graves there is a small plaque perhaps eight inches square. On one half of it, protected by glass, there is a picture of a young man with a military mustache. Under the picture is written: “To the memory of Jules Pierre, Sergeant of the 152nd Regiment of Infantry. Fallen on the 26th of March, 1916.” On the other half of the plaque is a picture of a roundfaced and serious little boy. Under the child’s picture is: “To our little Jules. Darling.”
People pose their children in front of the high flagpole with the tricolor waving in the wind over the graves of those who, had it all been different, would have been grandfathers to children like these. In this high, stony place there is a notice that visitors are in the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers who fought for France, and down in the crypt are flowers given by The Blinded of France and The Colonies in Honor of Their Valiant Comrades, and a simple cross, really just two pieces of wood, placed by the Boy Scouts of France and Germany before a pedestal topped with a corroding helmet. There is a Jewish star upon one stone wall and under it: “From the four winds come O Spirit and breathe upon these slain …” and, on another wall, the words: “I am the Resurrection.” In the middle, waist-high, is a drum-shaped bronze memorial as large as a living room. Upon its top is: LA PATRIE.