- Historic Sites
Half a century later, an American writer in France tries to recapture the unforgettable experience of his father in the greatest battle fought by the doughboys “over there”
October 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 6
The morning after I arrived at Verdun I hired a car and guide and took the highway that runs north along the banks of the Meuse River, a curiously placid-looking stream only a few hundred yards wide, with low, almost nonexistent banks. The road passed French and German cemeteries, monuments to that earlier cataclysm, the year-long struggle for Verdun that consumed almost a million soldiers before America entered the war. When the road swung west across the Meuse I unfolded a multicolored map and asked eagerly: “Where’s the Argonne?”
“The forest of the Argonne?” replied Robert Devillars, my guide. “That is many miles away. Let us first go to Montfaucon.” Soon our little Renault was straining up an ever steeper hill; it finally groaned to a stop before a towering monument, a circular column of stone that rose 327 feet to a figure of Liberty at the summit. Immediately behind it were the ruins of a church and other buildings, the remains of the once-thriving village of Montfaucon.
From this steep-sided height I learned the first and most important lesson about the Argonne: its immensity. “See there,” said M. Devillars. “There is the forest of the Argonne.” My eyes strained toward a thin dark line on the western horizon. In between, the land rose and fell in a vast panorama of rolling hills and clumps of forest past the foot of Montfaucon to the banks of the Meuse.
The Argonne was not a battle for a forest. It was fought for the control of a region, of which the forest, stretching some fifteen miles along a dominating ridge, was the western boundary. From Montfaucon the vision ofthat September 26, 1918, dawn, when 225,000 Americans in nine divisions had surged forward, suddenly made a mockery of the word personal . From the New Yorkers of the 77th Division, thrashing through the Argonne Forest, to the Illinoisans of the 33rd Division, up to their cartridge belts in the oozing swamps along the Meuse, each unit experienced its own distinct version of hell. Did the single human being, the single regiment, even the single division, matter in such a cataclysm? I wondered, trying to see the whole stupendous scene with the historian’s eye. Suddenly the answer was clear.
Yes, because the very immensity of the experience staggered the mind. One could, of course, write an objective article about the Argonne, discussing the tactics, the progress made by the various divisions on the first, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, day. But to rescue the Argonne from this kind of abstract, impersonal history, to find its human dimension, it was absolutely necessary to reduce it to a smaller scale. Yes, I thought, returning to the car and driving down the hill toward the forest, coming here was not a mistake.
The intuition gathered momentum as we drove along the valley of the Aire River. It was a gray, sunless day, typical Argonne weather, and the landscape was in perfect harmony with the atonal sky. The Aire was as colorless as the back of a mirror and, seen from a distance, as inert as a dead snake. Dun-colored earth undulated to the right and left, broken by an occasional cluster of redroofed farmhouses, or an isolated patch of woods. The long miles of open fields seemed peculiarly naked. The few fences were almost invisible wire, and there were no stone walls, no rocks, no hedges. It was all as bare as the Nebraska plain—but by no means as flat. Close up, the undulations became surprising hills or shallow ravines. It was a landscape in which only mass and density could make an impression, and the forest of the Argonne played this role with dark insistence. Mile after mile it was a brooding, impenetrable presence, on its twisting western height.
There in its little valley lay compact Varennes, famous in French history as the town where the fleeing Louis XVI was captured and sent back to Paris and his doom. Thousands of Fennsylvanians of the 28th Division died to drive the Germans out of it. A monument, one of the many that dot the Argonne region, commemorates their sacrifices. There was the village of Exermont, and that nearby narrow ravine where a German counterattack struck the exhausted, depleted Kansans and Missourians of the 35th Division on September 29, 1918, and almost turned the battle into a rout. There was Le Chene Tondue, a saw-toothed height jutting out of the Argonne Forest into the valley like the prow of a ship. From it German artillery dominated the lower half of both the valley and the forest. Next we passed the heights of Cornay and Châtel-Chéhéry, equally crucial to the upper half of the valley. Storming those nearly perpendicular slopes made men remember their elders’ stories of Lookout Mountain and Cold Harbor in the Civil War. The divisions fighting east of the Aire had “scalloped” away these strong points at a terrible price, while across the valley other outfits swarmed up the steep slopes of Montfaucon. Both had to fight their way up a huge amphitheatre with enemies flinging destruction at them from three sides. Next we drove across the forest itself, pausing to stare down the shrouded slope where the famed “lost battalion” of the yyth Division was cut off but held out for five searing days against repeated German assaults. The round outlines of their foxholes are still visible after fifty years.