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The Old Front Line

June 2024
8min read


It is early fall in France, anf the forest is silent and peaceful. A man, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying a metal detector and a sawed-off pickax, disappears into the misty underbrush. Here and there holes in the ground are half-filled with deads leaves; strands of rusty barbed wire hang from corkscrew-shaped metal posts. The forest, about forty miles from Paris, is officially called the Bois de la Brigade Marine. The French government has given this land to the United States; Americans know it as Belleau Wood. It was here that men of a U.S. Marine Corps brigade, attached to the 2d Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, fought a desperate battle to keep the German army from reaching Paris in the summer of 1918. Most visitors to the site look at the cemetery and its ornate chapel, the hunting lodge, the captured German 77-mm guns whose wheels have long since rotted away, and the marble monument. Then they drive off to visit the imposing Aisne-Marne monument above Château-Thierry. Meanwhile, the man in camouflage is back, smiling. He has found what he was looking for: uniform buttons and a U.S.M.C. cap badge. Since his activity is now illegal, he vanishes with his treasure, adding to the collection of Marine relics he has been amassing for several years.


Today, seventy-five years after the armistice went into effect at 11:00 A.M. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, buses take thousands of people to visit the battlefields along a five-hundred-mile line stretching from the seacoast of Belgian Flanders to the French-Swiss border in Alsace. The tourists are mostly shown cemeteries, monuments, an occasional fort, towns mentioned in books, rebuilt in the twenties and showing few traces of war. Indeed, the French and the Belgians, faced with the utter devastation of lands where countless villages literally sank into the earth, wanted only to forget the disaster that had befallen them. Once the armistice was signed, the farmers, helped by immigrant workers and German prisoners of war, began to fill in the trenches and the millions of craters. They loaded entire trains with dud shells, tons of barbed wire and steel pickets, wagonfuls of the skulls and bones of thousands of men who never had a proper burial. In heavily contested areas like Verdun the land resisted all attempts at cultivation. It was only in the mid-thirties that someone discovered that Austrian black pines would grow in the lunar soil. Eventually the trees matured and are now being harvested, the stumps are bulldozed, the ground leveled, and hardwoods like beeches are planted. In another sixty-odd years these too will be cut, and the land may at last be returned to farming, as it was before 1914.

As a child growing up in France, I would spend hours looking at magazines illustrated with sepia-colored photographs of trenches filled with machine-gunned bodies and of French soldiers going into the attack, bayonets glinting in the sun. The “poilus” looked old and strange with their mustaches, ridged helmets, and nightmarish gas masks.

People lowered their voices when they mentioned Verdun or the Chemin des Dames. The message, even to a child, was clear: These were places marked by Death. Years later I learned that about six hundred thousand men had died in Verdun in a tenmonth struggle that ended, like most other First World War battles, in stalemate. I also read about Loos, Ypres, and the Battle of the Somme, where the British Expeditionary Force suffered almost sixty thousand casualties in a single day . Once in a while I would wonder if these events, which took place before I was born, could truly have happened. It seemed incredible that a million and a half Frenchmen could have died in only four years and that another million had been maimed or gassed. Such a cataclysm must have left traces. If one hundred thousand shells exploded every day on the Verdun battleground, wouldn’t a few be left? I finally decided to go and look.

It was December 1984 when I arrived in Verdun, two weeks before Christmas. The tragic city of my 1916 magazines seemed prosperous enough: blue-jeaned teen-agers hung around, and people shopped for presents and bought daintily wrapped pastries or the famous local product, sugared-almond drag»es. The next morning I drove up into the barren hills surrounding the city, where half-frozen soldiers, standing up to 210- and 420-mm shells, flamethrowers, and poison gas, had denied the German army access to the city at their backs. The well-maintained road wound through dense pine forests; there was a monument here and there, a museum, the ruins of a fort. Disappointed, I parked on the shoulder and walked straight into the woodland. Then I froze as if I had been about to step on a coiled rattlesnake. Jutting out of the earth were the fuzes of a dozen live artillery rounds. Beyond them I could see French canteens with their twin spigots, mess kits, a rusty metal bowl that had been a German helmet, a mosscovered hobnailed boot, more duds. There were shell holes everywhere of all sizes, some fifteen feet deep; vague ruts that had been trenches, holes in the soil that had been dugouts. The war might have ended the previous year. I returned to Verdun several times over the course of five years and never ceased to be moved by the aura of the place.


In 1989 I was commissioned by the Mai de la Photo festival in Reims to photograph the traces of war in the Champagne region. Since my maternal grandfather had been mortally wounded in a September 1915 attack on the strongpoint of La Main-deMassiges, I went to see if anything was left of an offensive that had cost 250,000 lives. The landscape at first glance was devoid of any evidence of the then unprecedented three-day, nine-hundred-gun French bombardment. Tractors plowed the chalky fields, and the first spring buds were appearing. Local farmers, however, knew where to look, and they showed me around. In a week I had enough photographs for an exhibition at the Episcopal Palace, next to the thousand-year-old Reims Cathedral.


By that time friends were urging me to photograph other parts of the front. “What about Flanders, the Battle of the Somme? Have you been to Alsace? You should see the Chemin des Dames! Go and look at the soldiers’ carvings in Picardy.” Their suggestions pointed to one logical solution: Photograph all the remaining traces of war on the Western Front before they are gone. Already there were ominous signs: forests were being leveled; scavengers with metal detectors were digging up battlefield relics; bunkers were being bulldozed to make way for high-speed rail lines, highways, shopping malls, agribusiness, housing projects. Not to mention the fact that the surviving veterans were all past ninety years of age and fading away rapidly.


Beginning in 1990, my wife, Anna, and I began seriously discussing the possibility of the two of us attempting what we were already calling “The Western Front Project.” The advice from experts, historians, and specialists was fairly unanimous: “You can’t do it. It would take years, and besides, it’s all gone anyway” and “What about money?” Eventually Anna and I pooled what savings we had, and in 1991 I left for a fund-raising trip to Europe. There were vague promises, but nothing concrete. When I returned to New York, however, things began to look up. A generous donor offered a five-thousand-dollar seed grant, and we decided to head for France and Belgium immediately. We would cover as much ground as possible between September and Christmas, and if no further grants were forthcoming, we would return home and try again later. We rented a little red Renault, headed first for Belgium, and then sped across France.


At first we went about finding sites to photograph by trying to match old military maps to modern l:25,000-scale ones, but this system didn’t work: Most trenches had been filled in, and bunkers weren’t where we thought they should be, or had been destroyed long ago. Eventually we asked the local people to show us what was still visible in their community, took the photograph, and then matched the site to the old map—in effect, shooting first and asking questions later, the “questions” being the research that would have to be done to correlate the visual information to what had taken place there.

As we were driving and hiking about northern France, good news came: The University of London’s King’s College had agreed to act as a sponsor for the project, and the Leverhulme Trust grant we had applied for had been approved. I became a senior research fellow of King’s College with a research assistant to help identify the vestiges we found.


Anna and I returned to New York in January 1992 to print the several hundred negatives we had made in the first three months of the project. By the time we returned to Europe the following month, we had developed the system that we stuck with for the rest of the project. First we would write ahead of time to the mayors of the townships along the old front line, asking for their help in locating sites. In many cases people had been living for so long next to First World War vestiges that they had become blind to them and very often could not think of any when first asked. But a few days or weeks later they would remember, and we would always tell the villagers that we’d return in a few weeks, then continue back and forth on our itinerary from the North Sea to the Vosges. We did three such round trips along the front, totaling more than twenty thousand miles.

As we went along, we stayed in gîtes ruraux , usually older farmhouses that could be rented by the week. The furnishings were often primitive, but we could walk in with muddy boots and no one was there to object; we saved time and money by doing our own cooking; and, most important of all, we could develop our four-by-five negatives each night in the bathroom.

Several battlefield experts working alone or with associations were most generous in sharing information with us, and we met men of all ages, some in their twenties, who had spent months exploring, noting, and photographing the remnants in their regions. In some areas what they had done made unnecessary our doing it over again. In Aubers, for instance, where more than ninety-five German bunkers had been recorded by the local historical association, it did not make sense to do the job again, and we photographed only some of the most representative vestiges.


At no point in the project did we intend to record every single site. For one thing, we limited ourselves to photographing only those vestiges that were visible and identifiable as of World War I origin. Anything built after November 1918 was, with very rare exceptions, left unrecorded. As a rule, we discovered that the more level or fertile an area was, the fewer the remaining vestiges. Picardy and the Somme in particular have very few sites still intact. Agribusiness on an American scale (France is the secondlargest food exporter in the world) ensures that practically every square meter of land will be put to good use. But in the Vosges, hills and mountains remain pristine, and barbed-wire entanglements and bunkers are allowed to remain—until forest clearcutting takes over.

In the hard-to-reach places the relics of war can be especially immediate and affecting: in the pitch-dark mazes of abandoned quarries we found graffiti left by New England doughboys, German grenadiers, French chasseurs, and Welsh tommies. A barn used as a French troop theater still bears the cartoons drawn by an audience of poilus. The remains of a 150-mm howitzer lie in a ravine near Verdun; in th» Aisne large bolts set around a concrete pit mark the position of a giant cannon that fired on Paris, about seventy-five miles away. On an Alsatian mountainside stands an elaborate swimming pool; built in 1915 for a Bavarian regiment, it even had a boiler to keep the water at a comfortable temperature. Everywhere are monuments large and small, erected by units to honor their dead. Many of these are German, often carefully maintained by the local French municipalité in spite of the old enmity between the two nations. Each year the earth regurgitates tons of shells, grenades, and other lethal hardware. The French and Belgian governments collect this iron harvest and dispose of it, but each year accidents still occur. An enthusiastic tinkerer decides to saw a rusted-out shell in half and blows up with it; a child plays with a grenade and is maimed. Survivors may be awarded compensation as a “Civilian Victim of the War of 1914-1918.”

With the passing away of the last veterans, the War to End All Wars fades from human memory into the realm of history. A warship named Belleau Wood still cruises under the Stars and Stripes; reserve and active units still bear their old World War I names of Rainbow Division, or Harlem Hellfighters; in town squares stand monuments engraved with strange, forgotten names. But soon nobody will remember Cantigny and Ch‚teau Thierry, Langemarck and the Hartmannsweilerkopf. It is all the more important, then, that we never forget what this vanished generation did there.

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