Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Argonne Forest

Last Saturday but one we had a day off from our labours and joined a tour to some First World War battlefields in Northern France. An American acquaintance of ours, Deputy Director of the local US High School, is an amateur military historian and in fact his grandfather served there, on a gun battery commanded by Harry Truman. The area we visited was close to where we had cycled in the Moselle valley previously so we knew there were many remnants of the war, but we knew nothing of this particular offensive where the French were relieved by fresh US troops under the command of General Pershing, in an area NW of Verdun. We set off by bus when it was still dark, after getting up at 4.30 am. It was a bus trip for the educationalists in Mannheim and Heidelberg. The whole trip was planned like a military operation and once on the bus we were immersed in briefings about the war's origins, videos and with handouts. It was all very interesting and our friend knows so much about the various battles and heroic incidents, people involved etc which made it all the more real. Most of the route was on motorway and at a service station close to the battlefield, there was a great white marble monument to those who fought, on both sides. Underneath were two inscriptions - one giving the names of the first two men killed in 1914 on this battlefield - one French and one German - obviously young men and then another, more recent about the deaths of the last Frenchman and the last German to have fought there. Both died in 2008, one aged 110 and one aged 108! Quite amazing.
We then left the motorway and continued on tiny roads in our giant pink bus, up and down dale mostly in heavy, pouring rain. We couldn't see much of the surrounding countryside but still no one complained as we clambered up muddy paths and inspected immense holes where mines had exploded close to the opposing trenches, then moved on the examine other memorials and places where individual actions had taken place. Of course the whole thing is very sad, especially since we know that only a few years later the whole mess happened again and still politicians are sending young people off to wars. Fortunately we then had a break for a meal in a tiny French village where by a miracle they were able to accommodate and feed a party of 40, on roast chicken and salad with a glass of wine and an ice dessert. We didn't know most of the other folks, American teachers and ancillary staff at the American schools nearby, but they made us feel welcome.
Whilst we were inside the rain stopped and the sun even came out for a while before we managed to get out of the bus again for our longest walk in Châtel Chéhéry a tiny village. Here Sgt York managed to thwart a German ambush, killing a number of soldiers and then taking 132 Germans prisoner without further losses. Our leader had become fascinated by this story and had visited the area frequently to try to pinpoint exactly where the events occurred - this was very close to Armistice Day 1918 so it is almost 100 years ago now. We stood under our umbrellas in rain so heavy it was almost like the machine gun fire he was telling us about - most of us really not bothered about whether the action had happened here or half a mile up the road, but we drank a toast in brandy to all the brave men on both sides, drawn by chance into these battles, that came to an end literally just a few days later. Then it was back to the bus, in the warm and dry again and eventually home again by 10.45 pm. Though we cannot say that the visit was enjoyable, in the sense that the events were a pleasure we nonetheless do think it important to remember what happened and the people involved… lest we forget.
We ate lunch in the Le Grand Monarque Restaurant in Varenne en Argonne. There is now a move by the local authorities to encourage cycling and the area with its minor roads and historical connections is a good place to cycle. However if you are tempted to visit the Meuse area of Lorraine ( do not pick up any shells or munitions in the woods. There is still a lot around. Some of it is still live and some of it contains Mustard Gas, used by both sides in 1918. If all goes well I think we will return to the area.

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