- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

VERDUN, France.

A soft rain falls as we tramp through the mud of Camp Moreau — Lager Moreau to the men of the German 9th Landwehr division. Nine decades on, only angry ghosts haunt an abandoned power station, tunnels, showers and sleeping caves, all left as they were when the doughboys of the 368th U.S. Infantry wrested this camp from the enemy in early autumn 1918.

On a spring morning in the Argonne Forest, when winter has not yet loosened its bitter grip on the countryside, we imagine for an instant the misery that World War I — the Great War, “the war to end all wars” — made of the lives of the millions of soldiers who fought and died here.

Serge Tourovsky, a retired French soldier who volunteers as a guide at Camp Moreau, accompanies us, along with his 10-year-old son, Joffrey. He says he’s here to remind his son’s generation of what happened in this forest.

Mr. Tourovsky dons a German uniform to escort us through the camp, pointing out the tunnels through which the Germans moved men, supplies and arms to the trenches; 1,600 men occupied the camp, rotating between the trenches and the confines of the camp for rest and recuperation.

When we shake hands in farewell, tears come to the old soldier’s eyes.

“Many Frenchmen haven’t forgotten,” he says. “With the heart, we are with you. God bless America.”

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With 2008 marking the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, a visit to the places where American soldiers fought and died evokes memories of that war. The names are familiar to an older generation: the Marne, the Meuse, Argonne Forest, Verdun, Champagne, Lorraine.

Begun in 1914, the war by 1917 had reached stalemate, with soldiers on both sides weary of the senseless killing, the horrific living conditions and, above all, the criminal irresponsibility of the generals who presided and plotted strategy. French deserters routinely were shot by their officers. Disease, hunger and despair were the daily portion.

The arrival of the Americans in 1917 gave new vigor to the French army and the Meuse-Argonne offensive of 1918, when Gen. John J. “Blackjack” Pershing at last ended the conflict at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

On Sept. 12 of that year, with 500,000 well-equipped American and French soldiers, Pershing opened the attack to recapture the Saint-Mihiel salient, which had been under German control for four years. The second pincers of the offensive was the Battle of the Argonne Forest, west of Verdun. Taking part in the offensive were young soldiers who would lead men in a later world war: George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, Douglas MacArthur and Harry S. Truman.

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The rain from Camp Moreau continues as we pass the ravine where the Lost Battalion fought off attacks by the Germans. A plaque on the road through the forest commemorates the bravery of the 500 American soldiers who, despite numerous hardships, held their ground for six days, digging caves into the ravine in which they were trapped, shelled by their own distant artillery as well as by the Germans.

When relief finally arrived, summoned by a brave little Army Signal Corps carrier pigeon that delivered a message despite taking German bullets, just 194 men were able to walk out unscathed. The rest were dead, captured or wounded. The pigeon, Cher Ami (Dear Friend), received the French Croix de Guerre, and when it died, it was mounted by a taxidermist and sent to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is displayed at the National Museum of American History.

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