The reminders of 1918 are everywhere in the lovely green, rolling landscape of the Champagne and Lorraine regions, in the battlefields of the Marne and the Meuse, among the dense treescape of the Argonne forest. There are ruined forts, trenches, huge shell holes, imposing memorials, small plaques and, everywhere, cemeteries.
The Allied Forces’ graves are marked with white marble, the Germans’ with crosses of dark stone. The largest American military cemetery is Meuse-Argonne, near the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, where 14,246 soldiers, including nine Medal of Honor recipients, are buried.
Seven miles south of the cemetery is the Montfaucon monument, a tall, slim Doric column towering 200 feet above the ruins of a former village.
The Sommepy Monument stands on Blanc Mont Ridge, taken by the Americans on Oct. 3, 1918. In the nearby village of Sommepy-Tahure, liberated by the Americans, the second floor of the town hall is a museum filled with American memorabilia, photographs and uniforms.
The shape of the Montsec American Monument, 12 miles southwest of the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial, brings to mind Washington’s Jefferson Memorial in its elegant simplicity. The classic circular colonnade with a wide-approach stairway features a large bronze relief map of the St. Mihiel salient.
In the center of the St. Mihiel American Cemetery is a sundial surmounted by a large white-stone American eagle. Inscribed beneath the eagle are Pershing’s words: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”
There are small remembrances too, such as the plaque at the town hall in the village of Chatel Chehery honoring Sgt. Alvin York of Tennessee, the most decorated hero of the war. There’s another monument to Sgt. York, promoted from corporal after he silenced 32 machine guns and captured 132 German prisoners in the nearby field where the battle was fought. The village plans several events in summer honoring his memory.
The French fortresses are of major interest. Outside Verdun stands the grim Fort de Douaumont. Begun after the Franco-Prussian War, the fort is a labyrinth of several miles of tunnels and passageways. The 20-foot-thick ceiling is made of layers of stone, sand, concrete and earth.
The fort was designed for a maximum of 600 soldiers; during the war, 3,000 men lived there with only a hand-operated ventilation system, no electricity and no running water. Candles and oil lamps were the source of light. The noise, vermin, stench and lack of air drove even the most battle-hardened soldiers to madness.
An underground citadel in Verdun offers a glimpse into the life of French soldiers during the war. Built in the 17th century, the citadel became the logistical center for operations around Verdun. The underground galleries could hold 2,000 men and provide them with all necessities, from powder magazines, munitions stores, a bakery and telegraph facilities to machinery for raising water for the town. The citadel is a museum, and visitors glide through the underground galleries in small wagons that stop at audiovisual sites where holograms depict soldiers, nurses, bakers and corpsmen going about their duties.
The Douaumont Ossuary, an enormous monument atop a nearby hill, contains the remains of 130,000 unknown soldiers of both armies. Some of the bones are visible through small windows on the ground level.
The ruins of Fort de la Pompelle, just outside Reims, include a museum with photographs of the fort as it was during World War I and a collection of 560 Imperial German Army helmets.
The Marne Interpretive Center 14-18 in Suippes offers a contemporary, interactive display of the war. A short film based on the moving letters of three brothers written from the front to their sister is particularly interesting.