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.”
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.
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.
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.
At Bois Brule (burnt wood), two trenches depict the grotesque nature of that war. A German trench built with stone-and-brick walls remains intact 90 years after the end of the war just 60 feet from a French trench. Between the two are remnants of the barbed wire of no man’s land.
A trip through this eastern part of France is rewarding, not only from the historical perspective of World War I, but for the cultural and culinary delights its cities and towns offer.
Reims is about 90 miles east-northeast of Paris, less than an hour’s ride on the fast TGV train. It is the major city of Champagne-Ardenne, one of France’s 22 administrative regions, and is still thought of as the capital of the old province of Champagne, for which the famous bubbly is named. Some of the Champagne is aged in bottles in the chalk tunnels dug by ancient Romans beneath the city.
Reims is France’s art-deco city. Badly destroyed by German shells in World War I, it was reconstructed in the art-deco style after the war, and many of the houses in the central part of town have beautiful art-deco facades. Waida, a pastry shop and tea salon in the central shopping area, is worth a visit to taste the delectable bread, pastries and chocolates and to see the exquisite wood paneling with marquetry pictures of clocks showing various mealtimes with the appropriate dishes.
The kings of France were crowned in the 13th-century Cathedral of Our Lady, where the stained-glass windows from the 13th to the 20th centuries dazzle the eye. Charles VII, aided by Joan of Arc, was crowned here in 1429. The facade is a masterpiece of carving from the Middle Ages. Behind the cathedral is the art-deco Carnegie Library, a gift of Andrew Carnegie.
Reims was the seat of the World War II German surrender to the Allies at 2:41 a.m. May 7, 1945. In the War Room of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s headquarters, which occupied part of what was Reims’ technical college (now the Surrender Museum), Gen. Alfred Jodl, the German chief of staff, signed the unconditional surrender. The room where the signing took place is intact, down to the white ashtrays on the table.
As Reims is to art deco, so Nancy is to art nouveau. A group of artists and artisans led by Emile Galle created the school of Nancy about 1900 and forged an alliance between art and industry. Decoration in stained glass, wrought iron, sculpture, pottery, bookbinding, architecture and furniture found its way into homes and businesses.
Nancy’s old town is filled with examples of art-nouveau decor, one of the best being Brasserie Excelsior. Nancy’s pride is the elegant, renovated 18th-century Place Stanislas with its splendid mansions surrounding the square and a set of gilded iron gates fronting an elaborate fountain.
Metz is a relatively unvisited French treasure. Settled by a Celtic tribe in the fifth century B.C., it became French in 1648 at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Metz changed hands and nationality with the 19th- and 20th-century wars: German in 1871; French in 1918; German in 1940; French again in 1944.
What strikes a visitor to the city is the light. The medieval city is built of beautiful yellow stone that turns golden in the sun. Because Metz was built at the confluence of the Moselle and the Seille rivers, the water reflects the sunlight as well. At night, the city lights up its old buildings and monuments.
The Gothic St. Etienne Cathedral, like the cathedral in Reims, is filled with beautiful stained-glass windows. The city has retained some Roman, medieval and 17th-century ramparts. Its railroad station is a superb example of early-20th-century Germanic stone-relief carving depicting activities at the station.
Lorraine is a wonderful region to explore. It’s the origin of quiche Lorraine; the mirabelle yellow plum is ubiquitous, used in tarts, jams, liqueurs; and eau de vie is ubiquitous.
Baccarat is home of the famous crystal. St.-Clement, one of the oldest faience factories operating in France, has been making beautiful dishes and table art for 250 years, including dishes for Marie Antoinette. In Bar-le-Duc, where the upper town’s Renaissance district has been restored, a local enterprise makes the so-called “caviar” that neither Victor Hugo nor Alfred Hitchcock could resist. Its red and white currant jam, made by individually seeding each currant with a goose feather, is 65 percent sugar; a 3-ounce jar sells for about $60.
The charming town of Verdun is home to dregees, the sugar-coated almonds that the French give on special occasions. Verdun has been making dregees since an apothecary hit upon the idea of coating an almond with layers of sugar and honey in 1220.
Throughout the area, there will be festivities of various kinds this year, celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. Concerts, outdoor films, sound-and-light shows, exhibitions, multimedia presentations with fireworks, military ceremonies, a torchlight marathon, a Franco-American ceremony and several conferences begin in June and culminate in a memorial ceremony in the Meuse-Argonne on Nov. 11, when all the church bells in the Meuse department will ring at 11 a.m.
American poet Alan Seeger, who gave his life in World War I, wrote with melancholy eloquence:
And on the tangled wires
The last wild rally staggers, crumbles, stops,
Withered beneath the shrapnel’s iron showers;
Now heaven be thanked, we gave a few brave drops;
Now heaven be thanked, a few brave drops were ours.
Air France, United and Delta airlines fly from Washington-Dulles International Airport to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, from which TGV trains go to the Marne and Meuse areas.
Hostellerie du Coq Hardi is a charming hotel in the center of Verdun with an excellent restaurant; www.coq-hardi. com, phone 33/329 86 36 36.
The small, family-operated Chateau des Monthairons in a large park in Dieue-sur-Meuse is perfect for touring the battlefield area. Rooms are tasteful and comfortable, and the kitchen is first-rate; www.chateaudesmonthairons.fr, 33/329 87 78 55. In Sommepy Tahure, La Source du Puy is a typical country restaurant and small hotel. The owners’ collection of old radios, toasters, irons and other household appliances is scattered throughout the dining room; www.lasourcedupy.com, 33/326 68 21 64.
For information on World War I celebrations, go to www.tourisme-en- champagne.com, www.marne14-18.fr, www.abmc.gov/events/index.php, www.ot-nancy.fr.