100 years of gratitude

Written by New York Times | Updated: Aug 31 2014, 07:53am hrs
WE FORGOT. Its not entirely our fault: Americans have been conditioned by nearly a century of British revisionist histories to believe that the US didnt do much in World War I, and, by countless anecdotes about rude cab drivers and haughty waiters, to believe that the French dont much care for Americans.

But both beliefs are, in fact, mistaken, and a big reason the second is untrue is that the first is quite far from true, and the French know it. They have never forgotten that when the war was mired at a grim stalemate and they and their British allies were exhausted nearly to the point of collapse, it was the Americans who stepped in and tipped the balance. True, the French dont speak much English, and they charge an outrageous amount for a small bottle of Coke, but they are grateful. They remember. Go to France and theyll remind you too.

One afternoon this summer, I set out from the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, in the French region of Lorraine, to find a certain farmhouse. I had spent the morning searching for vestiges of the Great War. The house I was looking for had a more notorious association: in 1914, as the Germans were first taking the area, a young second lieutenant named Erwin Rommel stopped there to eat and rest.

I managed to find the place, took some photos and was about to get back into my car when a silver Nissan 4x4 pulled up. A ruddy, thickset man in his 60s climbed out and greeted me. I asked him if he knew about Rommel and this house. He didnt, but that house, he quickly added, gesturing at a smaller edifice a half-mile off on the other side of a couple of small gatesDouglas MacArthur had been there in 1918. Do you want to see it he asked, smiling.

I climbed into his truck as he unlatched the first gate. His land, he explained, comprised several old farms. The one

to which we were heading had been known in 1918 as La Tuilerie. It was then part of the Kriemhilde Stellung, a stretch of formidable German fortifications that was part of the Hindenburg Line, the invaders ultimate chain of

defenses in France.

The Tuilerie house looked as if it hadnt been inhabited in a long time; it still had four walls, but no roof. MacArthur was here, my host announced, a bit awed. It was October 14, 1918. La Tuilerie was the site of some particularly fierce fighting, the Germans raining fire down upon the Americans from a nearby hill, the Cote de Chatillon. Young MacArthur, the legend goes, had been ordered to take Chatillon or show 5,000 casualties for the effort. He famously responded that he would, or his name would be first on that list.

Now, my host gestured at a tree line not far away. Those woods, he said, are full of German trenches. Want to see We bushwhacked until we came to a series of ditches, 8ft deep or more. The passage of a century had not eroded them much at all. There was no mistaking them for anything else.

Soon, he was telling me about something else and asking, yet again: Want to see We spent nearly five hours together that afternoon, driving across fields and through little villages where this or that had happened in the fall of 1918, until we ended up on a rugged dirt trail atop a wooded ridge. A few yards below on either side were more networks of German trenches, some trailing off to pits that had once held machine-gun emplacements or howitzers. This was the Cote Dame Marie, high ground of paramount strategic importance to the Germans. For four years, they had used it to repel French assaults and thus retain possession of a large chunk of the Argonne Forest, the key to controlling a vast area. Then, in October 1918, the American 32nd Division, National Guard troops from Wisconsin and Michigan, managed to wrest it away from them at the cost of many American lives.

The Great Wars centennial presents Americans with a fine opportunity to explore the important role their country played in that conflict. But there are some challenges: the war happened 100 years ago and 4,000 miles away. And beyond that, it was so great in every conceivable metric that it can seem impossible to grasp and you cant help but wonder: what can I possibly make of this How do I even begin

You could start big at one of the enormous American World War I monuments in France, or one of the vast American cemeteries Over There. Or you could start as small as a single name. Around 2,287 Americans buried at Aisne-Marne have been gone for nearly a century, but somehow when you stand there, it doesnt feel that way at all. Step into almost any patch of woods in certain parts of Lorraine or Champagne or Picardy, and you will find lots of trenches and shell holes, even some massive craters.

Yes, a century later, Americas Great War is still right there on the surface for you to behold and touch, at Belleau Wood and along the Marne in Champagne, at St-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne in Lorraine. But before they fought at those places, Americans spent much of the winter of 1918 in a place that had seen some of the wars most terrible fighting just the year before, an 18-mile-long ridge in Picardy known as the Chemin des Dames. And it was there that they left a mark unlike any other you will find.

First, youll need to find someone who can take you there. My guide, Gilles Chauwin, has been exploring the area for 50 years. When the Germans took the Chemin des Dames in 1914, they discovered that the ridge was filled with old subterranean stone quarries that afforded excellent protection during French artillery bombardments. They quickly made themselves at home underground, running electricity and telephone lines through the old tunnels and carving out barracks, kitchens, infirmaries and command posts.

The entrances to the mines are barred. Gilles explained that these places have been plagued by poachers and souvenir hunters in recent years, and there isnt the money to keep them maintained and protected adequately. You have to climb down two steep ladders to reach the floor, then turn on your flashlight and start walking. It wont take long before you start to see names carved in the walls or written in ink. Many of 25,000 men of the 26th Division, the Yankee Division, took shelter in these mines in the winter of 1918 after the Germans had left. Everyone in the Yankee Division had heard all about the slaughter that took place just above their heads the year before, and they understood that anything might happen when they climbed back out into the world. For all they knew, these walls might be their last chance to leave something behind in this world. They took advantage of them, carving eagles, schooners, flags, swords and hearts.

Up there on the surface, there are plenty of monuments commemorating the fact that a great many Americans perished in France in 1918. But down here, in this mine, the walls testify that before they were names on memorials and gravestones, those Americans were peopleyoung, cocky, scared, and alive.

Richard Rubin