Touring France – Second Battle of the Marne River

By Guest Author Allan Kissam

Next year, 2017, marks the centennial of America’s entry into World War I – the Great War. It was not until 1918 that American forces fought the battle-tested Germans along the Reims-to-Paris sector and Marne River. American men still turn up there entombed in mud of the area.

Now is a good time to plan an expedition to beautiful France, America’s oldest ally, for traipsing around where 53,402 of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers met eternity. These American fighting men were young (many recently at high school), mostly drafted into the Army, and their deaths left many grieving mothers at home.

Discomforting, but necessary, is visiting the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery as a tourist and from there go up the hill to still-existent trenches and shell holes of Belleau Wood. U.S. Marines fought there, adjoining thousands of U.S. Army “doughboys”. The US Government employees of the American Battle Monuments Commission give brief lectures of the area events. A story to repeat: during utility construction, US soldiers were uncovered together, one protecting the other assumed already wounded, as dirt buried them from artillery shelling. Fragments of men are found and relatives located to match DNA, whereupon the name is stricken from the list of missing by adding a small star.

 

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The photos above show the now peaceful resting place of American fighting men, crosses for the unknown men, lists of names from the chapel, and one example of the valor by these men given the Distinguished Service Cross citation for Private Joseph McVey.

Americans fought all around Reims as distinct commands or attached to allied forces. Here is a concise timeline of American military activity in World War I published by the University of Kansas Medical Center.

 

The Great War at Home

The Great War was a very intense experience for Americans as casualties increased rapidly in 1918, and culminated in a fury at the close of the war. One way to understand being back at home during World War I is to compare our personal experiences of recent wars.

My own consciousness-of-events (safe at home) started with Vietnam’s battlefield news. High school classmates were killed in Vietnam, more were wounded, and the daily list of killed/wounded often ran over several columns in the local Los Angeles newspaper.

US forces over the 20 years of the Vietnam War suffered 58,220 killed, but 57,666 of these happened 1965-1969, according to the National Archives. People with family in the military had good reasons to be concerned, especially after the 1964 election.

During only 10 months of actual fighting in World War I, US forces suffered 53,402 killed. Two thirds of the combat deaths happened during the last three months of the war (after the German General Staff already knew it had lost). Many more also died in-service from influenza during 1918 (about 63,000). Wounded and ‘other’ category cases were about 200,000 in both wars with government responsibility for care extending out nearly a century.

My father was born in 1918, on the day his oldest brother boarded a train for France and combat in World War I. Uncle Roland when in France could have walked on the same roads there today – it does not appear to change much.

I recall in the 1970’s thumbing through a crumbling photo book on cheap paper about the Great War that certainly was an early coffee-table book. The family probably purchased it when Roland left for the army, and certainly my father had read it as a boy in the 1920’s. Most of the men in the book at the outbreak of conflict in 1914 (French, Belgians, and British) had died in the war, captured forever as the young men photographed.

Roland sent home a postcard of the era. Back home, worried mothers shared poems in the newspaper that Roland’s mother clipped and saved. By this time in 1918, everyone knew about the tremendous carnage suffered in France and death notices ramped up with the epidemic. Roland Kissam is pictured here at home prior to departure for France in 1918. He made it home safely.

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Reims Is Close to Paris

Trains run from Charles de Gaulle Airport (CGD) to Reims, taking about one hour. There one can rent a car for touring the famous Champagne region and surrounding French forts constructed in the 1880’s. It is not so much the crumbling forts themselves that are worth seeing, but rather the displays inside of equipment, weapons, uniforms, maps, and descriptions of life for the troops fighting there in 1914-1919.

Fort de la Pompelle has a fantastic collection of German military headgear. All the photos you have seen that show troops with feathers and spikes get an explanation here. Weapons and uniforms of all types include original medals earned by participants. The display here is highly recommended, along with the famous Army Museum in Paris.

The medal given Sergeant Joseph Frantz (French aviator) on display is for the first-ever aerial victory between aircraft in 1914 – combat between today’s jets started in the sky around Reims. He violated orders and affixed a machine gun to his aircraft observer’s position and proceeded to down an unsuspecting German aviator.

Czarist Russians fought near Reims as allies of the French against Germany. This being a war between colonial powers, there were also men brought to fight from Africa and even Mexico. France had occupied Mexico in the 1860’s and volunteer Mexican troops deployed as part of the colonial forces. A monument at Fort de la Pompelle is for the Mexican troops fighting for France.

 

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World War I was called “the war to end all war,” but in Reims also see the American command center of World War II where Germans signed surrender documents in 1945. At Fort de la Pompelle, General Patton’s 3rd Army had artillery positions to chase the Germans out of France. The chapel monument at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery has a World War II German tank shell hole in one wall.

Champagne is the area’s beverage par excellence as this is the “Champagne region,” and plenty can be had in Reims when walking around or by visiting famous cellars not far from the city. Other Reims sights include its beautiful church where kings were coronated, as well as a large ancient Roman arch. At the US Army command center is the place on film where the command car drives up, leather-coated Germans proceed into the building, and then inside is seen General Jodl and his group accepting surrender to the Allied forces – everything is in the room as it was in 1945.

The French are our good friends, as seen by a visit to these points of common struggle and sacrifice. Their goodwill was essential in securing our independence so long ago. France was a good experience for me on every trip to famous museums, wonderful wine, of course – the food, and unparalleled scenery.

If you visit this area, perhaps give thanks to our men that remain there, forever in uniform.