Meuse - Argonne

After nine days in the Meuse Argonne region of France, finally back in blighty.

For those of you who may not have visited the region its probably not the most obvious destination in France to make a beeline for. There are no sandy beaches with glorious sunsets to take evening strolls along, hotels are sparse on the ground and the roads are narrow while frequently winding there way between dense forest and largess areas of rolling open countryside that are completely devoid of anything other than cattle and growing crops. That's not to say there isn't tourism in the area, there is. A litter of campsites can be seen around the larger villages, and even in May there are plenty of customers pitching there tents and motorhomes.

But as i'm far from being the worlds most enthusiastic camper what's the attraction?

Well, the area does have one thing that stands out for all of the budding historians, amateur & professional alike, that you just cant find elsewhere.........Verdun and the Meuse Argonne battlefields of WW1. The entire area holds a wealth of history from the WW1 period, obvious by the multitude of monuments that can be seen just by casually driving around the region. Some of the better known monuments have certainly become both a pilgrimage and tourist attraction, with the awe inspiring Ossuary and Fort Douamont to name but two. But these are inexorably linked to the Franco-German 1916 battles around Verdun and not on this occasion relevant to my latest trip to the area.

Perhaps less well know than the 1916 Verdun battles are the battlefields of 1918, where the US Army pitched its inexperienced 'doughboys' into the fray against the highly trained and tenacious German army belonging to the Kaiser. Unfortunately there is a lot less evidence of the 'doughboys' presence there in 1918 than perhaps there should be. Of course there is the heart rending cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon where 14,246 casualties lie, and there is the magnificent monument at Montfaucon which dominates the landscape for miles around. However beyond these two testaments to the bravery of the US army of 1918 there is comparatively little to see unless one makes an effort to track down the history of the individual combat units & divisions.

Most of the villages, or perhaps more accurately hamlets in many cases, they fought and died for contain some small memorial in remembrance to the US troops. Divisional markers can be found in some of the oddest places, usually located outside of the village centre while plaques to individuals can turn up almost anywhere.

The trick to finding out where these plaques exist often involves making the supreme sacrifice of leaving the car and actually speaking to the local population as to where the history exists. Once you start scratching the surface there is a wealth of evidence of the doughboys presence, and the more you dig the more there is to be seen.

There are some exceptional guides that can be purchased if you wish to tour the general area but quite correctly they tend to stick to the more accessible and obvious monuments and plaques more readily seen in village centres.

To give one an idea of the lengths you can go to, too root about for some of the less obvious remnants of US presence one needs only to try and reach the 5th 'Red Diamond' divisional marker atop Cote St Germain. The marker accessed from just inside the village of Lion-Devant-Dun is a good example of what not to do with your kids on a sunny Sunday morning in May. Reaching this monument should not be attempted by car unless you have a 4x4 vehicle as it requires a steep climb uphill over an unsurfaced forestry track, laden with potholes and deep ruts. Once you reach the top you find yourself in dense scrub and woods with little idea whether to turn left or right at the T junction, signposts are not apparently obligatory on forestry roads ! Turning right is definitely not a good idea, the terrain gets tougher and is pretty impassable to most vehicles, but luckily the monument lies to the left, which offers slightly better driving terrain......well at least its flat along the top of the Cote !

Eventually one reaches the end of the track and you're confronted by the most spectacular view across the Foret de Woevre that stretches for miles. The monument even then is well hidden at the back of the opening against the tree line.

The drive to the top, interesting to say the least, is well worth the effort if for nothing other than the view that opens up before you as you leave the tree line to take in the countryside before you.

I have no intention of giving a history lesson here on the deeds of both the US and German armies in the Argonne in 1918 as there are plenty of excellent publications that cover this topic in great depth already. Suffice to say if 'living history' is your thing and you prefer avoiding all of the usual tourist traps and internationally known monuments from the period, then the Meuse Argonne battlefields maybe just what you're looking for. If it is, don't forget tough walking boots, you'll need them.

I'll be posting a selection of images from this trip over the next few weeks, so please do keep coming back to view images of this under visited region of France.

American Monument at Monfaucon

4th (Ivy) Divisional monument looking across to the infamous Bois de Fays

5th (Red Diamond) Divisional monument at the top of the Cote St Germain

So moving onto part 2 of the delights that can be found in and around the Meuse Argonne region its probably best to understand where the battlefield actually lies. The general region lies approximately 245 miles South East of Calais and by road (A26) will take the better part of four hours driving. The line of the roads taken to reach Verdun closely follow the trench lines of the period both through the British sector in the north, around Bethune, Arras & St Quentin, and then picking up the French lines further south, around Soissons & Reims. Of course the route of the drive can prove to be utterly frustrating as you swiftly pass cemeteries and monuments that are visible from the road but are unable to stop at without leaving the A26. If time isn't a problem then id recommend you take the time to visit some of these areas en-route as they can be quite enlightening and humbling as to the sacrifice made by both the British and Commonwealth troops.

Ultimately though our goal is to reach the Meuse Argonne, which as I stated earlier is an area of mixed woodland and rolling countryside. The major sites of the battlefields can be conveniently boxed by using the following roads to trace out the starting positions of the US attack and its final line reached on November 11th, 1918. This boxing only covers the main areas of action but certainly doesn't encompass where all US units finally ended the war. Some units made spectacular advances in November and lie far outside my proposed box, but for the average visitor these maybe a bit to far to travel for the return gained when finally reached by car.

The base of the box, or approximate start line on September 26th, 1918 lies along Verdun to Sainte Menehould road, the A4. This runs in an approximate East / West direction, and from Verdun lies 30miles away or a 40minute drive. If we now take the LHS of the box or western side limit, we need to take the D982 for around 25miles to Vouziers, again a drive of around 40 minutes. The route along the top or northern section of our box is a little less certain for crossing the main sections of battlefield, but in the interests of keeping things simple, the D946 & D947 from Vouziers towards Buzancy and the Stenay is a good line to take. This journey is 27miles taking around 40 minutes (there's a pattern developing here I think !) The final leg of the journey takes us back down towards Verdun and can be completed by using the D964 from Stenay to Verdun (Southerly direction). Perhaps not surprisingly this takes around 45 minutes and is just under 30 miles.

So there we have our convenient box, around which we can travel the approximate extremities of the Meuse Argonne battlefield. Within this box lie most of the major villages and hamlets that were fought over by the US and German armies, although I must stress not all. The conurbations that one is instantly faced with about when reading about this conflict nearly all lie within this traced out area. In the north east close to Vouziers is Grandpre a small town with an impressive church. This town saw severe fighting and posed one of the bigger obstacles the US army had to overcome to break out into open countryside. To the east of Grandpre lies Dun-Sur-Meuse a largish village, which by its very name tells you that the Meuse river runs through there. The Meuse is no trickle of water, it presents a major obstacle to any army trying to cross it, and after heavy rains expands its width inordinately as the water spreads across wide flood plains that lie beneath high sided wooded hills of no small dimension.

Other , perhaps less impressive towns and villages in size also lie within our box. The immortal names of Montfaucon, Exermont, Apremont, Consenvoye and Ivoiry are all within easy reach of each other and still bear some scars of war. There are many more villages besides those I have mentioned, but perhaps the reader at this point may wish to discover those for themselves.

As a note of interest however, Ivoiry is an oft mentioned area of severe fighting when looking at this battlefield. It was an area, like many others, that gave rise to incredible casualties to both sides. However, and here is the irony of it all, the village, and I use that term extremely loosely, approximates to no more than two large barns with attendant farm and perhaps two dozen houses at most. Perhaps in todays terms not worth a bean for fighting over, but in 1918 attitudes were very different to our contemporary outlook of today. And of course we have the benefit of hindsight which always helps.

The main road through the village of Ivoiry

The modern barns of Ivoiry in the foreground with the village of Eclisfotaine in the background. Shot taken from the Ivoiry to Montfaucon road