“Vestiges of the Great War’s Bloody End” and “Les Americains”

The New York Times has been publishing an occasional series in its Travel section on World War I sites in France, written mostly by Richard Rubin, the author of Last of the Doughboys, a remarkable oral history (and remarkably recent) of the last surviving American soldiers who had seen action in the war.

The latest piece–a huge two-page spread in today’s Travel section–describes the remains, often stunningly preserved, of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the “deadliest battle in American history,” with more than 26,000 Americans killed in just 47 days.


By the time it abruptly ended at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, between 15 million and 20 million men had perished in the First World War. That statistic can be difficult to grasp, much less believe; but hike through a couple of forests in the hills of Lorraine, and you begin to see how it happened.”  

Hike around these woods, and you quickly come to understand that this was a war unlike any other when it came to murderous ingenuity, and that the Germans had a distinctive technological edge. They also had better weapons, better-trained soldiers, better generals, better spies, better maps, better barbed wire, better barbed wire cutters. They always seemed to hold the better ground; their strategy was better. You can’t help but wonder: How did they lose?­  

Rubin has been here often, and describes, wonderfully, his encounters with the locals.  When he asks them that question:  “How did the Germans lose?”

the answer is always– always– the same:  Les Americains. 


“Silent Night” and the Christmas Truce of 1914

So much has been written–and debunked– about the “Christmas Truce” of December 1914 on the Western Front that it’s hard to separate truth from sentiment, fact from art.  There have been movies and TV shows and novels and theatre pieces– all drawn to the undeniably powerful idea that, for one brief moment, as the world was plunging into a devastating catastrophe, sanity and human understanding might have prevailed.

trucecuttingI’ve just caught up–three years late–with the extraordinary “Silent Night,” an opera  by American composer Kevin Puts, produced in 2011 by the Minnesota Opera.  It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 2012, and has been produced by several other opera companies since then– probably more than any recent new operatic work, most of which fade away after the first production.

But “Silent Night” not only has a great, often-told story going for it– it’s also a truly powerful, moving theatrical and musical experience.

Here’s an extended clip from a production in Philadelphia.  The whole production– broadcast on PBS’s “Great Performances,” is worth seeking out.

“The Wheat Field” near Chateau-Thierry: Where Americans turned the tide

DSCN0273I was in France in later August, and visited the Musee nationale de la premiere guerre mondiale in Meaux, in the Marne Valley, site of two great battles of World War I–the first in 1914, the second nearly four years later, in summer 1918, after the Americans had entered the war.   I was eager to make a visit–a pilgrimage–to Chateau-Thierry, site of several brutal engagements between Allied forces, including a fresh contingent of U.S. Marines, and German forces in the summer of 1918.

“Belleau Wood” is a legendary place in U.S. Marine history– a dense forest (it’s still there) outside Chateau-Thierry that, in early June 1918, was full of entrenched German soldiers (the trenches are still there, too) crouched behind machine guns.   The Fifth Marine Regiment attacked the woods in waves, pouring across an open wheat field, dotted with poppies.   Oral historian Richard Rubin took the same trip I did a few weeks ago, and wrote about it for the Times:

“On the morning of June 6, 1918, they went on the attack, crossing an open wheat field into withering German machine gun fire. ‘They started us in waves toward the Belleau Woods,’ Private Eugene Lee of the Fifth Marine Regiment — the battle’s last living survivor — told me 85 years later. (Mr. Lee died in 2004 at the age of 105.) ‘In four waves … you’d go so far, and you’d keep firing along there into the woods until the next wave come along … and then you’d lie down, and the next wave would come in back of them, jump each one until they got to the edge of the woods. And then they got in the woods, fighting.'” 

Above is a photo of the American Cemetery in Oise-Aisne, very near Belleau Wood, where 2,288 American soldiers are buried.  These crosses mark the graves only of soldiers whose remains could be identified.  Below is a photo from inside the chapel at the cemetery, its walls covered with names of soldiers:  “The names recorded on these walls are those of American soldiers who fought in this region and who sleep in unknown graves.”

Oisne-Aisne American Cemetery chapel interior

Brian Horrigan, Curator, The Over Here Project

The First World War’s “Big Data”

A little-examined byproduct of World War I is the rise of “big data,” as we might call it today.  The government became increasingly invested in making people, both soldiers and civilians, “legible” (in the words of political scientist James C. Scott), creating an impetus to collect massive amounts of data.

For example, when millions of men enlisted in the military, all were subjected to a rigorous physical examination. Military officials found about one in three recruits to be “defective” and unfit for service.  All of this data was compiled into a report, with the rather cumbersome title: Defects Found in Drafted Men: Statistical Information Compiled from the Draft Records Showing the Physical Condition of the Men Registered and Examined in Pursuance of the Requirements of the Selective Service Act. Here’s a sample chart from this report:

Screen shot 2014-08-06 at 11.04.24 AM

Source: Google Books

Throughout the war, the Medical Department of the US Army also kept scrupulous records on everything from wartime ailments to post-war disability and rehabilitation. They compiled a massive report which is publicly available here.

Big data was also amassed in the surveillance of potentially “subversive” groups and individuals. The head of the Military Information Division, Ralph Van Deman, boasted that by the war’s end his office had collected “many hundreds of thousands of cards” on such suspects.  Citizens were also made “legible” at the state level; Minnesota’s Commission of Public Safety required all “aliens” residing in the state to register for special identification papers:

Alien reg card photoAlien reg card info

Source: Minnesota Historical Society

A national World War I memorial — and the controversy


The CBS Evening News carried a story last night on World War I memorials in the United States, repeating the oft-heard characterization of the War as “forgotten.”One of the settings for the story was this little-known monument in Washington, D.C.– not a national memorial (there is none in the District), but rather a monument to the fallen soldiers from the District itself.  There is currently a drive to create a national memorial in D.C.– not something new, but a “re-purposing” and re-design of the Pershing Park at 14th and Pennsylvania Ave. there.  This is not, however, a universally embraced idea, at least not by the group that has formed to create a distinct National World War I Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

“The Spirit of the American Doughboy”: E.M. Viquesney and the mass-produced war memorial

In the 1920s, World War I memorials were being built throughout America. One sculptor in particular is responsible for a great many: Ernest Moore “Dick” Viquesney, of Spencer, Indiana.  Viquesney sculpted his first memorial sculpture in 1920, which looked something like this: 

Viquesney called it “The Spirit of the American Doughboy,” and in 1921 it won an American Legion war memorial contest, the judges proclaiming it a “100% perfect” representation of America’s doughboys. This, and the fact that Viquesney could mass-produce the statues cheaply with pressed copper, led to a huge demand for the doughboys; in the subsequent decades, they popped up in parks, courthouse lawns, and cemeteries throughout the country.  Thousands more were manufactured as 12-inch miniatures, which were used as desk decorations, lamps, candlesticks, and more.

Today over 140 of Viquesney’s doughboy memorial statues remain scattered throughout the United States. Les Kopel and Earl G. Goldsmith, two Viquesney doughboy enthusiasts, have assembled an impressive website that provides detailed information about E.M. Viquesney and his work, and catalogues all of his doughboys throughout the country.  Visit their site here.

Source: All images and information from The E.M. Viquesney Doughboy Database (linked above)

WWI: The not-so-forgotten war, according to recent NYT piece

Craters dot the landscape along what once was the Western Front

World War I is often referred to as a “forgotten” war, especially here in the States.  But in the pastures and woods that run along the border of Belgium and France, the war’s memory is unavoidable, and sometimes even deadly.

Suzanne Daley’s recently penned piece in The New York Times describes how the war’s remains–artillery shells, land mines, war artifacts, bones–still affect daily life along what once was the Western Front: farmers avoid plowing certain patches of land fearing they will detonate a shell or mine (20-30% of which never blew up); construction projects are halted when mass graves are discovered; local collectors have set up small, independent museums full of war remains; very occasionally, people are killed by 100-year-old shells and mines, and the French and Belgian governments have special units devoted to finding and disposing of these dangerous explosives.

World War I still clings to us all in subtle ways, but in parts of Belgium and France it remains literally imbedded in the landscape.

Image source: The Daily Mail