Tour was a study of the World War I Western front
By Tom Maudlin
I was only 7 years old when World War II began. Many kids at that time had fathers and family members in the armed service in that war.
I was in a unique situation: My father was in World War I. In 1917, he enlisted at 28 years of age. He served under Gen. John J. Pershing and the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Being a Quaker and a conscientious objector, he was assigned to G2 intelligence and was a cartographer or map maker.
Along with some of his correspondence and pictures, I have several of the original maps that he had worked on. These maps showed lines of trenches, German and Allied lines and artillery placement etc. The information to produce these maps came from airplane photographs, front line observation, captured enemy soldiers, etc., and were changed daily as needed. At one point, he was in a railroad car a mile behind the lines — and the maps were made at night.
This year marks 100 years since World War I started. The Western front of that war extended from the coast of Belgium 450 miles south and east through northern France to the coast of Switzerland. My wife Roberta and I in late summer decided to go to France and follow this war front. We wanted especially to see those places that Dad's maps were of and also the areas that Americans had fought in.
We signed on with "Dr. Thomson's Personally Guided WWI Tours." Andrew Thomson has a Ph.D in history and is headquartered in Canterbury, England.
We corresponded with Thomson via email. We sent him a flash drive with pictures of Dad's maps and told him as much as we could of the places that Dad had been. He responded by saying that we would see all those places. When we first met him, he gave us a detailed itinerary based on our correspondence.
We flew to London, then took a high-speed (140 mph) train to Canterbury and stayed at the Falstaff Hotel, which dates back to the 16th century and stands close to Canterbury's Westgate. (This gate was built by Archbishop Simon Sudbury in 1380 replacing the one built in 1023. In medieval times the Westgate was closed at nightfall to pilgrims and wayfarers to keep the city clean.)
The next day, Thomson picked us up at the hotel and drove us onto the Channel Tunnel train. In 35 minutes, we drove off the train and into France. A short drive took us to the Somme battlefield. There we saw trenches, ground covered with shell holes and memorials.
Heading south from there we saw many memorials and cemeteries. Among them was the British memorial to the missing and the American memorial and cemetery with 15,000 graves. That night we stayed in Chateau Thierry, a beautiful small city on the Marne River.
After spending the night at a beautiful hotel "Le Tulipier," we resumed our study of the first involvement of the American forces. It was in this area that the Germans were stopped in their attempt to capture Paris, which was only 30 miles away.
We saw Sgt. Alvin York's memorial. He was one of the most decorated soldiers in World War I, ultimately getting the Metal of Honor. He almost single-handedly took out 32 machine gun nests, killing 28 Germans and capturing 132 prisoners.
Then we headed to Belleau Woods, one of the best-known battles that U.S. forces were involved in and eventually won. From June 1-26, 1918, American forces repelled numerous attacks by German forces. Many times it was hand-to-hand fighting, making it one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles the U.S. would fight in World War I.
After a few days of fighting, the U.S. Marines were urgently told to retreat by the French. It was then that Capt. Lloyd Williams uttered the now famous words, "Retreat? Hell, we just got here." Belleau Woods has become a deep part of the lore of the Marine Corps.
Another memorial in the same area was to the Lost Battalion and the monument to "Cher Ami." The battalion was some 554 men pinned down beyond enemy lines being fired on by both enemy and friendly fire.
The first two of three homing pigeons were sent with messages attached telling of their position, asking for help and asking to stop friendly fire. Both were shot down. Cher Ami the third pigeon was sent. She was sent with message attached and was also shot down but managed to regain flight. She flew 25 miles to the rear with a message that ultimately saved those who were left. She arrived, shot through the breast, blinded in one eye and with a leg hanging by a tendon.
We continued through many areas described by the maps. Thomson is a great and knowledgeable lecturer and explained the maps in detail. Along the whole tour, we saw many cemeteries and memorials: French, German, English and American. That night we stayed in a small hotel in the Argonne Forest.
Continuing the next day we drove to St. Mehiel and ate lunch at a nice French restaurant and mixed with the locals. After lunch we saw preserved areas of trenches, shell holes and craters caused by mining warfare. The ground was pockmarked by the artillery shells and craters. Underground mines were dug under the enemy lines. Then after being filled with dynamite they were exploded causing huge craters. Those killed obviously could never be identified.
Next we went to Verdun. This 2,000-year-old city on the beautiful Muese River has been fought over many times between the Prussians and French. The most notable was in 1916, when in less than a year nearly 1 million were killed, wounded or missing. The Douaumont Ossuary is a national cemetery with 130,000 graves.
The next day we headed back. On the way we went to Reims and toured Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims. All the French kings were crowned there, and it was where Joan of Arc paved the way for Charles II to become king.
From there on to Paris, driving past the Eiffel Tower, and Versailles and on to Rouen, an old coastal city on the Seine River. This was our last night in France with Thomson. We enjoyed a nice French meal with champagne and discussed the highlights of our tour.
Before leaving the next morning Thomson showed us some of the sites of Rouen, including the site where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. Then it was back to Calais, the Channel tunnel and eventually London. The next five days were full with experiences in London. But this should be part of another story.
France was beautiful with mild weather, green fields and trees showing their bright fall colors. Thomson went out of his way to take care of us. He is so very knowledgeable. It was like an intense five-day lecture tour.
World War I was the first war to see airplanes, tanks and advanced machine guns. This trip has left Roberta and me haunted thinking of the unfathomable carnage, starvation, and disease that a four-year conflict caused — and which accomplished nothing.
Tom Maudlin is a Cissna Park resident.