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Friday, August 16, 2013

18+Days in the AEF's footsteps: Day 8, Traveling through Champagne, East to the extended American front line and City of Verdun

Town Center of City of Verdun
This statue symbolizes the resistance
of the people of Verdun
to the German advances north of the town
in the Ring of Forts
     As the First Division arrived in France in 1917 and more Divisions came to fill in the ranks and enlarge the battalions, the American front line became more of a reality, less of a concept.
     Remember that the American sector, such as it was defined, was a creation of General Pershing who refused to combine the American forces with those of the French or British. Those allies wished for more men to fill out their ranks, decimated as they had been by three years of bitter trench warfare.
    With the arrival of more and more American soldiers and Marines, Pershing foresaw that he could build a fighting force as strong or stronger than his allies'. He wisely engaged French and British instructors in every type of training from flame-throwing to grenade use to efficient medical procedures. Furthermore, Pershing was an advocate of aggressive tactics and refused to fight the inch-by-inch warfare that had stymied the French and British efforts to get out of the trenches and pierce the German lines.
    Driving east from Chateau-Thierry through the Champagne is a peaceful agrarian scene. Bright yellow with mustard plants or grape vines along the rolling hills, the land is a lovely vision. Pictures of the landscape in 1917-1918 show a stark contrast. Awed as we were by the huge expanses of crops and large number of privately held farms, my husband and I had to research the level of farm production in France. Sure enough, it is huge, producing 20% of all food for Europe. Although this French percentage to the food basket of Europe is larger today than in the war years, we saw the potential that Germany must have gauged. Germany, before the war, had a prosperous economy with a growing population. Given the emphasis on industrial production, fertile French land must have been a lure to feed their hungry people.
Along the banks of the River Meuse stand these five French soldiers of
La Grande Guerre. Ever-mindful of the enormous efforts of the French military
to save the City manning The Citadel and in the Ring of Forts,
the citizens prize this sculpture which represents
each type of soldier who served in the war.
     We chose to make our base the City of Verdun as we explored the areas of the American eastern front lines. We were happy we did. Why? The City is one of the loveliest and best preserved even from that period. Assaulted as it was from most sides, the City represents to this day the stalwart nature of the French who retained the land at the cost of hundreds of thousands of French poilus, the near-starvation of the City's populace and the Americans who came to help them save it.

  On Sunday along the west bank of the quai, we ate our dinner. Prosperous, the citizens shop, eat, take their children and walk their dogs along the River. (Enlarge this pix to see the 5 French soldiers situated near the pole here, but along the eastern bank of the Meuse.)
   We stayed in a hotel along the banks of the Meuse, within walking distance of The Citadel. (Return for my next post when I take you there.) Verdun today is a serene city along the River Meuse. There on a weekend, we strolled along the quai and ate in a riverside cafe. We marveled that this city was once the prize fought over by millions of men on both sides of the conflict. But nestled as it is along the ridge of mountains near the Alsace and German border, we see the town's vulnerability. Controlling it meant access to the other rivers and major cities west, including Paris.

   We marveled too at the influence of Americans and Germans. How did we gauge it? Everything—signs, brochures, menus and more—are most often given in triplicate: French, German and English. (A treat for this gal whose German-American family taught her the German language!)

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