World War I engulfed Europe from 1914 to 1918, and a century later commemorative activities are now underway across the continent. Americans joined the war in 1917, and for those who wish to walk in the footsteps of the “doughboys”—as American troops were then called—there are plenty of things to see.
The American Battle Monuments Commission maintains grandiose memorials at the sites of important US battles. The ABMC also cares for cemeteries where thousands of Americans lie buried. In addition, there are hundreds of other memorials to the doughboy—some big, some small—scattered all across Europe. For the history-minded traveler, visiting these places can be a solemn but fascinating experience.
Most doughboys saw action in 1918 in three areas of France: Picardy, Lorraine and the Meuse-Argonne region. All of these battlefields are easy day trips from Paris. Some sites are quite remote, so travel by automobile is recommended. Bring a good pair of boots, too.
1. Picardy, France
Doughboys saw their first major action in Picardy, about an hour northeast of Paris. Scores of memorials to the Américains now grace the region. Among the WWI highlights in Picardy are:
- Cantigny – The US First Division took this hamlet from the Germans on May 28. Today Cantigny is littered with American memorials, most notably the ABMC monument that dominates the town. One marker tells the story of Col. Robert McCormick, an artillery officer and wealthy publisher of the Chicago Tribune, who was so affected by his battlefield experiences that he later renamed his sprawling suburban estate Cantigny. Located in Wheaton, Illinois, the McCormick estate is now a park and home to the First Division Museum.
- Belleau – On June 6, the US Marines launched an assault on German positions in the woods south of this village, and finally took them after weeks of savage fighting. Today travelers can still see the remnants of zigzag trenches and shell holes across the forest floor. At the north end of Belleau Wood is the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. For an orientation to nearby battlefields, stop in at the cemetery visitor center, or at the Musée de la Mémoire de Belleau in the village.
- Château -Thierry – A massive ABMC memorial stands on a hill overlooking this charming city where US troops saw action. The limestone double colonnade is impressive enough, but the scenic views of the Marne Valley make the site a must-see for any battlefield traveler.
2. Lorraine, France
On September 12, the US Army launched its first major offensive of the war near Saint-Mihiel, about three hours east of Paris. It was a spectacular success. Among the WWI highlights in Lorraine are:
- Thiaucourt-Regniéville – This village is the home of Saint-Mihiel American Cemetery. The local war memorial pays tribute to the American doughboys who liberated the town from the Germans, and the bells in the nearby church are dedicated to a young American officer, Oliver Cunningham, who was killed in action on his birthday and is buried in the American war cemetery.
- Montsec – The ABMC selected this dominating hill as the site of its memorial to the Saint-Mihiel campaign. The circular colonnade can be seen from the valley below, and from the memorial one gets a bird’s eye view of the battlefield.
- Hattonchâtel – This village, perched at the crest of a hill, might look medieval, but it’s not. After it was destroyed in the battle, an American heiress named Belle Skinner used her fortune to rebuild it much as it was before the war. The local chateau is now a hotel and conference center.
3. Meuse-Argonne, France
On September 26, the Allies launched one last “Grand Offensive” to eject the Germans from France. The American sector lay between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River, about two-and-a-half hours east of Paris. For the doughboy, it was the toughest phase of the war. Among the WWI highlights in this region:
- Montfaucon – Germans troops on this hill slowed the US advance during the first days of the offensive, and the doughboys took it only after exceptionally hard fighting. The ABMC later erected a stone tower to commemorate the offensive, and the views of the green French countryside from the top of it are magnificent. The rebuilt village at the base of the hill also has some American memorials, including a World War II-era Sherman tank, highlighting the fact that US troops liberated this place in both world wars.
- Châtel-Chéhéry – In the forest west of town, Sergeant Alvin C. York of Tennessee captured 132 Germans almost single-handedly. The Sergeant York Discovery Expedition has built a hiking trail through the woods to guide travelers to the site of York’s conquests. However, another organization, the Sergeant York Project, claims that York actually performed his superhuman deeds at a different, nearby location.
- Romagne-sous-Montfaucon – This village is home to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. With more than 14,000 burials, it’s the largest US WWI overseas cemetery. In town is a small but worthwhile museum, Romagne 14-18, containing thousands of military items culled from nearby woods and fields. The proprietor, Jean-Paul de Vries, offers battlefield tours.
During the Grand Offensive, Americans also fought alongside French troops in Champagne, just east of the Meuse-Argonne battlefield. At Blanc Mont Ridge near Sommepy-Tahure, US Marines once again saved the day, and an ABMC memorial now stands on the crest of the massif. Near Séchault, not far away, three African American regiments—among them the famous Harlem Hellfighters—also pushed the Germans back. Each regiment has a small memorial in the surrounding countryside.
End of the road: The last doughboy killed in WWI
The Grand Offensive spelled doom for the Germans, forcing them to sign an armistice. Fighting was to end at 11 am on November 11, and combat occurred to the very end. Near the remote hamlet of Chaumont-devant-Damvillers, one-hour north of Saint-Mihiel, a doughboy named Henry Gunther charged toward a German position at 10:59 am and was shot dead. He was the last soldier killed in action in WWI. A small marker, on a nondescript dirt road in the hills above the village, identifies the spot where Gunther died. This poignant memorial seems modest, but marks the end of the “war to end all wars.”