|Well, I’m on my way. I’m 7 miles up in the air and will be in France tonight, having left Detroit at noon today. I’m not EXACTLY following the footsteps of my grandfather (my mother's father), Russell Sumner Gates, who served in World War I, since he sailed to France aboard the ship President Grant in 1917 taking more than 2 weeks to get there from Hoboken, NJ. And he had spent 2 days before that on a train to Hoboken from Camp Grant, IL, where he had completed his basic training. His trip was voluntary, like mine, but his was no vacation. He enlisted in the Army as soon as President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany in World War I, even before the draft was put in place. He was a 22-year-old railroad apprentice from Jackson, MI, and by the end of his basic training, he was a corporal in the U.S. Army, part of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) led by General John J. Pershing. He landed in Brest, France, on January 13, 1918, and for the rest of the war, would be a locomotive mechanic on the narrow-gauge railroads that supplied the front-line trenches with food and munitions, and then transported the wounded to hospitals all over France. Unarmed, he would sleep within earshot of the artillery blasts every night, often within their reach, and his trains would be bombed and strafed almost daily by an enemy trying to disrupt the Allied supply chain. I’ll be staying in hotels and Airbnb apartments with TV and wifi, rather than pup tents, barns and open fields.
I wonder what he would have thought of my taking this trip. Like most soldiers, he never spoke of the Great War, never talked about any glory days or even old buddies. I started doing research about 10 years ago, just to try to find out where he served and what he did. My research encompassed records in the National Archives, regimental histories, daily company reports, and General Pershing’s Order of Battle, as well as diaries and letters home written by others in Grandpa’s company. Now, I can pinpoint where he was almost every day the AEF was in France. I’m planning to try to write a book, just for our family’s history. But everybody tells me that it’s not possible to imagine what it was like for him unless I go to France and see.
The “Over There” tour I’m taking (starting on Sept. 17) will visit almost all the places where Grandpa served in France, almost 100 years to the day after he was at those places. A First World War historian, Iain McHenry, will be leading our group and providing briefings along the way.
But before the tour starts, I’m going off on my own to explore Strasbourg, France (just for fun) and Alflen, Germany (my Irmen great grandfather’s hometown before he emigrated to Maumee, Ohio, in 1892). So, after we land in Paris, I’m going to try to get some sleep before catching the train to Strasbourg in the morning.