Beginning the World War Battlefield Tour
Sep 17, 2018
|Met my tour group this morning at 8:30 to board the bus. There are 15 of us, including 5 women. We have 2 guides, one of them a WWI historian and the other one the guy who does all the logistics. He and about 2/3 of the group are from Gettysburg and have all done several of these battlefield tours together. I’m about the youngest, except for Anthony, the unofficial tour photographer. I thought most of the people would have ancestors who had fought in the war, but it turns out that only 3 of us are in that category. The rest are just straight-up war geeks. They can’t get enough of talking about weapons and battles, no matter which war.
Iain McHenry, our guide/historian, gave a briefing on the bus before we got to each site and then walked and talked with us at the actual sites. Such a great way to learn and appreciate what we’re seeing. In his intro about the war, he told us that if you stood there and watched just the French war dead from WWI march past you in ranks of 4, it would take 81 days and nights before they all passed. And over 1000 French villages were completely obliterated in the war, so far gone that nobody ever moved back. The impact on France was just horrific. The U.S. was only in the war for 18 months, and it took us 6 months to even get the first troops over here. But the French and the British lost an entire generation of young men to the carnage. By the time the Americans arrived, the French were almost without hope of holding off the Germans. Fortunately, the Germans were pretty tired, too.
It is important to remember that America was not a world power in 1917. We had an army of only about 125,000 men, and a national guard of around 100,000. We had never fought on another continent. Our last major war had been the Civil War 50 years earlier. We had no Pentagon, no modern weapons, almost no training camps, and a navy so small that we couldn’t get a million men over here, even if we had them. Our entire military Air Force was about 32 planes—-the canvas, double-winged deals. We had not yet figured out how to fire guns from planes without having them ricochet off the propeller blades back at the pilot. But a year later, we had a million trained (sort of) men landing in France. To do that, we had to launch a massive propaganda and recruiting (and conscription) campaign to recruit troops and get the country to buy war bonds, nationalize the railroads, build training camps all over the U. S., and commandeer all the ships we had, as well as any German ships in our ports at the time.
You can see why the French and British were not exactly convinced that the U.S. could actually save France. They were mainly hoping for some fresh replacements to fill in their regiments after the massive losses they had suffered. But when President Woodrow Wilson appointed John J. “Black Jack” Pershing the General of the Armies, he specifically told him that American soldiers were only to fight under the American flag and that he wanted it to be clear when it was over that the Americans had played THE decisive role in winning the war. That meant that in France, the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) would have to build their own camps, docks, railroads, supply infrastructure, hospitals, communications, etc. France was just exhausted after 4 years of fighting. Her hospitals, trains, etc., were full and she was almost out of food in the northern part of the country where so many farms had been destroyed. Trench warfare had just been a war of attrition and little progress had been made by either side since the beginning of the war. German troops were holding a line across Northern France. The opposing trenches went from the English Channel to Switzerland.
So this is where Grandpa Gates enters the picture. He was working as an apprentice machinist for the Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) in Jackson, MI. An important part of the military recruiting push after the declaration of war in April 1917 was to get enough engineers to enlist. Without engineers, armies can’t be transported and supplied, wounded can’t be transported to medical care, bridges, roads and railroads can’t be built, and communications systems can’t be set up. Ships have to be unloaded and weapons, trucks, and train engines have to be assembled. Railroad tracks had to be laid (since France’s railroads were already jammed with traffic). Barracks and massive supply dumps have to be built. A postal service had to be set up (important for keeping support up on the home front and morale up for the troops). And most importantly, an army moves on its stomach, right? Nothing happens without food and water. So the Army was recruiting for what we now know as the Army Corps of Engineers. They made special recruiting efforts at places like MCRR, where Grandpa worked.
One of the things that reportedly made signing up attractive was that you would get not only all new clothes and shoes (uniforms) but also a brand new winter coat. Men were promised 3 meals a day and, of course, the glory of victory. Grandpa was 21, his parents and his brother were dead of typhoid, TB, and diabetes, respectively, and he had a chance to go to France with Army, knowing that service would satisfy the remainder of his 3-year apprenticeship and he would make more money when he returned. He signed up before the draft was instituted, which meant that he would be promoted from private to corporal at the end of basic training. He was called to Camp Grant in Rockford, IL, as soon as the camp could be built (Sept. 1917) and joined the 21st Engineers, Light Rail Company C. They left Camp Grant for Hoboken, NJ, and a ship to Europe on Christmas Day 1917.
Knowing that the Americans were coming, the Germans made a massive push toward Paris, which would have ended the war if it had succeeded. They actually got within 30 miles of Paris by the time the Americans arrived and got their feet under themselves. So that’s just a little background to set the scene.
We went from Paris today to Cantigny, site of the first significant American battle in the war in May 1918. The Germans had made a surprise attack there, knowing that the French couldn't get there in time. The Americans were able to drive the Germans back and, although it was a relatively small scale battle, it helped convince the French generals that the Americans were capable. With several other successful battles that summer, the Americans gained valuable experience that would prepare them for taking their place on the Western Front as an independent army. While this was going on, Grandpa was sent to help build a massive supply center at Jonchery and get more in-country training. So he wasn’t in the initial battles, but played a part in getting supplies to those who were fighting.
We later stopped at the American Oise-Aisne Cemetary, where 6,000 American soldiers were buried after that summer of fighting. There is something so moving about the quietness of the wind blowing across thousands of white crosses in perfect rows. Following those stops, we went to the First World War Museum in Meaux, a really beautiful, modern national museum recently opened. (France has been observing the centennial of the war since 2014 and is just getting to the end of this 4-year national celebration. They have prepared for years and have had millions of visitors from all over the world come to tour the Western Front.) The exhibits, all very multimedia and experiential, gave us a good view of trench warfare, French life on the home front, impact on villages and refugees, and advances in medical care that came out of the First World War.
We kept moving across the very rural, agricultural countryside toward our first night in the medieval city of Rheims, where we were to stay for 3 nights. I’m starting to feel a little sore throat and headache, so I got room service and went to bed early, excited to see more of the city tomorrow.