I recently spent a fine spring day following (in reverse) part of the route described in Rose Coombs' "Before Endeavours Fade" near the Marne (see the Reims to Compeigne section). I apologise in advance for not saying more about Belleau Wood and the Hill 204 memorial, but since these are so well known and are covered in all the guidebooks, I do not feel that I can add anything new.
The BEF 1914
My first halt, 45 minutes from home, was at the Memorial to the Missing at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. This memorial commemorates 3,888 men of the BEF who died at Mons, Le Cateau, the retreat and the Aisne 1914 and who have no known grave. These were all Regular Army, but over half were also Reservists who had only been recalled to the colours the previous month. (John Terraine in "Mons" p.3 states that Reservists constituted 60 per cent of the strength of the BEF at that time.) The large, squat memorial is surmounted by a sarcophagus on which various trophies are laid. A careful study of these reveals a 'deliberate error' as there is a steel helmet - with which the BEF was not equipped in 1914. (Rose Coombs gives further details of this monument.)
On each riverbank, slightly downstream of the modern road-bridge, is a rectangular obelisk. These mark the position of a floating bridge that was built by the 4th Division Engineers whilst under fire from the Germans who held the high ground on the northern bank. This bridge enabled the left wing of the BEF to continue its northward advance in September 1914.
From there we drove along the Marne to Luzancy, which marked the right flank of the 4th Division's advance. We then took a detour off the route, past numerous Champagne vineyards, to visit Montreuil-aux-Lions British Cemetery. This contains the graves of 139 men of the original BEF who died near here in September 1914. An inscription behind the cross of sacrifice records eight men of the 1st battalion Dorsetshire Regiment who were killed on 9 September and who are known to be buried in the cemetery.
The US Army in the Second Battle of the Marne 1918
"American Armies and Battlefields in Europe" (pp. 44-45) also refers to Montreuil-aux-Lions which
"was the Headquarters of the 2nd Division during the early part of its fighting in the vicinity of Belleau Wood. ... The infantry of the American 2nd Division detrained at Montreuil-aux-Lions while hurrying forward to enter the battle line near Belleau Wood. They reported this road crowded and, in some places, blocked with French civilians and troops endeavouring to get out of the way of the German advance."
We continued the detour to go to Marigny-en-Orxois. The reason for this is that there had been some correspondence on the World War 1 Mailing List concerning the grandfather of a list-member. Corporal Alpheus Appenheimer had served in the village with the HQ Detachment, 6th Machine Gun Battalion, part of the 4th Marine Brigade, US 2nd Division just before the battle of Belleau Wood. An entry in his diary reads:
"June 1. Unload and leave (St. Soupplets) at noon and hike till night and camp in a chateau court. It's a beautiful place, lakes, fountains, deer, swans and ducks. The chateau is now a Hospital, bringing in wounded soldiers by the hundred very close to the front."
The chateau still exists today as a private property and is very attractive, with the style of turret that one imagines to be typical of a small French chateau. Apparently, the oldest part of the chateau was built during the 12th century, with 15th and 18th century additions. It was the chateau of Francois Gigot de La Peyronie, first surgeon to Louis XV, then after 1750, it was the property of Francois Poisson, the father of the Marquise de Pompadour, Louis XV's favourite.
Belleau Wood must be one of the most famous sites on the Western Front. It was here in June 1918 that the American Expeditionary Force achieved its greatest achievement in the war up to that date. The wood itself contains evidence of shell holes and trenches, though these are poorly preserved in comparison with those in the forests of Verdun and Argonne. A clearing in the centre of the wood contains a fine bas-relief sculpture which is a memorial to the US 4th Marine Brigade of 2nd US Division. There are several artillery pieces and trench mortars placed around the clearing.
The adjoining Aisne Marne American Cemetery is beautifully kept and contains 2,289 burials. It is overlooked by a memorial chapel, the interior walls of which are inscribed with the names of 1,060 missing. A few hundred yards west of the village on the D9 is a large German cemetery with 8,625 graves.
"Before Endeavours Fade" (p161, 7th edition) continues with a description of the village:
"Opposite the main gate of the Cemetery is the Demarcation Stone and the reconstructed village church, the work being paid for by the veterans of the US 26th Division. Their divisional badge is on the church gatepost.... Within are memorials and flags of the 26th Division and other US forces and commemorative stained-glass windows. Down the village street is a drinking trough, filled with flowers, the gift to Belleau from the Belleau Wood Memorial Association in memory of the soldiers of Pennsylvania who lost their lives. At the bottom of the street are the chateau stables where the Americans were housed. They are on private property, but access is free. Against the wall opposite the stables, below the chateau ruins, is another trough with a fountain in the shape of a bulldog's head - a gift from the US Marines whose badge included such an animal."
The penultimate stop that day was at Cote 204 which overlooks the town of Chateau Thierry and the Marne Valley. The view from the impressive American Memorial is superb.
Just west of the centre of Chateau Thierry is the memorial to the US 3rd Division, (the Marne Division) which fought here in July 1918. In the centre of town beside the river is the Place des Etats-Unis. Here, as described in "Before Endeavours Fade", is the Maison Amitie Franco-Americain. In the courtyard are some relics of Quentin Roosevelt's aircraft - the engine and propeller - as well as some photos of the pilot and his original grave at Chamery.
(I gratefully acknowledge Bradley Omanson for allowing me to quote the above entry from his grandfather's diary. This only goes to support my theory that every village in this part of the world has a story from the Great War. Finding it though is mainly luck.)
(A contemporary account of Belleau Wood from the New York Times can be found on the World War 1 Document Archive. There is also an article on the "Trenches on the Web" webn-site. the Hellfire Corner Links Page contains links to both these sites.)
Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.
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