The Argonne Forest

One weekend in November 1996 we made a first visit to the region. It is another part of the Western Front that is poorly served by modern guide books. "Before Endeavours Fade" devotes a mere two pages to this fascinating area. The new "Premiere Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace" is the most thorough of recent works with 20 pages. However, older works such as the 1919 Michelin Guide "The Americans in the Great War Vol. 3, Meuse-Argonne" and the 1938 "American Armies and Battlefields in Europe" do a much better job. The French Army's role in the region is best explained in the 1931 French language Michelin Guide "Verdun Argonne 1914-18" (though this volume is in fact a combined and updated version of the separate 1919 "Verdun" and "Argonne" volumes).

The Argonne Forest

Two hours after leaving home we drew off the motorway at St. Menehould, a small town that is one of the gateways to the Argonne forest and which remained behind the French lines for most of the war.  On the edge of town is a French military cemetery containing 5,485 burials. Most of these men died in the hospitals in the town. This cemetery also contains a Memorial to the Defenders of the Argonne of the 10th and 18th Corps. A picture of this can be seen on page 109 of "The Americans in the Great War Vol. 3, Meuse-Argonne".

We drove north-east to Lachalade, a village in the centre of the forest.  Beside the cross-roads is the Memorial to the Garibaldians which was erected in 1933. This commemorates Constante and Bruno Garibaldi, grandsons of Giuseppe Garibaldi who was one of the architects of Italian unification. His son Ricciotti offered his services to France and raised a legion of Italian volunteers, 'The Garibaldians'. The legion served in the Argonne in late 1914 and early 1915.

From Lachalade we drove eastwards to a minor road, the D38c, which is better known as the Haute Chevauchee. On the Haute Chevauchee is the main memorial within the forest: the Memorial to the Defenders of the Argonne. It was inaugurated by Poincare on 30 July 1922 and commemorates 150,000 French combatants. The nine metre high stone monument is surmounted by the bust of a poilu whose hands are clasping the handle of a sword which overlays a cross. The flanks of the monument are engraved with the numbers of 275 French regiments, 18 Italian regiments, and 32 American divisions which saw service in the Argonne sector. The crypt of the memorial contains an ossuary which contains the remains of several thousand unknown soldiers.

The approach drive to the memorial is, in my opinion, one of the finest to be had anywhere on the Western Front. The closer one gets to the memorial, the more one can see how the ground under the trees has been churned up. The shell holes are largest near the memorial and the trench systems are still very much in evidence. In fact, the memorial is in the middle of a line of craters which marked no-man's-land in this area, better known during the War as the "La Fille Morte" sector.

The Haute Chevauchee has a sense of desolation that sanitised sites such as Vimy Ridge and the Newfoundland Memorial Park at Beaumont Hamel lack. Such sites are indeed lovingly preserved, and are very moving, but the fact that the surrounding farmland shows no obvious traces of the Great War mean that, for me, they have something of the atmosphere of a museum. However, the Haute Chevauchee is only the centre of a vast area of battlefield in which one can wander for hours.  Nature has failed to hide the evidence of the Great War after 80 years.  To me this makes the battles in the Argonne seem that much closer and more tangible than those of the Somme. Here, as with the Verdun battlefield, one can imagine the trees as shell-blasted stumps among the craters. I find that it is much harder to make this leap of imagination on a piece of well tended Somme farmland, or when surrounded by crowds of tourists on a sunny day at Vimy.

On that particular autumn day, the dank forest was very still with an atmosphere that I have noticed in only a few parts of the Front. I'm too much of a cynic to believe in ghosts, but I'm willing to believe that if the "pale battalions" still march anywhere on the Western Front, then they will be found here in the Argonne. Only the occasional crump of artillery shells exploding in the Champagne training grounds 20 miles to the west broke the silence.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in visiting some other sites in the forest. The first of these was the French military cemetery at La Harazee (east of Vienne-le-Chateau) in which are buried 1,672 soldiers, of which 442 are in an ossuary. One mile or so north of Vienne-le-Chateau on the D63 is another French military cemetery which contains 8,085 Great War burials, of which 3,324 are in two ossuaries.  There are several memorials to individual units beside the ossuaries.  Across the road and opposite the main entrance of this cemetery is the Ossuaire de la Gruerie. This was created in 1923 and contains the remains of approximately 10,000 unknown soldiers whose remains were discovered when the area around la Biesme and the woods of la Gruerie were cleared after the war. Several private memorials can be found to the west of the ossuary on the D266.

Before turning eastwards again and going to our hotel in Varennes-en-Argonne, we made a final stop at the Abri du Kronprinz. This is a set of bunkers in the Bois de la Grurie, one of which has evidence of interior decorations and a superior level of fittings. I don't know whether the Crown Prince really stayed in it, but the complex certainly looks like some sort of headquarters rather than fighting bunkers. This sector remained just behind the German lines until September 1918.

[Since this initial visit to the Argonne Forest I have acquired the 1:25,000 IGN map 3012 Est 'Varennes-en-Argonne' which marks the remnants of a huge trench system which spans the forest, as well as many mine craters and bunkers. This is an area which clearly deserves a more comprehensive visit.]

Copyright © Charles Fair, July, 1997.

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