Streetwise Professor

June 8, 2010

A Man Remembered: A Battle Forgotten

Filed under: Military — The Professor @ 3:31 pm

Since reading about his exploits in American Heritage in the early-1980s, I’ve had a great interest in Alvin York, the Tennessee conscientious objector who killed an estimated 22 Germans (with 21 shots, by one estimate), and captured 132 more, virtually singlehandedly, during the Meuse-Argonne battles of 1918.  I have a particular affinity for him because his hardscrabble Appalachian roots echo those of my grandfather.

There was an Academy Award winning film (starring Gary Cooper) about York released in 1941.  It was somewhat corny, but true to the subject.

Today my dad and I visited the vicinity of York’s heroism.  I say “the vicinity”  because although two separate groups claim to have identified the exact spot of his actions (basing their claims in part on excavations of artifacts), neither claim is particularly persuasive.  The group that marked a trail on the battlefield particularly annoyed me because the map they created marking the site does not jibe with markers that they placed there.  But, regardless of the exact spot, by visiting there I could get a sense of the terrain and understand how remarkable it was for York, pinned at the bottom of a ravine, to move and fire at entrenched Germans at the beetling ridge that loomed over the ravine, and to kill and capture so many.  (Although I think that the take of prisoners is as much a testament to the exhaustion and demoralization of the Germans as it is to York’s deeds.)

A site we visited earlier in the day might provide some insight as to why York’s actions have led people to remember him, and indeed, to attempt to find where he–an individual man–fought, and to wage intense verbal battles over just where he did fight.

The Butte Vauquois was the scene of intense fighting between the French and Germans from 1914 on.  The town of Vauquois on the Butte was destroyed, never to be rebuilt (like many in the region surrounding Verdun).  The German and French lines were 50-60 yards apart.  The trench lines are still remarkably preserved–especially the German ones.  (The contrast between the German and French lines is living proof of the fact that the French resisted improving their trenches too much–as did the British–because to make them comfortable enough to stay for extended periods would be conceding stalemate and hence the possibility of permanent cession of French soil to the Boche.  The Germans had no such scruples.  Their trenches were deeper, more extensive, heavily revetted, and studded with deep living quarters.)

Fighting above ground was suicide, so the men became moles.  (Ironically, today’s field is filled with mole hills.)  They dug tunnels, some more than 100 feet underground.  The tunnels were mines, snaking under their enemy’s trenches.  The mines, when blown, left immense craters in the earth.  (They dwarf the famous Crater at Petersburg, from the American CW.)  One German mine contained 60 tons of HE.  Each side tried to find the other’s mines using countermines.  When the mines and countermines met, the men fought primally with digging tools and knives and pistols deep under the ground.

Have you ever heard of Butte Vauquois?  I never had, despite a voracious consumption of military history since the age of 8. It was just one of a series of pointless, vicious, slaughters carried out from the Channel to the Swiss border, 1914-1918.  Just one of innumerable forgotten places where anonymous masses were consigned to horrible lives, and even more horrible deaths, by commanders who ranged from inhumanly callous to clueless.

Out of such a hell in which men were faceless, suffering, dying masses, there is something redeeming, I guess, in the story of an individual’s heroism.  Especially a man whose biography is unusual and affecting.  A man who was, by all accounts, sincere in his religious objection to war, and who was also sincere, by most accounts (though not all), in his contentions that he only shot to save lives from the vicious German machine gunning.

But York is about the only thing about Meuse-Argonne that anyone might remember today–and then only probably because of Gary Cooper.  (The movie plays regularly on Turner Movie Classics, and is available on DVD.)  The battlefield is immense, and virtually undeveloped.  Whereas in the US, preservation groups spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to save an acre here or an acre there of some Civil War battlefield, in the M-A there are dozens of square miles of combat zone that have just returned to farmland and forest.  It is preserved not by the active efforts of anyone, but just by the fact that no one really wants to develop it.

The Meuse Argonne was the biggest battle in US military history, with 600,000 soldiers involved.  More Americans died there than in any battle in US history.

We visited the US Army Cemetery at Montfaucon.  It is a forlorn place.  Beautiful, but forlorn because unlike Arlington or Normandy, virtually no one visits there.  Even though there are more American servicemen buried there than at any cemetery outside the Continental US–over 14,000 graves, more than double the number at Normandy.

So many Americans died, in large part, because the American force was an army of amateurs–very brave amateurs, for the most part, but amateurs nonetheless–led by amateur generals, many of whom refused to heed the lessons learned at such a tragic cost by the British, Canadians, Australians, and French.  Pershing, from what I have read, was especially culpable, believing, like the French of 1914, that elan and the bayonet were sufficient to overcome massed artillery and machine guns.  With no artillery support to speak of, Americans hurled themselves at entrenched German machine guns while under rains of artillery fire from Germans in the Argonne Forest and the high ground on the east bank of the Meuse.  If you see the terrain–the hills, the woods–you realize that such an effort was insanity.  Especially in 1918.  American logistics were atrocious; the men had no food and no fresh water for days.  They shivered in the rain.  But they eventually won, despite their generals, despite their woeful logistics, despite their painful inexperience.  They were truly remarkable, and leave me in awe, and with a feeling of ineffable sadness when I gazed over their serried rows of crosses at the Montfaucon Military Cemetery.

And today they are all forgotten.*  Except, really, for a single man.

* Their contemporaries did not forget them.  The US government, and more remarkably, several state governments, erected massive monuments on the field.  These monuments are larger and more impressive than anything on any of the American WWII battlefields in France.  This says something about the evolution of American society.  The “greatest generation” did not receive the same honors as had its fathers.

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