As a traveler, writer, student of history, and paying subscriber I am appalled by The New York Times Travel Section’s coverage of World War I’s centennial. This is not the first, and almost certainly not the last, bone that MagoGuide has to pick with Monica Drake and her colleagues concerning the Grey Lady’s shabby travel writing (see
- Far from the Hordes; Lesser-Known Antiquity Sites in Rome,
- Queen Mary 2,
- A Barcelona Brouhaha, and
- Redneck Riviera: Scooped Again),
but it is definitely the worst to date with respect to sins of both commission and omission.
Let’s start with the big picture: according to the Times website’s clunky and antiquated search function, seven of the eight articles about World War I sites published in 2014 dealt with battlefields where American forces fought in 1918. So Monica, what stories are you going to run in 2018 (not to mention the three intervening years)? Is it just possible that travelers–nay, even tourists who are clearly your preferred readership–would be interested in the events and sites associated with 1914, given that the vast majority of commemorations in 2014 had little or nothing to do with America’s role in World War I? Might not concentrating on the events of the Great War as they occurred chronologically, which is what a centenary is all about after all, lead to a deeper connection with the Great War for Americans in 2018? Indeed, the Times has followed such an approach with its Disunion series concerning the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War.
Ms. Drake has a particular fondness for Richard Rubin, author of The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). Rubin was allotted half the 2014 Times Travel Section articles on World War I. Here is his take away from a tour of the trenches in the Foret d’Apremont:
“Hike around these woods, and you quickly come to understand that this was a war unlike any other when it came to murderous ingenuity, and that the Germans had a distinctive technological edge. They also had better weapons, better-trained soldiers, better generals, better spies, better maps, better barbed wire, better barbed wire cutters. They always seemed to hold the better ground; their strategy was better. You can’t help but wonder: How did they lose?” (see In France, Vestiges of the Great War’s Bloody End)
Well since you asked Richard, MagoGuide will happily deconstruct these superficial and spurious pronouncements.
- World War I “was a war unlike any other when it came to murderous ingenuity”: well, not to put too fine a point on it, most Holocaust survivors as well as those from Hiroshima and Nagasaki might well disagree.
- “… the Germans had a distinctive technological edge”: nope, unless you want to ignore things like British code breaking and French signal intercept capabilities, British artillery sound ranging technology and the French geophone, Marie Curie’s mobile X-ray machine, and Hiram Maxim’s design that was the basis for all the combatants’ machine guns.
- “better weapons”: you must have missed the memo about the British Lee Enfield rife, the French 75mm field gun, tanks, aircraft carriers, depth charges, the Mills bomb, etc.
- “better-trained soldiers”: four words, First Battle of Ypres. In the fall of 1914 an entire German army composed of barely trained eighteen year-old volunteers led by officers in late middle age was thrown against the most professional soldiers on the planet in human wave attacks that resulted in 80,000 German casualties and a major defeat that marked Germany’s last chance for a quick victory at the outset of the conflict.
- “better generals”: like who? The four men who commanded Germany’s armed forces during the First World War—Moltke, Falkenhayn, Hindenberg, and Ludendorf all made disastrous strategic decisions that led directly to their country’s defeat. Then there were all those princelings and dukes given high command based on their titles as opposed to military skills.
- “better spies”: certainly not in Britain where the entire German spy network was rolled up and (mostly) executed in the first months of the war. As for German spies operating in France, Mata Hari was unmasked by British code breakers working for Captain Reginald “Blinker” Hall, arguably the greatest spy master of World War I. Rubin does not source this assertion (or any others) but he was probably influenced by Dark Invasion: the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America by Howard Blum (another Times alumnus). A screenplay masquerading as narrative history, Dark Invasion (Harper Collins, 2014) argues that German espionage and sabotage severely degraded the Allied war effort and thus played a major role in the U.S. decision to declare war on Germany. I am rather partial to historian Gerard DeGroot’s judgment that “the book is as insubstantial as a factory loaf of white bread.” (see Gerard DeGroot’s Washington Post review of Dark Invasion).
- “better maps”: OK Richard I’ll give you this one.
- “better barbed wire and cutters”: while it is true that the German wire was sturdier and sported larger barbs, the British came up with the ‘‘silent picquet’’—a pigtail-shaped fence post that could be screwed rather than pounded into the ground, thus saving lives during nighttime wire laying operations since the sound of hammering attracted deadly fire (no one tried laying wire during the day and lived very long).
- “better ground”: well even a broken clock is right twice a day.
- “better strategy”: don’t you usually win with one of these? From the Schlieffen Plan in1914 to the Spring Offensives in 1918, German strategy on the Western Front was a disaster. Germany chose incompetent allies and then fought a two front war of attrition against enemies with superior numbers of men and complete command of the sea.
And that, Richard, was how Germany lost the war.
Belleau Wood: Incredible Sacrifice Marred by Hyperbole
As bad as Mr. Rubin’s history may be, it pales in comparison to Ms. Drake’s editing debacles. Given a paltry budget of eight articles dealing with World War I battlefield tourism for 2014, one would think that she ought to make each one count by treating different aspects of such a complex and geographically extensive subject. Instead the Times chose to run two articles, one by Rubin and the other by Jim Yardley, on the Battle of Belleau Wood. The articles, published four months apart, not only cover the same subject, they are bizarrely identical. They have virtually the same title, make the same egregious analytical mistakes, and trot out identical faux patriotic bromides in unconscious disservice to those Americans who fought and died in the summer of 1918 (see When the Americans Turned the Tide and Where Americans Turned the Tide in World War I).
The identic motif of the articles is that American troops turned the tide of the entire war in a single battle in June 1918. In the wake of a series of German offensives, the French and British from senior commanders to private soldiers thought the war was lost. The war came down to the U.S. 4th Marine brigade and the conquest of a square mile stretch of woods near Chateau-Thierry. Substituting histrionics for history, Mr. Rubin declares “the course of the greatest war the world had ever seen was determined by a charge of men on foot, the oldest maneuver there is.”
Kermit always hated this type of gesture history. He was particularly keen to dispel the romantic myths surrounding the American Indian Wars. His archaeological work at The Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument helped provide an artifactual underpinning for the tsunami of revisionism on the subject that began in the 1970s. And yet Kermit remained very much the historian, advising me to eschew the wildly popular Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee for primary sources such as circulars issues by the U.S. Surgeon General in the 1870s. He steered me away from notorious massacres towards subjects such as the U.S. Army’s treatment of deserters and homosexuals during the last half of the 19th century. This was, to say the least, a very courageous pedagogical approach for a newly minted high school teacher at the time, even in “liberal” Missoula.
Messrs. Rubin and Yardley could do with a refresher course in research methodology from Kermit. To start with, they are so determined to make Belleau Wood the turning point of World War I that they hopelessly muddle the context, confusing the second German offensive of 1918 (Third Battle of the Aisne or Blücher-Yorck) with the fourth (Second Marne or Friedensturm). The Battle of Belleau Wood (June 1-26) took place between these two offensives. Indeed, while the Marines were losing more men than in all their previous 142-year history, the Germans launched a third offensive 80 kilometers away near Campiegne (the Battle of Matz or Gneisenau). Thus, the Marines’ conquest of Belleau Wood, for all of its heroism and sacrifice was in no way a turning point that permanently arrested German offensive action in the summer of 1918.
Nor do the authors understand the battle itself. They both deploy Captain Lloyd Williams’ famous repost to a French order to withdraw—“Retreat? Hell, we just got here!”—as a contrast between Gallic pusillanimity and American prowess. But what this exchange really illustrates is the difference between a combat veteran and a newbie.
The episode took place on June 1 at the ebb tide of Blücher-Yorck when the French and British had figured out the Achilles heel of the German storm trooper tactics that underpinned all of their offensives in 1918. The Germans lacked the technical and logistical capabilities to strategically exploit their operational breakthroughs—each of their five offensives launched between March 21 and July 15 ground to a halt after spectacular initial success. By June the French had learned to trade space for time resulting in deep and vulnerable German salients that they then crushed in counter-offensives in the late summer and early fall of 1918. Rather than viewing the loss of Paris as total defeat, the Allied Generalissimo Ferdinand Foch was prepared to leave the capital to its fate in order to burn out the German offensives.
Williams was killed in action eleven days after his famous utterance. He was one of almost ten thousand casualties required to take a very small piece of territory. In addition to a tenacious German defense, these losses were the result of American command inexperience. Shortly before Belleau Wood, U.S. commander General John Pershing replaced the 4th Brigade’s Marine Corps commander with his long-time friend and chief of staff James Harbord, an Army officer with virtually no combat experience. In particular, Harbord has been criticized for failing to coordinate artillery and infantry operations in Belleau Wood.
Beginning on June 6, the Marines launched unsupported infantry attacks for ten days against entrenched German machine guns, massed artillery, and clouds of mustard gas at the cost of horrendous casualties before they were relieved by Army forces that suffered the same fate for five days. The Marines returned to the fight on June 22, but German resistance was only broken when the French committed sufficient heavy artillery resources for a fourteen hour bombardment on June 25 (the entire American Expeditionary Force depended upon their allies for heavy artillery, aircraft, and armor). Thus, it was not the heroic yet costly (and probably unnecessary) American infantry attacks alone, but rather their combination with what Joseph Stalin termed “the god of war” that won the Battle of Belleau Wood.
Needless to say, the fact that the Marines did not win the Great War right there and then at Belleau Wood detracts not at all from their bravery nor makes their losses any less dear. MagoGuide’s tour of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry bore this out on both the historical and emotional levels. We set out for the Bois de la Brigade de Marine on a gorgeous memorial weekend Sunday. Our first stop was the wheat fields north of Lucy-le-Bocage across which three battalions of Marines—employing tactics little changed since the Civil War—advanced into interlocking fields of machine gun fire.
Rubin’s and Yardley’s exclusive focus on the valor of men charging shoulder to shoulder into certain death ignores the critical truth that such sacrifice was as avertible as it was noble. Harbord not only failed to support his infantry with artillery preparation, but did not even order a reconnaissance of the woods prior to inaugurating the bloodiest day in Marine Corps history. He and his staff accepted French intelligence reports that Belleau Wood was lightly held by poor quality ersatz troops. Instead they faced a front-line division, which had set up a network of over 200 machine guns throughout the thick bolder-strewn forest during preceding 72 hours (think Mr. Maxim does Devil’s Den).
You do not need to manufacture turning points and over-hype the potential consequences of failure in order to honor the fallen at Belleau Wood. Despite command incompetence and faulty intelligence that forced them to take an objective of limited strategic value, the Marines endured a casualty rate above fifty percent in order to prevail. To me that is the essence of Semper Fidelis, which Rubin and Yardley succeed only in tarnishing with their egregious embellishments.
Team Mago’s next objective was the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery where, we had learned the day before, the Commandant of the Marine Corps was headlining a Memorial Day ceremony. Unfortunately we were thwarted by very tight French security for the event. Female French gendarmes in camo fatigues, who insisted that we produce an authorized pass in order to proceed to the ceremony, blocked every avenue of advance. We passed a prominent holding area on the outskirts of Belleau where a large crowd of mostly Americans were processed before being loaded on tour busses and driven to the cemetery.
Chateau-Thierry American Monument
It seemed a shame to waste several hours of a spectacular day in order to be herded onto mobile icons of mass tourism just to hear a speech, so we bore off in the direction of the Chateau-Thierry American Monument.
The monument is a collaboration of the architect Paul Philippe Cret and the sculptor Alfred-Alphonse Bottiau. This superbly sited allegorical monolith is very unusual for an American war memorial. My first impression was its arresting resemblance to interwar totalitarian architecture. Cret’s colonnade is an early example of Stripped Classicism, a style later embraced by the unholy trinity of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin. Bottiau’s statues symbolizing Franco-American amity exude a Wagnerian homoeroticism that was enhanced during our visit by the flamboyantly amorous behavior of several gay couples enjoying the lovely late spring weather.
The best aspects of the monument, however, are the sweeping views of the Marne valley and the massive map and orientation table carved into its eastern façade.
Using our tablets, Germanicus and I were able to plot the course of the German Blücher-Yorck and Friedenstrum offensives, the Battle of Belleau Wood, and the Battle of Soissons—the Allied counter-attack that eliminated the German salient on the Marne. Such an opportunity to appreciate synoptic coverage of four major battles is quite rare, not only for the First World War but any conflict.
We drove into Chateau-Thierry to kill some time before mounting our next assault on the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. There is a memorial to the U.S. Third Infantry Division (“The Rock of the Marne”) in the town’s riverside park. While this storied Army unit bested the Germans in this area during both world wars, they definitely lost the branding battle to the Marine Corps in 1918. It seems that while Pershing forbade Army personnel from any contact with the press, he neglected to issue similar orders to the Marines. Reporters embedded with Marine units soon gave them credit for 3rd Division’s stand at Chateau-Thierry; thus inaugurating U.S.M.C. dominance of the news cycle that lasted through the conquest of Belleau Wood, wherein to this day the U.S. Army’s contribution to the victory and its associated losses remains largely unacknowledged.
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Rostra rating: 4
Team Mago decided to sneak up on the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery by following in the footsteps of the Jar Heads who bought the woods with their bodies. We parked at the Marine Memorial, which is a clearing in the midst of Belleau Wood sporting Felix de Weldon’s granite bas-relief of a shirtless and totally ripped Marine depicted in mid-bayonet charge and surrounded by multiple battle trophies.
Germanicus and I were admiring a split-barreled field gun when a monster tour bus disgorged members of an American wounded warrior support organization on a guided tour.
The guide turned out to be a disabled Marine veteran who produced a map that he attached to a piece of martial booty and delivered an excellent overview of the battle that put the NYT’s myopic patriotism to shame. The guide concentrated on the subtactics of the battle and their enduring effect upon Marine Corps identity and ethos. He paid particular homage to Lt. JG Weedon Osborne, a Navy dental surgeon attached to the Marines who was awarded the Medal of Honor and the Distinguished Service Cross posthumously for making numerous pick-ups and extractions of injured Marines during the height of the slaughter on June 6 until he was killed carrying a wounded officer to safety. The guide used Osborne s story to underline the Marines’ mantra that no comrade ever gets left behind, no matter the cost. Osborne did not make the cut for either NYT article but you can pay your respects to him at plot A, row 3, grave 39 in the Aisne-Marne cemetery.
After the lecture, Team Mago waited patiently for the tour members to respond to the guide’s request for questions, but when none were forthcoming Freya and Patti waded in with queries concerning the disposition of the battlefield after the war. Designated in perpetuity as the Wood of the Marine Brigade by the French commanding general in the immediate aftermath of the conquest, the battlefield was bought for $16,000 by the U.S. government in 1923 and maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission since then. The wooded terrain is much the same as it was in 1918, and it has become a fixture of battlefield tourism for Marines and their descendants.
In an act of charity and tolerance that can only burnish the Corps adamantine reputation, General Harbord was made an honorary Marine at the memorial’s dedication. I am not aware, however, that the Marines ever again acquiesced to a direct combat command by another armed service. In fact, the U.S.M.C. successfully lobbied against the wishes of President Truman and General Eisenhower for legislation in the National Security Act of 1947 that guaranteed the Corps a separate force structure of at least three divisions.
Team Mago explored Belleau Wood after the tour reloaded and departed in its behemoth. Though unmarred by farming or development, the temporary nature of the entrenchments during the battle has made them vulnerable to environmental degradation over the last ninety-six years. Nevertheless, we spent a pleasant hour on the walking paths that cut through the trees revealing shallow trenches, shell holes, and other Great War detritus.
Only by walking the battlefield does one realize its close correlation to future Marine Corps operations in the Pacific theater of World War II. Belleau Wood is a super copse surrounded by a green and yellow sea of tilled fields. The defenders turned its natural impediments into a fortress that the Marines could only conquer by standing up and fighting at close quarters for every inch of it. General Pershing used the Corps as shock troops in precisely the same way as Admiral Nimitz would a quarter century later in his island hopping campaign. To this day, the Marine Corps deploys a much higher tooth-to-tail ratio than the Army and they also seem to get more than their fair share of the shitty jobs wherever the war turns out to be.
Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
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At the northern end of the woods, where the final German trench line held out until it fell to a combination of French artillery and Marine bayonets on June 25, the trees give way to a lovely view of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Unlike Harbord, MagoGuide took advantage of this reconnaissance mission to determine that the modern day U.S.M.C. occupation of the cemetery had ended and with it the seamless perimeter of gendarmerettes. We arrived at the cemetery to find that everything but the people was still in place. Each grave had an Old Glory/Tricolor duo and there was a phalanx of wreaths and other floral displays clustered about a rostrum at the foot of the stairs leading to the Memorial Chapel (query for the Tea Party and other species of super hawks: why are the only political wreaths on American European battlefields laid by the Democrats?).
I know that I would have enjoyed hearing the Commandant’s address and watching the multi-generation military families locating their loved ones amongst the Latin crosses and Stars of David, but having the run of the cemetery with no more than a dozen other people around on the immaculate forty-two acre grounds was especially moving. The cemetery grounds once encompassed those trenches dug by the Marines in the battle’s immediate aftermath.
The French Romanesque Memorial Chapel, standing like a castle keep and flanked by the graves of 2,288 heroes (251 of whom are unknown), was the target of German armor in June 1940, leaving a shell hole just to the right of the chapel entrance.
We found interesting information in the Aisle-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial booklet including details of the memorial chapel. A large double door of oak ornamented with wrought iron opens onto the chapel’s vestibule. Above the inside of the entrance is inscribed: THE NAMES RECORDED ON THESE WALLS ARE THOSE OF AMERICAN SOLDIERS WHO FOUGHT IN THIS REGION AND WHO SLEEP IN UNKNOWN GRAVES.
The decorations on the outside of the chapel were designed by William F. Ross and Company and were executed by Alfred Bottiau.
Each of the Great War’s participant nations has produced martial funerary grounds with distinctly different psycho-cultural mores. The French are starkly patriotic. The British are understated yet lush and reverential. The Germans are sepulchral and mostly devoid of martial and nationalistic symbols. The Americans are beautiful and exuberant in their homage to the sacrifice of their finest citizens. Due to its centrality to the Marine Corps warrior ethos, Aisne-Marne remains the quintessential American war cemetery.
While the Marine Corps certainly purchased its place in American military history with blood, it has maintained it with the best marketing program of all the U.S. armed services. Two enduring (and endearing) myths from Belleau Wood serve to illustrate this claim (pay attention Rubin and Yardley, this is how you do travel writing). Both myths involve canines, bulldogs to be specific.
Since World War I every U.S.M.C. boot is taught that the German defenders christened the Marines they faced Devil Dogs—a military meme that found its way into popular culture via recruiting posters and comic book heroes such as Sergeants Fury and Rock. However, according to no less a source than H.L. Menken, the term Devil Dog was an invention of one Floyd Gibbons, a war correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who made his bones with headlines such as “Germans stopped at Chateau Thierry with the Help of God and a Few Marines” (note the failure to mention the Army’s 3rd Division that actually did the fighting). Gibbons was one of the many casualties on June 6, shot in the eye while attempting to rescue a wounded Marine. His baptism of fire and accompanying rumor of his death resulted in American military censors allowing his unexpurgated dispatches to become a lynchpin of the modern Marine mythos.
The Bulldog Fountain
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Gibbons is probably also responsible for the parable of the Bulldog Fountain. This storied artifact began as a source of water for horses stabled at Chateau Belleau. During the interwar years, the Marine Corps modified its spigot so that water now issues from the mouth of a bulldog bearing a suspicous resemblance to the apocryphal Teufelhund. The accompanying de Leónesque legend holds that any Marine who imbibes automatically tacks two additional decades onto his life expectancy. Gibbons probably spread the rumor that the Corps captured this fountain of actuarial accrual in the immediate aftermath of their subjugation of Belleau Wood. Unfortunately, that honor fell to a National Guard unit almost a month after the Marines pulled out. Gibbons unsurprisingly became the first civilian granted the rank of honorary Marine; and in MagoGuide’s humble opinion he was a far better choice for this accolade than General Harbord, whose irresponsible butcher’s bill was also a signal contribution to the Corp’s martial culture.
The Bulldog Fountain is actually located on private land and thus only sporadically open to the public. Memorial Day, however, belongs to the Corps in the village of Belleau and we deemed it highly likely that there would be significant Jar Headage in attendance. Indeed, it was only the prospect of seeing Marines imbibing from their mascot’s mouth that tore Team Mago away from the Elysian Fields and we were not disappointed. We found a group of Marines, immaculate in blue-white dress uniforms, gathered about the fountain with family members busily taking selfies in their Sunday best.
It turned out that we were intruding (as politely as possible) on a retirement ceremony. The master of ceremonies was a full bull colonel, who introduced himself as the head of European Command’s Special Forces. Impressive, but not nearly as much as the retiree, a Gunnery Sergeant with multiple combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as a sniper.
Although armies have deployed sharpshooters since the invention of gunpowder, the modern combat discipline of sniping was born in the crucible of the trenches. The Germans were the first to field rifles with telescopic sights to deadly effect, but the British countered with a dedicated course of instruction for Allied marksmen designed and implemented by Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard, a former big game hunter. Hesketh-Prichard probably trained the first Marine Corps snipers in World War I. In any event, Marines first met and had to counter German snipers in Belleau Wood.
The ceremony brought home the enduring importance of the Great War on today’s geopolitical environment. The participants’ refulgent uniforms reminded me of the sartorial splendor in which so many of the participants marched to their destinies in 1914. The combat tours of the retiring Gunnery Sergeant were eerily reminiscent of those conducted by the British Army and Royal Marines policing their pre-war empire; while the Russian invasion of the Ukraine combined with Germany’s role in the economic and political implosion of Greek society made me wonder if Europe was drifting into another “some damn foolish thing in the Balkans” moment.
German Cemetary in Belleau (Cimetière Militaire Allemand de Belleau)
While American war cemeteries and memorials are the quintessence of American exceptionalism, they can also come very close to glorifying carnage—especially when they are bedecked with patriotic symbols on a spectacular day in May and serve as a backdrop for honoring those few who make long and dangerous careers out of keeping the rest of us free and safe. In France, the antidote to collusion in hijacking honorable institutions in the service of gesture history a la the New York Times Travel Section is a visit to the (inevitably near-by) German cemetery.
From the observation platform of the Memorial Chapel, the Cimetière Militaire Allemand de Belleau looks like a square patch of woods in the mid-distance. Although much smaller than Aisne-Marne, it holds four times the number of dead, some 4,307 in individual graves and 4,322 in two mass graves. A consolidation of some 123 German cemeteries, the fallen hail exclusively from the collapse of Germany’s first and last offensives on the Western Front, separated by almost four years and millions of lives. Unlike the sunlit rows of crosses and stars at Aisne-Marne, the German graves lie under a deciduous canopy.
The only other monument in the cemetery is a starkly slender iron cross on a brick path leading to the mass graves.
We spent an hour alone with the German dead while workers at Aisne-Marne packed up folding chairs and removed the flags from each grave. The cemetery seemed to be entirely separate from either the pastoral idyll of rural France or the luminous remembrance of American hollowed ground. The site itself seemed to generate a tragic gloaming that would remain even when the leaves are replaced by the leaden skies of a Gallic winter.
Reading Messrs. Rubin’s and Yardley’s account of the Battle of Belleau Wood is just a little too much like spending Memorial Day weekend inside watching John Wayne war movie re-runs. Their unidimensional pandering to press-inspired hagiography actually belittles the depth of gratitude felt by the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens towards their armed services that was on display in the fields and woods around Belleau on May 25, 2014. As a penance the Times should pay both of them to go back in 2018 and do a proper job concerning the true centenary of that battle. With respect to Team Mago’s experience, I can do no better than quote Patti as we stood before Weedon Osborne’s grave: “This is the perfect Memorial Day.”