The men in the village bar looked me over carefully. Visitors to their out-of-the-way hamlet in the French province of Lorraine are uncommon, and the specter of an American pulling up on a fully loaded mountain bike was understandably unsettling. When I walked inside, I was met by gazes of curiosity and suspicion.

"I am making a tour of what was once the Western Front during the First World War," I told them in half-remembered college French. The men set down their drinks, but said nothing.

"I have a photograph of your village from that time," I continued, and showed them a sepia-toned U.S. Army Signal Corps photograph of a doughboy standing guard on a rubble-strewn street. "Can you tell me where it was taken?"

The effect was electric. As the men huddled around the picture, a great discussion erupted as to whether it was taken on this street or the next. Wasn't this so-and-so's place? Isn't that the back of the old stable? Finally, we all marched outside into the soft autumn sunlight and found the exact spot, two blocks away, where the soldier had been photographed. In the meantime, I had gone from being an object of curiosity to a new friend. I had brought the men in the bar a piece of their history -- one that, as an American, was mine too.

Last fall, I went searching for that history. Seventy-five years after the outbreak of the First World War, I traveled 500 miles across France and Belgium by bicycle, stopping at battlefields and other sites along what had once been the Western Front. In my 10 days of travel, I wanted to see what remained of the great conflict. In particular, I wanted to see what the doughboys -- the American soldiers of 1917 and 1918 -- might have left behind.

I traveled by mountain bike and camped out each night because I wanted to see and feel the land more like the soldiers of World War I did. The terrain was hilly, and the camping took its toll. But it was more than worth it for the intimate look at the countryside and the personal encounters I had with villagers along the way.

My tour began just west of the French city of Metz, in the gently rolling farmland that stretches between the Moselle and Meuse rivers. During the war, this area was the home of the St.-Mihiel salient -- the part of the battle line that projected farthest toward the enemy. After America's entry into the conflict in 1917, American soldiers replaced French troops in the trenches in this region. Here, in 1918, they first fended off a major German offensive, and then launched one of their own. Of all the areas that made up the Western Front, the St.-Mihiel salient was in many ways the most Americanized.

That's still the case today. Monuments to American soldiers -- ranging from impressive statues to small plaques -- abound in the quiet villages. Some were erected by the French, others by Americans. Some are quite unusual, as in tiny Apremont-la-Foret: Its main street is "Place de Holyoke," named for a fountain given to the village in the 1920s by the citizens of Holyoke, Mass., to honor their war dead.

On a grander scale are the official U.S. government memorials, a handful of which can be found in the St.-Mihiel region. Beautifully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, these monuments and cemeteries are impressive sanctuaries of white marble and delicately manicured lawns. Technically, they are on American soil, given to the United States by France to honor American war dead and commemorate the fighting that took place nearby. Some provide an even closer look at what took place. At the American memorial at Montsec, about 20 miles southwest of Metz, the gardener showed me the crumbling ruins of German bunkers and dugouts hidden in the woods. Foxes, he told me, live in them now.

From St.-Mihiel, I rode north along the Meuse toward what was once the war's most infamous locale -- Verdun. Here, for 10 desperate months in 1916, one of the largest battles in history was fought, as the German army attempted to wrest control of Verdun and its surrounding forts from the French.

It was war on a hitherto unimaginable scale. On the battle's first day alone, German gunners fired more than 1 million artillery shells at the French line. The seesaw fighting that followed, pitching German attacks against French counterattacks, was of almost singular ferocity, and took place on a lunar landscape soon devoid of trees and even villages. In the end the French held on to Verdun, but nobody won the battle. The French suffered more than 350,000 dead; the Germans lost about 400,000 men. The war dragged on.

Although the city of Verdun was severely damaged in 1916, the real battle took place along the heights to its north. Here, beneath now towering pines, one can still see the distinct outlines of trenches and shell craters on the moss-covered forest floor. The titanic battle is succinctly explained at the Verdun Memorial outside of town, a private museum that sits near the center of the conflict. The museum's centerpiece is a 1,600-square-foot section of the battlefield. Re-created with the help of veterans, it is a breathtakingly bleak landscape of craters and trenches, littered with barbed wire, shell cases and rust-covered guns.

A little farther up the road stands the Ossuary of Douaumont, the most awesome of France's Great War memorials. Inside the gleaming white tower, strict silence is observed -- the atmosphere is distinctly churchlike. Lit by the eerie orange light of its stained glass windows, the walls list the names of thousands of French soldiers who perished in the battle.

Their bones rest below. The lower chambers of the ossuary are filled with the skeletal remains of 100,000 unidentified French soldiers, piles of which can be viewed from windows at ground level.

The immense tragedy of the First World War is inescapable in Verdun. I left with a heavy heart.

The next day I pedaled west to the Argonne forest, the scene of bitter fighting between German and American soldiers in 1918. On its eastern edge, a Tennessee farmer named Alvin York became a legend when he set out to rescue members of an endangered American patrol -- and brought back 132 German prisoners. Cattle now graze in the little valley where York accomplished his remarkable feat, but he is not forgotten. Less than 10 miles away, in the village of Chateau-Chehery, a large stone plaque tells his story.

The Argonne also provided the American public with one of its most gripping wartime news stories -- the saga of the Lost Battalion. Separated from other American units during a dense fog, the battalion clung precariously to a hillside in the Argonne for five desperate days, under nearly constant attack from surrounding Germans. When the Lost Battalion was finally rescued, it had lost more than two-thirds of its 600 men.

Today, a concrete roadside marker points to the steep hillside where the Lost Battalion fell. When I stopped beside it, I couldn't resist climbing down the precipitous slope to get a better look -- only to discover that others had been there recently. Artifact hunters, undoubtedly armed with metal detectors, had visited the site, their diggings clearly marked by freshly overturned earth. The Lost Battalion has been found again.

The 371st Infantry Regiment, on the other hand, is still "lost."

One of four all-black combat units in the then-segregated U.S. Army, the 371st fought in a series of sharp engagements in the rolling Champagne countryside west of the Argonne. In late 1918, on Hill 188 near the village of Ardueil, about 25 miles east of Paris, the men of the 371st assaulted the German line head-on, in some cases advancing on German machine-gun nests with little more than bayonets. The assault was successful, but the all-black unit lost dozens of men. Others won medals for bravery, including Distinguished Service Crosses and Silver and Bronze Stars.

Six years after the war, in 1924, surviving members of the 371st erected, in France, a monument to their fallen comrades. A decade and a half later, the American Battle Monuments Commission published a guidebook to American memorials overseas. Included in the book was a photograph of the 371st's monument, a granite obelisk about 10 feet tall. The book noted only that the monument was located on a hill in an open field about half a mile south of Ardueil, and that it was "difficult of access."

I set out to find it.

It was late afternoon when I rode into the quiet village of Ardueil. I showed several people the photograph of the monument, but no one recognized it. Finally, a young man working in his yard fetched his aged grandfather. The old man lit up when he heard that I was an American. I showed him the photograph and he pointed off in the distance to a hill south of the village, beyond some cornfields.

I pedaled away and, a few miles later, turned off into the fields, bouncing along the faint paths next to the fence lines. A farmer harvesting corn told me there was indeed a monument on the hill behind us -- but that it wasn't the one in my photograph. I decided to check it anyway, pushing my bike for the last 200 yards up the hill through pastureland and across freshly plowed ground.

When I finally reached the stone obelisk, I could see why the farmer hadn't recognized it as the one in my photo. It was the 371st's monument all right, but it was in a sorry state of neglect. Barbed wire fenced one side, while cattle had rubbed against the others. The top of the structure lay shattered on the ground. In the dim evening light, however, I could still make out the words that once had stirred the brave men who erected it:


To the Mem{ory}

Of Members of the

371st R.I. U.S.

who fell at

Cote 188 Bussy Fe{rm}

{and other places}

Sept 28 -- Oct 10


Erected by Their

Surviving Comrades

Below, and on the other sides of the monument, were the names of the fallen.

As the sun set, I placed a small American flag next to the forgotten monument, feeling as if I must be the first American in decades to visit it. If there was ever an American World War I shrine in France that the American Battle Monuments Commission should adopt and repair, this is it.

It looked like rain when, two days later, I rode into Belleau Wood, about 50 miles northwest of Paris -- the site of an important victory by U.S. Marines and infantrymen in the summer of 1918. I'd been biking the back roads of northern France for nearly a week, and after 300 hilly miles, the fatigue was starting to get to me -- not to mention a diet that consisted mainly of stale bread, canned pork pa~te' and bottled water. Now, as I approached Belleau Wood, the sky looked ominous, and I was worried about how my tent would hold up in the rain. I stopped beneath a large oak tree outside the American memorial to collect my thoughts.

Soon a car stopped and a friendly local, a doctor, asked if I was all right. We struck up a conversation, and he invited me to stay with him and his family at their 14th-century farmhouse in the nearby village. That night, after a scrumptious meal, I found myself nodding off in an overstuffed chair, listening to Bach and the Beatles on the family's CD player. The doctor's gracious hospitality was a welcome respite -- not only from camping but also from the horrors of the war I'd been immersed in.

The next morning my new friend introduced me to his 82-year-old neighbor, who told me about her memories of the celebration that the Marines held in the village after the victory at Belleau Wood. She was 11 years old then.

After we talked, I walked over to the battlefield, about a quarter-mile away. On the way, at the edge of a sugar beet field next to the American memorial, I found two empty rifle cartridges. I was ecstatic -- they looked old enough to have been from the battle.

Later, when I showed them to the doctor and his wife, they smiled rather sheepishly and asked if I wanted more; it seems that they often find cartridges while gardening. They then took me across the road to a neighbor's, who showed me the pile of artillery shells he had unearthed in his yard. It's said that so much firepower was unleashed during the battle of Belleau Wood that for a number of years after the war, cider made in the village tasted of iron.

After my sojourn at Belleau Wood I was revitalized, and for the next two days I rode hard, nearly due north, across the broken countryside of Ile de France and Artois. Near Soissons, I stopped at the first of many British cemeteries I would pass in the days ahead. German cemeteries, with their distinctive dark metal crosses and stone Stars of David, also were plentiful.

I passed other signs of the war as well. In the nearly treeless countryside north of Albert, where the Battle of the Somme was fought in 1916, farmers continue to this day to plow up artillery shells, which they place by the side of the road for special government crews to haul away. The day I toured the battlefield I counted more than four dozen.

There are memorials, too, to the Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Chinese and Portuguese soldiers and laborers who aided the Allied cause. By far the most impressive is the Canadian national memorial park at Vimy Ridge, midway between Arras and Lens. Here, in the midst of a forest replanted in evergreens and maple, portions of the German and Canadian front lines -- in some places less than 75 yards apart -- have been carefully reconstructed and reinforced. Walking through them is a chilling experience, giving a hands-on perspective of trench warfare found nowhere else.

My final destination was the Belgian city of Ypres, a prosperous market town surrounded by the rich countryside of Flanders. I didn't even realize I'd crossed the border until I noticed the street signs.

Today, the land bears little witness to the nearly constant fighting that ravaged the area for virtually the entire war. The villages are neat and proper, and the fields yield no traces of trenches or shell craters. I didn't see any artillery shells, either, although they are undoubtedly still there.

Ypres boasts the excellent Remembrance Museum, which focuses on the fighting that took place along the Ypres salient. It was here, in 1915, that the Germans first used poison gas on the Western Front.

And it was here, two years later, that a terribly costly British drive toward the village of Passchendaele ended in a bitter irony. Passchendaele was captured -- only it didn't exist anymore. It had been completely destroyed by the fighting.

Ypres's most impressive monument to the war is the Menin Gate, a massive brick and concrete edifice that towers over one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. Erected in 1927, it honors the 54,896 British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the area but whose bodies were never found; their names are inscribed on its walls.

In latter decades, the Menin Gate became one of the war's most potent memorials, a place of pilgrimage for thousands of Great War veterans, German as well as Allied. As recently as the late 1970s, I was told, one could regularly meet veterans at the Menin Gate.

Many came not simply to see the gate, but to witness its signature ceremony, the playing of "The Last Post." At 8 o'clock every evening, regardless of the weather, police stop traffic under the Menin Gate while buglers of the Ypres fire department play the haunting notes of the British military tattoo. Interrupted only by the Second World War, the ceremony has taken place every night since 1929.

The night I witnessed the ceremony, the music literally sent shivers up my spine. As it began to rain, I searched the faces of the small crowd. I was looking for World War I veterans, but nobody was old enough -- even those in their eighties were too young.

Finally, as the night chill moved in, I pushed my bike onto the wet streets and pedaled away, my pilgrimage over. Twilight was falling fast on the Western Front.

Scott Ellsworth, the author of "Death in a Promised Land," is a Washington writer. WAYS & MEANS

Bicycle touring through the Western Front countryside in rural France and Belgium can be delightful, but getting your bike there is complicated.

For about $20, my local bicycle shop partially disassembled and boxed up my bike, which I then checked as luggage on my flight to Paris. At Orly Airport, I reassembled the bicycle and checked its large cardboard box at the left-luggage office for my return trip. I bundled the bike into a taxi to the Gare de l'Est, the Paris railroad station from which I departed for Metz. At the station, I checked my bike as luggage for a small fee, while I rode in the passenger car with my gear. At Metz, I loaded my gear and myself on my bicycle and began my tour.

Ten days later, after I had ridden to Belgium, I reversed this process, taking myself and my bike by train to Paris, and then by taxi to Orly.

ACCOMMODATIONS: Campgrounds in northern France are a great bargain; at one, I was charged only 80 cents to pitch my tent and stay the night. Unfortunately, they are few and far between, forcing one either to camp on private land or seek hotels. And while the rooms in some of the more modest hotels can be less than enchanting, they can get you out of the rain for about $12 per person per night.

WHAT TO TAKE: I carried about 50 pounds of gear, most of it packed into front and rear panniers. My camping gear included a small tent, sleeping bag, stove (for which, alas, I couldn't find any fuel in the villages along the way) and cookware. I also carried a full set of rain gear, polypropylene long underwear, biking and street clothes, tools, a helmet and a first aid kit.

GUIDEBOOKS: The best single guidebook to Western Front battlefields is Victor Neuburg's "A Guide to the Western Front: A Companion for Travellers" (Penguin Books, 1988). Rose Coombs's "Before Endeavors Fade: A Guide to the Battlefields of the First World War" (Battle of Britain Prints Ltd., 1983) is also valuable, but harder to find. I supplemented these with the excellent -- but, sadly, out of print -- guidebook issued by the American Battle Monuments Commission, "American Armies and Battlefields in Europe" (Government Printing Office, 1938), which details the activities of U.S. forces during the war.

Maps and guidebooks also are available at some of the larger battlefields, such as Verdun and the Somme.

ROAD MAPS: For the French tour, I relied on the excellent maps published in France by the Institut Geographique National (available in Washington at the Map Store, 1636 I St. NW, 628-2608). Not only are the roads and villages clearly marked, but the maps also show the location of numerous World War I monuments and military cemeteries. I used maps 2, 4, 5, 9, 10 and 11 from the Series Verte, which are of the 1:100,000 scale.

For my tour in Belgium, I used Michelin road maps of the 1:200,000 scale. -- Scott Ellsworth