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100 years later: Returning to World War I’s Western Front in France

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is Europe’s largest American cemetery, memorializing 15,200 war dead. At the Centennial Luminary event in September, candles will be lit at the headstones in remembrance of fallen soldiers. (Mary Winston Nicklin/For The Washington Post)

A century has passed since the battles that baptized the U.S. military into the horrors of modern industrialized warfare. Nearly three years after the guns of August opened the First World War, the first doughboys in Gen. John J. Pershing’s American Expeditionary Forces — young, enthusiastic and prone to breaking into song — arrived on French shores to join the weary Allied Forces.

The United States’ entry into the war would turn the tide. Numbering just 200,000 — including the National Guard — at the beginning, the soldiers in the U.S. Armed Forces in France would total 1,894,000 by the time the armistice was signed. Not only did the Great War create the modern American military, but it was also a catalyst for the civil and women’s rights movements, and it carved up empires on the modern world map.

In France’s Dordogne region, a land of castles and caves calls for deep exploration

The “War to End All Wars” claimed an estimated 40 million military and civilian lives — of which nearly 117,000 were American — and left behind apocalyptic devastation. “Over There” — in the parlance of the famous George M. Cohan song — France was an unimaginable hellscape: trees like charred matchsticks jutting from bombed-out craters, miles of trenches, body parts blown into trees or lost in the mud. In this ghoulish wasteland, the scale of physical and psychological suffering was unprecedented. Fifty percent of the dead have no known graves.

“I have a rendezvous with death,” begins the famous poem by Alan Seeger, who died at the Battle of the Somme while volunteering in the French Foreign Legion.

Entire villages were wiped off the map and never rebuilt. Names like the Somme and Verdun — site of the war’s longest battle and one of the costliest battles in human history — are eternal symbols of the sacrifice. Following the war, what was called the Red Zone, a swath of 460 acres across the Western Front, was declared off-limits for habitation. The annual “iron harvest” unearths tons of shrapnel, guns and grenades. Unexploded ordnance is still a danger to farmers plowing their fields. Reminders are everywhere in France; the tiniest rural villages have monuments to the war dead.

Although famous Americans fought in the conflict — including a son of President Theodore Roosevelt (Quentin Roosevelt), an author (John Dos Passos) and a future president (Harry S. Truman) — the First World War was largely forgotten in Americans’ national memory. “The U.S. got away with a bloody nose; France suffered an evisceration,” explained historian Jay Winter at a spring lecture at the Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris. “ Since the 1980s, there’s been a memory boom. The First World War has taken its place as the foundational moment of the 20th century.” And at last, Washington is expected to get a First World War Memorial, in the District’s Pershing Park on Pennsylvania Avenue NW. For now, the Great War is the only 20th-century conflict not commemorated in the nation’s capital.

To mark this centennial year and the battles that marked the dawn of the American century, we have assembled a selection of historic battlefields, important sites and commemorative events for the American traveler. We have focused on the main offensives on the Western Front in France, during which U.S. soldiers helped bring to an end this war of attrition. Many of these sites are managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which was created in 1923 to oversee memorial monuments and maintain permanent overseas cemeteries.

Chateau-Thierry Monument Visitor Center

In summer 1918, the German army was dangerously close to reaching Paris. German technological advances — shells were being blasted through the stratosphere from up to 75 miles away by what was known as a Paris Gun — already meant an artillery assault on the French capital. At Chateau-Thierry, in the Aisne department, just 50 miles from Paris, green U.S. forces fought alongside the French to stop the German advance in the decisive Second Battle of the Marne. For their dogged defense, the 3rd Infantry Division earned the nickname “Rock of the Marne.” According to reports at the time, the Germans were stunned by the courage of the Marines in three weeks of fighting at Belleau Wood, calling them “Teufelhunden” — “Devil dogs.”

After the war, a colossal classical memorial was placed on Hill 204. Designed by architect Paul Philippe Cret with allegorical statues and an ornamental battle map, the portico is visible for miles around. An on-site visitors’ center opened on Memorial Day 2018. Explaining American involvement in the war, the exhibit also sheds light on stories such as those of the Gold Star Mothers, an association of women who had lost sons in battle. Still active today, it derived its name from the custom of hanging a service flag, marked with stars depicting family members in the military, outside the home. (The gold color depicted the fallen.) These mothers lobbied for federally sponsored pilgrimages to ABMC cemeteries and memorial sites. Nearly 7,000 women had made the transatlantic trip by 1933.

Located on Hill 204, two miles west of the town of Chateau-Thierry. 011-33-323-707-090. Visitor center is open daily from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.

Belleau Wood American Monument

A pilgrimage site for Marines, Belleau Wood was the scene of an emblematic battle, a turning point in the war and a defining event in U.S. military history. It was here in June 1918 that the 4th Marine Brigade captured the hilltop wood, which the Germans had fortified with machine gun nests in the trees. Advancing across a wheat field without any artillery support, the Marines fought bravely with guns, bayonets, knives and fists in hand-to-hand combat. At the edge of the wood, there’s a bronze Marine monument by Felix de Weldon, the sculptor who also created the Marine Corps War Memorial (or Iwo Jima Memorial). Passionate guides such as Jean-Bernard Capar lead visitors through the sun-dappled wood, pointing out the foxholes dug by Marines as they advanced up the hill. “It’s always been moving for me,” Capar said. “They came from so far away, gave their lives for us.” At the small remembrance museum in Belleau, ask for the key for the gate across the street. In the garden of an old chateau that predates the war, there’s a bulldog fountain originally purchased in Heidelberg, Germany — and to this day, visiting Marines will stop to take a drink.

Museum address: Place du General Pershing, 02400 Belleau. 011-33-323-820-363. Hours vary throughout the year. Free.

Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial

Sitting at the foot of Belleau Wood, this cemetery contains the graves of 2,289 soldiers who fought in the vicinity in summer 1918. The chapel’s Wall of the Missing commemorates an additional 1,060. It’s a startlingly beautiful place of neatly manicured grounds and flowering gardens; a 15-person team tends to the landscaping. The gravestones — a sea of crosses and stars of David — are polished to a dazzling white.

Rue des Chevaliers de Colomb, 02400 Belleau. 011-33-323-707-090. Open every day except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free.

Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Croix-Rouge Farm Memorial

Fourteen miles northeast of Chateau-Thierry, this cemetery holds the graves of 6,012 U.S. soldiers, including poet Joyce Kilmer and Foster Decorah, a Native American from Wisconsin’s Winnebago tribe. Nearby, in Fere-en-Tardenois, stands a bronze statue depicting an American soldier carrying his dead comrade, honoring the service of the 167th (Alabama) Infantry Regiment, part of the National Guard’s 42nd Infantry Division. To quickly build up an army after the United States’ declaration of war in 1917, National Guard divisions were federalized, drawing units from 26 states and the District. The 42nd became known as the “Rainbow Division” because its members spanned the country.

Chemin Departemental 2, 02130 Seringes-et-Nesles, 011-33-323-822-181. Open every day except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free.

Franco-American Museum at Chateau de Blerancourt

Imagine this: Anne Morgan, daughter of financier J.P. Morgan, driving her Ford Model T all over the devastated Aisne countryside, coordinating aid for the stricken region. One of the richest women in the world set up a relief effort at Chateau de Blerancourt in 1917, working from the war zone with 350 American volunteers. Nearby, the Armistice was signed in a railway car in the Compiegne Forest on Nov. 11, 1918. Today, this 17th century chateau is a splendid museum dedicated to French-American friendship. It reopened last year after a 10-year closure for renovation and expansion.

“Like in any family, they don’t always agree,” explained curator Carole Gragez. “What we seek to do is explore this relationship.” Starting with the ideological origins of the United States and the important French role in the American Revolution, the collection also provides insights into the First World War. Particularly prized is an original ambulance, which the volunteer American Field Service used to transport wounded French soldiers. It’s interesting to ponder propaganda’s role in the war — both in France and the United States. When Pershing’s troops symbolically paraded through Paris streets on July 4, 1917, to Lafayette’s tomb in the Picpus Cemetery, newspapers at the time reported Lt. Col. Charles E. Stanton’s legendary utterance: “Lafayette, we are here!” This choice quote boosted the morale of both Americans and the war-weary French.

Running through Aug. 27, the “Winds and Words of War” exhibition, in partnership with the San Antonio Public Library, showcases the American propaganda posters — including works by Norman Rockwell — used to sway public opinion in favor of officially entering the war.

33 Place du General Leclerc, 02300 Blerancourt. 011-33-323-396-016. Closed Tuesdays. Tickets, about $7.

Quentin Roosevelt centennial in Coulonges-Cohan

President Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, a pilot, was killed during a dogfight on Bastille Day 1918. After the war, his mother, Edith, placed a commemorative fountain in the village of Chamery, which provided drinking water to the villagers who had carefully tended his grave. (At the time of the 20-year-old’s death, the Germans — immediately recognizing him — buried Quentin Roosevelt with full battlefield honors. His remains were later exhumed and moved to be with his oldest brother, Ted, who died of a heart attack in 1944 and is buried in the World War II Normandy American Cemetery.) Today, there’s a shrine in the place where he fell. To honor him and the other “knights of the sky,” the weekend of Aug. 25 and 26 will see a centennial commemoration with pilots from the “Quentin Roosevelt squadron” reenacting the 1918 air battles with more than 90 model aircraft.

011-33-676-543-211. Events, including concerts, are free. It’s possible to reserve a lunch or dinner at the event for about $16. Orders must be made online in advance.

"Soldiers of All Colors: Walking on the Path to Peace"

The Aisne department will host a three-day program of centennial events Sept. 14-16. Highlights include concerts by Chicago’s King College Prep high school jazz band and the unveiling in Blerancourt of a memorial to the 370th Infantry Regiment, the heroic African American soldiers who, like the Harlem Hellfighters, fought under French command because of segregation in the U.S. military. These soldiers are also credited with bringing jazz to Paris.

The events are taking place in Soissons, Laon, Vauxaillon and Blerancourt. 011-33-323-397-217. Free.

Musee de la Grande Guerre

Just 30 minutes outside Paris in Meaux, Europe’s largest First World War museum offers an excellent immersion into the Great War with reconstructed trenches, hanging fighter planes and interactive displays. But it’s not just about war history; the museum portrays the war’s profound impact on society. The modernist building occupies the site of the first Battle of the Marne — constructed beneath the towering “American Monument,” a 23-meter-high sculpture called “Tearful Liberty,” given to France in 1932.

“We felt like voyeurs reading these intimate letters,” explained curator Jean-Yves Le Naour at the media opening of the fantastic temporary exhibition “Families Tested by the War.” Indeed, letter-writing was incredibly important during the war — the French postal service allowed 600,000 letters and 40,000 parcels to be delivered every day. And Pershing also understood the power of letters, encouraging the doughboys to write home. Running through Dec. 2, the exhibit is a comprehensive look at the war’s social legacy, including gender roles in society.

Rue Lazare Ponticelli, 77100 Meaux. 011-33-160-321-418. Closed Tuesdays. Full-price ticket costs about $12.

Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

Launched in September 1918, the Meuse-Argonne offensive was part of a larger Allied campaign to drive the German army from France and end the war. In the largest battle in American history at the time, 1.2 million U.S. troops fought over a period of 47 days. On 130 acres of ground that was liberated, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is Europe’s largest such cemetery, memorializing 15,200 U.S. soldiers. Remains from 150 temporary burial sites were reburied here between 1918 and 1934. Near the chapel, you’ll find the grave of South Carolinian Cpl. Freddie Stowers, who received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in battle 73 years after his death — the only African American soldier honored with this award. A new visitors center, complete with interactive screens and a film, was opened on Memorial Day 2017.

On Sept. 23, candles will be lit at the headstones in a Centennial Luminary remembrance of fallen soldiers. “It’s going to be an awesome event. This will be the biggest ceremony at the biggest cemetery to mark the biggest American World War I offensive,” superintendent Bruce Malone said. “The hillside will be aglow. There will be videos depicting soldiers’ stories, and volunteers will read aloud the names of the fallen. It will take 13 hours.”

55110 Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. 011-33-329-851-418. Open daily except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free.

Suresnes American Cemetery and Lafayette Escadrille Memorial Cemetery

The first American overseas cemetery is on a hill just outside Paris with sweeping views of the French capital. In 1917, the terrain served as a temporary field hospital before being converted after the war. President Woodrow Wilson conducted the Memorial Day ceremony in 1919. “Here we have the broad story of American society at war — soldiers, women volunteers, third nation volunteers with civic organizations like the YMCA,” superintendent Matthew Brown said. Along with the other ABMC cemeteries, Suresnes will host a large commemorative event on Armistice Day (Nov. 11).

Nearby, in the parkland of the Domaine National de Saint-Cloud, the Lafayette Escadrille Memorial honors the United States’ first combat aviators, 49 of whom are entombed in the memorial crypt, their sarcophagi arranged beneath stained glass windows depicting their famous air battles. First created in 1916, the Lafayette Escadrille was composed of volunteer American pilots who fought under French Capt. Georges Thenault before the United States’ official declaration of war. The squadron first fought above the skies of Verdun; their emblem was the visage of a Sioux Indian. It was disbanded in 1918, but the name lives on as a unit in the French air force.

123 Boulevard Washington, 92150 Suresnes. 011-33-146-250-170. The cemetery is open daily except Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Bellicourt American Monument and Somme American Cemetery

A little less than 100 miles northeast of Paris, the Bellicourt American Monument was built above a canal tunnel built by Napoleon — a main defense of the Hindenburg Line which was broken by an American offensive in September 1918.

The monument is located one mile north of the village of Bellicourt. The Somme American Cemetery is located a half mile southwest of the village of Bony — both in the Aisne department. The cemetery is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. 011-33-323-668-720. Free.

Butte de Vauquois

Located 13 miles south of the Meuse-Argonne cemetery, this hill is symbolic of the war’s fierce fighting. A village was annihilated. Pocked with craters and carved with trenches, the butte was transformed by the Germans into a veritable fortress, with its underground galleries reinforced with concrete (an innovation at the time). Finally liberated by American forces in September 1918, the butte today is threaded with walking trails through an otherworldly landscape. Artifacts are displayed in a small visitors center.

The butte is 13 miles south of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, and about 20 miles west of Verdun. Free.

Romagne '14-'18 museum

In the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, next to the American cemetery, Dutchman Jean-Paul de Vries has spent 30 years collecting objects in the surrounding battlefields — including helmets, love letters and the elaborate “trench art” carved by soldiers out of artillery shells. “I want to tell the story of the soldiers’ everyday lives,” he said. De Vries also leads walks through local battlefields. Take time to stop for lunch at his adjacent cafe.

2 Rue de l’Andin, 55110 Romagne-sous-Monfaucon. 011-33-329-851-014. Ticket price is about $6. Open every day except Tuesday and Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. Closed in winter.

Montfaucon American Monument

Dedicated by Pershing in 1937, this soaring monument commands a perch that had been an observation point for Germans watching enemy lines around Verdun. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, it was a key U.S. objective to capture this peak. Climb the tower’s 234 steps to reach the observation platform. Directly below, spy the stone ruins of Montfaucon-d’Argonne village.

Rue d’Amérique, 55270 Montfaucon-d’Argonne. 011-33-329-851-418. Open every day from 9 a.m.; closing times vary throughout the year.

Verdun Memorial

Revamped and expanded in 2016, this excellent museum brings visitors to the heart of the Battle of Verdun. Nearby, the Douaumont Ossuary is filled with the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers recovered from the battlefield. The setting, next to the ruins of the destroyed village of Fleury, creates a haunting ambiance. Green with life, the landscape seems mystical, thanks to the work of the French National Forests Office, which has replanted the area devastated by the war. The Verdun area is now more akin to a nature park, a former lunar landscape now dotted with wild orchids. Another notable initiative by the forestry commission is a battlefield circuit to honor the Americans who fought in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Near the American cemetery, a forest trail was planted with 1,700 trees to memorialize the 1,700 soldiers of the 1st Division who died in October 1918.

1 Ave. du Corps Europeen, BP 60048 Fleury-devant-Douaumont. 011-33-329-881-916. Tickets cost about $13.

Montsec American Monument

Commanding a hilltop spot in Thiaucourt, this circular colonnade was built to commemorate the capture of the St.-Mihiel salient, or bulge, by the American Expeditionary Forces and to symbolize the enduring friendship and cooperation between the U.S. and French armies. Nearby, it’s possible to walk in authentic era trenches at Apremont-la-Foret.

The monument is located 10 miles east of the town of St. Mihiel. 011-33-383-800-101.

Musee de l'Armee at Les Invalides, Paris

Distinguished by its radiant gold dome, the former veterans hospital of Les Invalides is home to Paris’s sprawling army museum and Napoleon’s tomb. The permanent collection has a section exploring the causes and consequences of the Great War, while temporary exhibits, such as “1918, Armistice” (July 24-Sept. 30) and “In the East, an Endless War 1918-1923” (Oct. 5-Jan. 20, 2019) will be staged during this centennial year. A spectacular multimedia sound and light show, “Night at Invalides,” is back this summer with a new theme: “1918, Birth of a New World.” Running through Sept. 1, the high-tech images are projected on a newly restored courtyard wall.

129 Rue de Grenelle, 75007 Paris, 011-33-810-113-399. Open every day. Tickets cost about $14.

Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial

The area around Ypres in Belgium saw fierce fighting throughout the four-year war. The famous poem “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae, who served as a medic during the Second Battle of Ypres (1915), eternized poppies as a symbol of remembrance. (“In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.”) The red flowers were the first things to grow on the war-ravaged landscape. In the American Cemetery lie the remains of 368 American soldiers who fought with the Allies to liberate Belgium during the Ypres-Lys offensive.

Wortegemseweg 117, 8790 Waregem, Belgium. 011-32-56-601-122. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free.

St. Mihiel American Cemetery

Sprawling over more than 40 acres, this cemetery contains the graves of 4,153 U.S. soldiers, most of whom died during the St. Mihiel offensive. A ceremony will take place on at 12:45 p.m. Sept 22 to mark the 100th anniversary of the offensive, including a free concert at 5 p.m. by the U.S. Naval Forces Europe Band.

Route de Verdun, 54470 Thiaucourt. 011-33-383-800-101. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except for Christmas and New Year’s Day. Free.

Nicklin is a writer based in Paris. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @MaryWNicklin.

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