WWI: Week Two Update (The Western Front)

Greetings from lovely Paris, where our World War I students are settling in to their new digs and catching up on laundry and Skype. It’s been a busy few days since our last update. Here’s some of what we’ve been up to…

The weather took a turn for the wintry as we crossed the English Channel last Saturday and began a three-day tour of the former Western Front, led by our incredibly gifted, knowledgeable Belgian guide, Carl Ooghe. (Look him up on Trip Advisor if you want a second opinion. He also leads bike tours in the warmer months.)

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Carl started us at sites around Ypres, the small city in Flanders that hosted three major battles during the war. (Future world war leaders Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill both fought there.) Starting at the dressing stations where Canadian physician-poet John McCrae wrote, “In Flanders fields the poppies grow / Between the crosses, row on row,” Carl then introduced students to the eery beauty of the German cemetery at Langemarck (with its inscription from the prophet Isaiah) and the terrible grandeur of the British/Commonwealth cemetery at Tyne Cot, stopping along the way at the moving Canadian memorial known as the “Brooding Soldier” and a farmhouse whose garage holds rusted shells, grenades, rifles, and other relics plowed out of the clay soil. Meanwhile, the bitterly cold wind gave students a taste of the misery that freezing soldiers on both sides experienced. (Of course, for us, the misery gave way to a comfortable hostel and tasty restaurant supper. For this Irish soldier, the war ended only with death — leaving an embittered epitaph behind.)

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Our day in Ypres ended at the majestic Menin Gate, a memorial to tens of thousands of unidentified British soldiers. At 8pm five Belgian firefighters played “Last Post,” the bugle tune that marked the end of a combat day during the war. A ceremony repeated every night since 1928 (save for the years of German occupation during WWII), we were present for its 29,091st iteration.

The next morning we continued on to northern France: first, the enormous Canadian memorial at Vimy Ridge (next to a set of preserved trenches that we walked); then a series of sites in the region where the Battles of the Somme were fought in 1916 and 1918. After a short walk into French farmland, we looked down the gentle slope of a hill to see the commanding view that German machine guns had of the British ranks as they marched to their deaths on July 1, 1916. A series of cemeteries mark the No Man’s Land where over 20,000 died that day.

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Something like 50,000 British soldiers killed in that sector were never identified; their names are carved into the massive memorial at Thiepval.

After a Sunday haunted by memories of death and dying, we concluded our day by gathering for an intimate service of Communion, breaking bread and sharing the cup in remembrance of the one whose death we proclaim — and whose resurrection lets us live as a people of hope, even in a shadow as dark as the one cast by the First World War.

Monday was technically a travel day that would take us to Paris for the third leg of our trip, but on the way from Albert to France’s capital, we stopped at several sites marking the United States’ brief participation in the war.

There are several American WWI cemeteries in France; we stopped at two. First, a small one at Bony, where American and Australian units struggled against stout German defenses in September 1918. (This striking, backlit photograph of the cemetery – as all others in this post – courtesy of Prof. Sam Mulberry.)

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Later we stopped at the Oise-Aisne cemetery, the second largest U.S. military cemetery from WWI. The site superintendent (a former French major from the University of Minnesota!) noted that, unlike the American Expeditionary Force itself, the cemetery is integrated: white and black soldiers lie side by side. (He lives in a house across from the cemetery that was once used to provide apartments to “Gold Star Mothers” arrived to visit their sons’ graves – trips paid for by the U.S. government.)

Our final stops were outside the village of Belleau, where American troops – in their first pitched action of the war – helped to stop the last great German offensive, barely fifty miles from Paris. In the woods overlooking the Belleau cemetery stand artillery pieces and a memorial to the Marines who manned them.

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If you’re interested in learning more about this travel course… Remember that one of our students, Sarah Herb, is also blogging about the trip, and Prof. Gehrz’ blog has daily suggested readings related to our activities.

And look for another update here after we finish our time in Paris this weekend.

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3 thoughts on “WWI: Week Two Update (The Western Front)”

  1. Interesting and informative. Bugle playing honor- nearly continuous for all those years. I would like to see/ walk the trenches. Hi Michaela- Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett

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