When Americans think of visiting battlefields in France they usually head to Normandy and the cemeteries and sites of the 1944 D-Day invasion. Some of the most horrific battles involving American forces, however, actually took place in World War I.
This summer and fall marks the 90th anniversary of the great American offensives that helped end the First World War.
Dangerous Reminders Of War
In the Meuse region of France, about an hour east of Paris by high-speed train, visitors can plunge into the history and atmosphere of World War I trench warfare.
Through a leafy forest along what was once the infamous western front, a soft drizzle helps to imagine the miserable conditions suffered by soldiers bogged down in the muddy wartime trenches. Though birds sing and wheat fields shimmer, there are still dangerous reminders of battles fought nearly a century ago.
A deep hole where soldiers took cover and coils of rusted barbed wire litter the forest floor. Remnants of a tar-covered ammunition case are lodged in the wall of an 8-foot-deep German trench. Twenty yards away, across what was once a no-man's land, are the French front lines.
The trenches were restored as a tourist attraction only about 20 years ago. While the French trenches had to be re-dug, the German ones had only to be cleaned out. They remained largely intact because the Germans, unlike the French, fortified their trenches with concrete, says guide Florence Lamousse.
"The Germans wanted to build strong trenches," Lamousse says. "They wanted to stay in France. And the French — they wanted the soldiers to be offensive and not stay in the trenches. They had a role to do — they had to go out of trenches and push the enemy out of the French territory."
For nearly four years in St. Mihiel, just north of the epic French-German battlefields at Verdun, the French and German armies were mired down in the trenches, fighting it out over gains of just a few feet.
That changed with the arrival of the American forces, led by Gen. John J. Pershing. In their first offensive in late summer 1918, the Americans joined the French to finally rout the Kaiser's army from St. Mihiel.
'A Very Young Army'
A few miles away is the largest American military cemetery abroad. Its 14,000 graves make it bigger than those in Normandy.
"The battles here were unbelievable for several reasons," says Scott Desjardins, the cemetery caretaker and historian. "We weren't very well trained, we weren't very well equipped, we weren't very well led. We were a very young army; we were quite naive actually, which worked out to our benefit. Because had we listened to the British and French, we'd still be stuck in the trenches."
Just two weeks after their victory at St Mihiel, Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces set out to capture the railroad hub at Sedan and break the rail network supporting the German army in France and Flanders.
Known as the Meuse-Argonne offensive, or the Battle of the Argonne Forest, it was one of the bloodiest battle in U.S. history.
Pershing moved 600,000 soldiers and artillery at night from St. Mihiel to the Argonne to mount a surprise attack on the Germans. After 47 days, Pershing's forces prevailed.
The victory at Meuse-Argonne was key to convincing the Germans to sign the armistice to end the war in November. Many of the Americans who died in that offensive are buried at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery.
Bringing Optimism To The War
The French inhabitants of the Meuse region have clearly not forgotten the Americans. Towns and villages are peppered with monuments and memorials to "Les Sammys," the nickname for Uncle Sam's troops.
And this summer a series of concerts, films, exhibits and special battlefield tours will mark the 90th anniversary of the American battles that helped win the war.
Local historian Jean Luc Demandre says the arrival of the Americans in 1917 made a lasting impression on the population.
"The Americans brought an incredible optimism into the war," Demandre says. "They were big and athletic. They chewed chewing gum and smoked blond cigarettes. And they were convinced the Allies would win. For people here, it was the discovery of baseball and jazz, and really a whole new civilization."
In an abandoned quarry near the town of Verdun, a giant sound and light show reenacts the bloody French-German battle.
In one scene, a French and a German soldier each write a letter home from the trenches. Both evoke the same feelings of despair and futility. "Are we still human beings?" they ask.
This year, a new, more upbeat scene has been added to the production — it depicts the arrival of the Americans and how they helped end the war to end all wars, 90 years ago.