Along the Voie Sacrée

Inigo Thomas

The monument at Montfaucon d’Argonne, near Verdun, commemorates the American advance that began in September 1918 and ended with the signing of the Armistice on 11 November. George Marshall, after whom the Marshall Plan is named, drew up the order of battle for the American Expeditionary Force. More than a million American soldiers fought in what is known as the Hundred Days Offensive: 122,000 were injured; 26,000 were killed. The monument is a 180-foot-high Doric pillar made of granite; the figure of Liberty stands at the top, with its right arm raised. Before the tower are four flights of steps made of white stone which lead up to the column’s entrance. Walls to the left and right name the smaller battles on the road to 11 November and inside a spiral staircase goes up to the balcony at the pillar’s summit. Behind the monument is the shattered monastery of Saint-Germain, founded in the sixth century and destroyed in a German advance in the opening phase of the war. A few window arches and pillars survive. Some of the rubble was used to make a watchtower in what was the nave so that German soldiers had a better view of French troop positions outside Verdun.

‘Do something beautiful,’ Paul Cret, chair of the steering group of the American Battle Monuments Committee, told the architect, John Russell Pope, in 1925: ‘This is the most important monument and for this reason it has been entrusted to you.’ Pope was one of the most successful and visible American architects of the era – he designed the National Gallery in Washington, the Jefferson memorial, numerous banks, the Duveen galleries at the British Museum and the Tate, and many other familiar buildings in Washington and New York. Cret, though French, was a no less successful American architect: he designed the Eternal Light memorial at Gettysburg, the Folger Shakespeare Library, as well as the Pennsylvania war monument in nearby Varennes-en-Argonne. Albert Speer was an admirer.

The Montfaucon d’Argonne monument and ruins of Saint-Germain
The Montfaucon d’Argonne monument and ruins of Saint-Germain

The commission stipulated that Pope’s design had to stand on ground fought over by Americans; had to be accessible; had to have commanding views of the surrounding country; and had to be visible from a distance. On a sharp October day I drove to Montfaucon from Reims: I could see Pope’s monument from miles away. Later, from the top of Pope’s pillar, I looked out over the plains and forests of Lorraine and Champagne – what had been the Western Front, the land between Reims and Verdun. The crumbling German watchtower below looked rather feeble and I found myself wondering whether this is what victory looks like.

To the north, but out of sight of Pope’s pillar, is the vast American cemetery at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. The head of the US Commission of Fine Art, Charles Moore, insisted that American cemeteries in France not be designed in the British fashion, in phalanxes of headstones. Instead, they would be a combination of lawns, trees and crosses – parks for the dead and the living. The design of Romagne was handed to George Gibbs, who worked for the firm founded by the designer of Central Park, Frederick Law Olmsted. ‘Nothing could be more impressive than the rank after rank of white stones, inconspicuous in themselves, covering the gentle wooded slopes and producing the desired effect of a vast army.’ This was Moore’s wish, and Gibbs’s layout was exactly that – 14,000 soldiers are buried in eight rectangular sections, divided by avenues of cherry trees on 130 acres of lawn. The grass planted by Gibbs is lush and as green as the lawns at Arlington, or the front lawns of every middle-class American suburb. A pair of heavy stone pylons stand at the east and west entrances to what is the largest American cemetery in Europe.

One problem the cemetery’s builders had was how to fill it. The US army said it would pay for the repatriation of every dead soldier (a promise the British army didn’t make to its troops). As Moore pointed out, these new cemeteries had to stand out if they were to persuade families to leave their sons or their fathers in France. The cemetery at Romagne remains pristine. The Romanesque chapel was the work of yet another well-known architect, Louis Ayres, who built the Commerce Department’s headquarters in Washington, and a lot more. A history of the architecture of America’s Roaring Twenties remains, more or less unexamined, in rural France.

Vestiges de la guerre is a French term for ‘war ruins’: from the top of the Montfaucon monument the entire view is of vestiges of the war. Ten miles to the west, Alvin York captured a German machine-gun nest singlehandedly, killed 25, captured 132 and was awarded every French and American honour imaginable. He was played by Gary Cooper in Sergeant York; the movie, made in 1941, won Cooper an Oscar. Further to the west, at the now-restored trenches above Massiges, bodies continue to be found. The remains of Albert Dadure were discovered in 2013; a plate pinned to a wooden stake says he was killed on 7 February 1915 aged 21. Beyond Massiges is the German cemetery at Séchault, where iron crosses line up in an oak grove. The memorials to German Jews, being made of stone, stand out. Vienne-le-Château to the south-west is where Marc Bloch was posted in 1915. His war diaries convey the boredom of war work behind the lines, with nothing to read and no sense of what was going on elsewhere. ‘I had little comprehension of the battle,’ he wrote. ‘It was the victory of the Marne but I would not have known what to call it. What matter, it was victory.’ There were days at the front when Bloch found himself shouting out over the narrow stretch of no-man’s-land to the Germans out to kill him. One day, a German bullet hit the wooden rifle butt of a soldier next to him – splinters flew into Bloch’s head. Was this it? he asked himself. ‘I had read that mortal blows are often not very painful, and I also knew that head wounds are either very serious or insignificant. If I’m not dead in two minutes, I’ll be all right.’ Two minutes passed. Bloch took himself to the field hospital.

The Ossuaire de Douaumont, 18 miles south-east of Montfaucon, is France’s monument to those who died at Verdun – ossuaire is French for a container, regardless of size, holding human remains. It, too, has a tower; from there you can survey a battle begun on 21 February 1916 with heavy artillery firing forty shells a minute for hours and hours. It ended on 18 December. Within the ossuaire are the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers; before it, lying on a south-facing slope, are the graves of 16,000 Frenchmen, the grass shorn and yellowing, but roses were in bloom at each grave. Successive presidents of France and Germany have reasserted friendship over national interest here. The orange stained-glass windows of the memorial building redden – incarnadine – the 130-metre-long barrel-shaped interior, amplifying the obvious symbolism of blood and sacrifice.

Verdun was never taken by the Germans, even if, at the conclusion of the battle, German troops had brought the front line closer to the town. France proclaimed the battle its victory. Verdun, Pétain wrote in his book on the battle, was ‘the moral bulwark of France’. He had wanted to be buried at the ossuaire among his troops, and that is what would have happened had he died in 1939 or earlier. After 1945, it was inconceivable that he would be interred at Verdun.

Gericht was the codename the German commander Erich von Falkenhayn gave to his battle plan – ‘execution ground’ is the word’s meaning. Bleeding the French to death was the idea, and one young French soldier didn’t disagree: Charles de Gaulle, then a captain stationed at Verdun, said this was a war of extermination (he was wounded and captured after leading a bayonet charge on 2 March). The Fort of Douaumont north-east of the town fell to the Germans three days after the battle began: it was so heavily bombed as to be unrecognisable as a fort, only the central building survived and the German occupiers continued to build gun and artillery emplacements, facing south towards the French positions. One person to marvel at the fort’s survival was the man who in the 1920s would argue that France needed better defences at the German border, André Maginot, who fought at Verdun and became France’s Minister of War. The Maginot line, designed to thwart any German attack, was named after him. It proved cruelly useless.

The road sign for the destroyed village of Fleury
The road sign for the destroyed village of Fleury

The loss of Douaumont in February 1916 was a seismic event for the French commanders and retaking it became an obsession. Troops and materiel poured into Verdun. The road to the town from Bar le Duc, sixty kilometres to the south, became a 24-hour conveyor belt; shell-shocked troops headed in one direction; fresh troops, guns, explosives, ammunition, supplies and food travelled in the other. Maurice Barrès named the road the rue sacrée – it’s now the Voie Sacrée – and some soldiers saw it as a version of the via Dolorosa, the battlefield their Calvary. ‘Everyone came to Verdun as if to receive some ultimate recognition there,’ Paul Valéry wrote after the war was over, ‘as if all the provinces of the patrie had needed to join one particularly cruel and solemn sacrifice among the sacrifices of the war, exposed to the world’s gaze. They seemed to go up the Voie Sacrée like some new kind of offertory, to the most formidable altar that mankind has ever raised.’ Three-quarters of France’s entire army fought at Verdun at one time or another. ‘J’ai fait Verdun’ was the saying: 250,000 soldiers were killed, one for every minute of the battle, and a further 450,000 injured. Marc Bloch wasn’t among them. ‘Military courage is certainly widespread,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I do not believe it is correct to say, despite occasional opinions to the contrary, that it is easily come by. I have always noticed that by some fortunate reflex, death ceases to appear very terrible the moment it seems close: it is this ultimately that explains courage. Most men dread going under fire, and especially returning to it. Once there, however, they no longer tremble.’

Fleury and Douaumont are two of the villages that were levelled by the combatants; stakes in the ground mark out where buildings once stood in Fleury – farmhouse, town hall, church … The village of Vauquois, near Montfaucon, was destroyed when the Germans dug tunnels underneath it, setting more than a thousand tons of explosives: nine huge craters mark the spot where the village once stood.

The dedication of John Russell Pope’s memorial at Montfaucon was delayed; like the other American battle monuments, it was opened in ceremonies held on Memorial Day, 1937. At Montfaucon, Pétain and General Pershing stood on the steps with the French president Albert Lebrun; Roosevelt’s address was broadcast via radio (the American Battle Monuments Committee made a news reel of the occasion). Pershing recognised what was going on: ‘In the face of danger from the frequent stupidity or the more frequent unholy ambition of false leaders, we must ever hold ourselves ready to yield our all to defend the liberty we have inherited.’

‘The Western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time,’ Dick Diver says in Tender Is the Night: ‘This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between classes … You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember.’ It turned out soon enough that there were other ways to wage war.