A recent tour of World War I battlefields in France was the latest in a series of initiatives launched by the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library to build recognition of the central role of the 28th President in the Great War. With the one-hundredth anniversary of the conflict rapidly approaching, the Wilson Library is building relationships with a number of national and international groups, including the government of the French Department of the Meuse.
“The Meuse region is the area of France in which the largest battle in U. S. history took place – the Meuse-Argonne Offensive,” explained WWPL President Don Wilson. “On our trip, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to meet the chief administrator of the region, President of the General Council Christian Namy, who is quite interested in developing cooperative programs in observance of the Great War and in honor of Woodrow Wilson, whom the French revere.”
Mr. Namy, who is the chief administrative officer of an area the size of four or five U. S. counties, hosted the 21 members of the Wilson Library group at a festive reception on the first day of the tour. The Wilson Library group presented a copy of John Milton Cooper’s recent biography of the 28th President and a framed copy of a poem on the armistice to Namy. The poem was written in 1921 by Armistead Churchill Gordon, a former mayor of Staunton who visited the American battlefields. A copy of the poem is attached.
“Mr. Namy has promised to visit the Wilson Library in the years ahead, and we look forward to introducing him to our community,” said Dr. Wilson.
Following the reception, the group was treated to a special tour of Fort Vaux, the Verdun Ossuary and the Trench of Bayonets, where a squad of French defenders was buried alive by a gigantic German artillery explosion. In the days following, the Wilson group visited the scene of America’s greatest and bloodiest battle, in which the Yanks drove German troops back more than 30 miles as World War I ended.
“One of the special sites that we visited was the Moleville Farm, where the 116th Infantry Regiment, headquartered here in Staunton, fought its way across open farm fields to root the Germans out of their trenches and bunkers,” said Dr. Wilson. “As we wandered through the woods the doughboys captured, one member of our group found remains that were identified as human by physicians on the tour. We reported these to the French police in hopes that they could determine the identity of the dead and, if the remains are those of an American, send them home.”
In addition, the group – which included individuals from Texas, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Dubai, United Arab Emirates – visited the scene of the Lost Battalion’s siege, Sergeant York’s heroics, the heavily fortified butte of Montfaucon and the battle of Blanc Mont. When the tour reached the Meuse-Argonne U. S. Cemetery, participants conducted a service of remembrance in the chapel of the facility, which is the largest American military cemetery in Europe with the graves of more than 14,000 people who died in the war. Joseph Labrum, the son of a Pennsylvania World War I veteran, read from his father’s recollections of the Armistice to honor those who fell.
In Paris, tour participants also saw the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles where the peace treaty was signed, as well as several other sites frequented by President Wilson. The eight-day tour was co-led by Dr. Edward Lengel, a University of Virginia historian who has written the definitive history of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, and William Walker, a Presidential Library Trustee and scholar of World War I. Presidential Library educators Ellen Abernethy and Karen Church were among the tour participants.
“The trip was delightful, with all participants climbing into trenches and bunkers, learning about America’s role in World War I, sampling some great French food and wine and, most importantly, establishing valuable relationships that should enable us to honor more effectively the contributions of Staunton’s favorite son to the cause of world peace,” said Dr. Wilson. “We want to keep in mind, however, that those who want to learn more about Wilson and World War I do not necessarily have to travel aboard. A visit to the Wilson Library and Museum with our new World War I exhibit is informative and entertaining.”
Dr. Lengel will deliver an address about World War I at the Presidential Library’s Annual Luncheon on Friday, November 12, at 11:30 a.m. The day before, on Thursday, November 11, at 11:00 a.m., the Presidential Library will hold a special Veterans Day ceremony. In addition, for those who enjoy seeing history first hand, the Wilson Library is planning another tour of World War I sites for next year. Tentative plans call for visits to the Imperial War Museum in London, the site of the Battle of Ypres in Belgium and the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Bruges. For more information about Dr. Lengel’s talk, the Veterans Day ceremony, and next year’s World War I tour, please contact Robin von Seldeneck at the Presidential Library at (540) 885-0897, ext. 114, or firstname.lastname@example.org.