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    100 Years Ago

    Story by Cpt. Samuel Houde and Sgt. 1st Class Laura Berry

    When I was offered the unique opportunity to join a small team from the Massachusetts National Guard’s Yankee Division in commemorating the 100th anniversary of our predecessors' sacrifices during World War One in April 2018, I graciously accepted. The trip to France was like a living history lesson.
    We were busy morning until night with visits to the sites of many of the most significant battles fought by the 26th Yankee Division in 1918. The experience was breathtaking and surreal -- it enlightened me to the realities of what the soldiers of the 26th YD went through during the last battles of World War I. For Americans, the Great War is also the forgotten one because it was quickly overshadowed by the atrocities of World War II. In France, it is far from forgotten.
    The residents of the small towns we visited had real connections to WWI, as approximately 1 out of every 16 citizens were lost to the war. Scars still remain visible everywhere -- trenches, machine gun nests, and ruins of buildings riddle the vast farmland of Northern France and serve as reminders of what happened so long ago. Cemeteries and memorials honor those that were lost.
    While the team I was with were there, we had the unique honor of paying our respects in parades and ceremonies alongside fellow Guardsmen from other states and French locals. The inherent camaraderie was present, though hard to explain. None of us had contributed to the war effort of WWI, but were, nonetheless, overwhelmed with thanks from the French people. The feelings of pride and honor in what our ancestors gave to the fight were incredible, and it helped bring home the intent of the trip -- to reinvigorate the legacy of our units' heritage with our fellow soldiers at home.
    * * * *
    >Day 1. We saw the Marne River, where the 28th Division of the Pennsylvania National Guard fought the Germans in the early stages of American involvement in WWI and suffered heavy casualties.
    Four PA NG companies fought hard against the Germans, and were left at about 25% strength at the end of the battle. Next is Hill 204, where the 26th YD fought its first major battle of the war, and the Aisne-Marne American Memorial stands tall to honor the fallen. The hill was not easily won. It took over the month-and-a-half to push the German defenses out, but the beginning of the push against the German salient started here in July 1918.
    Next, we visited the city of Fismes, where the 28th Division pushed on against German defenses, suffering heavy casualties. The French village is in the process of erecting a memorial to the fallen “Doughboys,” an old nickname for a member of the US Army or Marine Corps, and there is a walking path with various honors to significant poets and artists of the war.
    A French farmer we met found a round while chopping wood- this round was 100 years old! He said that he finds about four or five of these a year when he cuts down these ancient trees to heat his home. It is no wonder that the French has such strong connection to the war, as they are surrounded by living memories of it in their daily lives.
    The respect the French have for our ancestors' sacrifices is humbling, to say the least. We should all be proud to carry on the YD traditions, and always remember what has sadly come to be known as another forgotten war.

    >Day 2. -- We find ourselves in the small village of Hattonchatel, which the Americans liberated from the Germans after almost four years of occupation. The French villagers were so reluctant to believe the American liberators that the Vermont and Maine French speaking soldiers had to convince them in their own language.
    We surveyed the land from the Chateau that the honored American humanitarian Miss Belle Skinner of Holyoke, Mass. paid to have rebuilt. This again affirms the connection we, as New Englanders, have to the Northern French people because of the sacrifices our predecessors made to liberate them from German occupation.
    Next, we visit the Montsec American Monument, which rests atop a 380 meter-high hill that the Germans used to dominate the landscape. This was the single most important Fire Direction Center (FDC) of the war, and the Germans used it to punish any Allied Force within sight. A bronze sand table depicts the many paths different American units took during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which closed off the German Salient and marked the beginning of the end for the German occupation. The emotions felt when standing atop this hill were breathtaking.
    Our final stop on Day 2 is the American monument at Montfalcone. The Germans had heavily fortified this hill for four years before the American Expeditionary Force came in to take it. We saw some of the "pill boxes" the Germans used for machine gun position that were reinforced with steel and concrete, making them hard to penetrate. Montfalcone marked the victorious end of the Meuse-Argonne offensive- the largest American offensive in history with approximately 1.2 million Soldiers joining the fight to take France back for the Allies. By the end of this offensive, over 28,000 Germans were killed and 56,000 were taken prisoner. American casualties totaled approximately 22,000 and over 90,000 wounded. The history behind these landscapes is incredible, and it lends meaning to the respect that the French people we met along the way have for American sacrifices in the Great War.

    >Day 3- To start off our third day, we conducted a rehearsal for the next day's ceremony at Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, where 6,012 American Soldiers were laid to rest. The inscription on the monument reads...


    Following the rehearsal, we visited the Town of Sergy, where we were greeted by the mayor. The townspeople and the mayor were absolutely enthralled by our presence and made us all feel like celebrities for the sacrifices our ancestors made. Following tea, coffee, and lunch, we met up with some distinguished visitors from the Massachusetts National Guard and we marched 7 miles through 98 degree heat to complete the final stretch of a ten-mile foot-march loaded with history.

    >Day 4. --Immediately after a ceremony, the American soldiers marched through the streets of Fare de Tardenois in our Army Service Uniforms while the general officers rode in antique vehicles. We were met by hundreds of cheering locals-- the honor was incredible. Following the ceremony and parade, we joined the locals in the town center, ate food and enjoyed merriment.
    We finished the day by visiting a light show at Les Fantomes. Several thousand French locals showed up to enjoy not only the light show, but also several other events to include a bi-plane demonstration, musical concert, trained pigeon show, and a hot air balloon.

    >Day 5. – On our fifth day we celebrated the World War I Commemoration. It was an incredible culminating series of events. We started at Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, where we met General Lengyel, Chief of National Guard Bureau. He coined some of our junior team members for their accomplishments. We were part of the honor guard during a quick movement over to the Yankee Division Church.
    We moved together with other members of the 26th YD from Maine and Connecticut over to some original trenches, where we took group photos and discussed some of the historically significant contributions of the Yankee Division. We then traveled to the "Secret City", a series of caves underground which housed American and French Soldiers during the war.
    * * * *
    Beyond American lives lost, the French population lost 1 out of every 60 during this war, a loss we as Americans cannot comprehend. We are all fortunate to have never had to suffer such loss. The more time we spent in France, the more I learned to appreciate that which I cannot know. France is our oldest and strongest ally, and this entire journey served to enforce this.
    We have come to a time where many of the young soldiers coming into the National Guard are unaware of the rich history of our units. We wear the medals and citations earned by our companies and battalions, but the stories behind them are often unknown.
    Visiting France for the WWI Centennial commemoration helped me take ownership of my unit's past, and I am working to help share this pride among my fellow Soldiers. The respect the French have for our ancestors' sacrifices is humbling, to say the least. We should all be proud to carry on the YD traditions, and always remember the contributions of those Soldiers from 100 years ago.



    Date Taken: 08.04.2018
    Date Posted: 11.26.2018 10:53
    Story ID: 301160
    Location: FR

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