Somme American Cemetery and Memorial
It’s actually pretty hard to find the World War I battlefields in Northern France. Infamous for the bloody stalemate that lasted there for years, the land has now returned to tranquil fields. While contemplating this change driving through the Somme Valley, I happened across the American Cemetery. The front gate and chapel door were unclosed, but there was not a single person to be seen. I thought it fitting on Veterans Day (also known as Remembrance Day in the UK and Canada, and Armistice Day in France) which commemorates the November 11, 1918 end of World War I, that we visit this quiet cemetery in the French countryside and think about these forgotten battles that took the lives of these soldiers.
Somme American Cemetery and Memorial contains 1,837 members of the 1st, 33rd, 80th, 27th and 30th US Army Divisions. They served with the French and British (Canadian) forces along the Hindenburg Line in the Somme Valley, Northern France. It was imperative that this seemingly impenetrable line of German forces be broken and so the Americans support was used for a massive 100 day offensive.
The first major encounter for the Americans was the Battle of Cantigny on May 29, 1918. After an entire day of heavy fire and the loss of 1,603 soldiers, the Americans reclaimed this village but effectively only moved the battle front up 1 mile.
Subsequent offensives in August 1918 pushed the German line 34 miles and then 7 more miles back. However the biggest battles came September 26, 30 and October 14-17 which final broke the Western front and eventually led to the final truce one month later. Most of the gravestones in the Somme American Cemetery correspond to the dates of these bloody battles. For an example of how gruesome and hand-to-hand the combat was, read the citation for Medal of Honor winner William B. Turner.
I think the intensity of the conflict is really highlighted in this map on the back of the memorial. Look at the scale bar in the lower left corner! So many lives were lost wrestling for a critical but small patch of land.
On my visit, the cemetery was well maintained with a tidy lawn and bare trees still trimmed back from the winter. Since the site was dedicated in 1937, the art of the monument had a very thick deco style reminiscent of WPA sculptures back in the US.
For all the months spend in smokey, cold, wet, dirty trenches under the constant threat of machine guns, these troops who died in battle are now surrounded by quiet. While many nations pay tribute to their soldiers interred at home, we can not forget those buried in foreign lands or those who remain missing. On Veterans Day, try to think about these forgotten places in the world were wars have been and continue to be fought.