Tuesday 13 June 2023

The Sergeant York Battlefield - 1918

 Ever since I reviewed Michael Kelly's book 'Hero on the Western Front: Discovering Alvin York's WW1 Battlefield' for the Western Front Association, I've wanted to visit the Meuse- Argonne area and walk the Sergeant York Trail. The fame of Congressional Medal of Honour winner Sergeant York was amplified considerably by the Academy winning film 'Sergeant York' which was released in 1941, just in time for the USA's entry into the Second World War. Alvin York (played by Gary Cooper) was a modest man with strong family values - a true 'all-American hero'. His profile would have resonated with many of his fellow countrymen, and this would not have been lost on the authorities who had the responsibility of mobilising the population for a later war.

The Sergeant York Trail - Chatel-Chéhéry

Sergeant York's heroism is well documented and is the stuff of legend. A Corporal at the time of the action, York was serving with the American 328th Infantry Regiment. Operating in the Argonne Forest in October 1918, the Battalion was pinned down by machine gun fire. Sergeant Bernard Early sent a party of seventeen men - including the then Corporal York, to infiltrate the German position and neutralise the guns. In pressing forward the group came upon a large group of enemy troops having their breakfast. Taking them all prisoner, the Americans came under fire from German machine guns which left eight of their number killed or wounded. York was the senior man left and under his superb leadership and through his personal bravery the guns were taken-out and 132 of the enemy brought back to base as prisoners.

The Start of the Sergeant York Trail

En-route to Chatel-Chéhéry our small group decided to stop off at Montfaucon which was liberated from the German 37th Division on September 26-27, 1918. My 1919 Michelin battlefield guide 'The Americans in the Great War: Volume 3 Meuse- Argonne Battle' contained some intriguing pictures of the destroyed church and a nearby observation post which the German occupiers had built using the old stonework. To our amazement the post is still there, preserved as part of a memorial site. The rubble has been cleared but the 'before and after' photos still make compelling viewing.

Montfaucon - German Observation Post - 2023

Montfaucon - German Observation Post - 1918

The capture of Montfaucon came at a heavy cost. According to the signboard on the site, over 150 men of the attacking American regiment (numbering 4,000) were killed. About 150 Germans were captured from the surrounding dugouts (many of which remain). Eleven large artillery pieces were captured, in addition to more than 150 machine guns. There is a huge memorial column on the site (currently closed for repairs) - dominating the landscape for miles around. One of my fellow travellers was somewhat disingenuous when he observed "bloody hell, they turned up late and still get the biggest monument in the area and a car park the size of Wembley Stadium!". He was suitable chastened when we later visited the magnificent American Meuse- Argonne Cemetery with its' rows of white crosses.

Montfaucon American Monument

The site of Sergeant York's action at Chatel-Chéhéry is nearby. One of the things that pricked my interest in Kelly's book is that this small battlefield must be the most studied of all such similar sites. Unlike the site of most First World War battles, the ground was fought over only once. This means that archaeological methods have a particular relevance. Every shell case, every bullethead and every contemporaneous artefact is from the action that York was involved with. Never has a heroic action been so thoroughly investigated, and indeed validated. The town is a typical provincial French community. There is a plaque to York outside the Town hall and the well-sign posted trail starts from a point about 200 metres beyond this point.

Signboard on the Sergeant York Trail

The walk is a couple of miles. The trail skirts around a small lake, runs along the mid- point of a ridge turns in a horseshoe through woodland before returning to the start- point. There are eight information boards and directional signs. At the point where York charged and neutralised one of the German machine guns there is a memorial listing the names of the Americans involved in the action. It also references the trail funders (the Weider family) and the builders (Nate Eggert and his Eagle Scout group).

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

To complete the day, we visited the stunningly moving Meuse-Argonne American Cemeterv - 130 acres containing 14,246 burials. The site is very impressive and features tree-lined walkways, a central fountain, a chapel and a visitor centre. We weren't able to visit the latter. Maybe next time? My review of 'Hero on the Western Front: Discovering Alvin York's Battlefield' is here.