By Alan W. Dowd, ASCF Senior Fellow
AUGUST 2018—Exactly a hundred years ago, from late July through the first half August of 1918, American, British and French forces engaged Germany in a ferocious battle near the Marne River. Known as the Second Battle of the Marne, it turned back what’s considered the last major German offensive of that summer and arguably of the war. “By the time the fighting ended,” as the London Telegraph recalls, “the Allies had driven the Germans back to the Aisne…[and] re-established the vital railway link between Paris and Châlons-sur-Marne…Germany had been forced on the defensive and would remain there for the rest of the war.” For Germany, as the paper explains, Second Marne “marked the beginning of the end.”
France lost 95,000, Britain 13,000 and the U.S. 12,000 in the Second Battle of the Marne. But there was more—and worse—to come: A month later, in September 1918, the Battle of Meuse-Argonne would kill 26,277 Americans and wound a staggering 95,786 Americans, making it the bloodiest battle in American history—bloodier than Antietam or Gettysburg, Okinawa or Iwo Jima, Normandy or the Bulge, Heartbreak Ridge or Khe Sanh, Fallujah or Sangin.
Not long after the guns of the Great War fell silent, in a speech at an American cemetery just outside Paris, President Woodrow Wilson intoned, “No one with a heart in his breast, no American, no lover of humanity, can stand in the presence of these graves without the most profound emotion. Never before have men crossed the seas to a foreign land to fight for a cause which they did not pretend was peculiarly their own, but knew was the cause of humanity and mankind.”
The French understood this, and they have never forgotten what some 2 million American troops sacrificed for France a century ago. Throughout France, they remember what “Les Sammies”—the nickname the French gave the boys from across the Atlantic, a reference to Uncle Sam’s troops—did to save their country.
In the tiny French village of Charmoy, they are remembering and honoring the sacrifices of the U.S. Army 27th Engineers, which a century ago set up a basecamp in the town, rebuilt bridges and roadways, and then fought in the brutal Meuse-Argonne Offensive.
At the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where 2,289 American personnel are buried—and a wall with a thousand names honors those whose bodies were never recovered—they remember what U.S. Marines did at Belleau Wood. In May of this year, as AP reports, French military officials joined American military brass and thousands of French, German and American visitors at Aisne-Marne to celebrate the centennial of the Battle of Belleau Wood.
Last year on Bastille Day, France honored U.S. soldiers and Marines by inviting them to march alongside French troops down the Champs-Elysees during the great parade.
Each and every year, on America’s Memorial Day, the French people gather to remember the Lafayette Squadron—a group of American pilots that joined the fight against Germany in 1916, long before America officially entered the Great War.
Moreover, the French (along with other nations in Europe) show their gratitude by caring for the thousands of American graves that dot their countryside—silent, constant reminders of America’s sacrifice in two world wars for France, for Europe, for civilization, for freedom.
Each of the 8,301 graves at the American Cemetery and Memorial in Margraten, in The Netherlands, has been adopted by a Dutch family. Some 600,000 people visit Margraten each year; importantly, 40 percent of them are schoolchildren.
One of those graves holds the remains of 2nd Lt. Royce D. Taylor, a B-17 bombardier killed during World War II. Lt. Taylor is the grandfather of a dear friend, Lt. Col. Scott Taylor, who is also a combat veteran. The younger Taylor piloted F-15Es in hotspots over Europe and the Middle East before leaving active-duty service in 2005.
“To have another nation caring for our fallen heroes, it goes beyond words,” Taylor says. “It reminds us freedom is not just an American ideal. And as a grandson, I’m just thankful. To have somebody adopt my grandfather reflects their appreciation for what he fought for.”
Similar grave-adoption programs can be found at American cemeteries and memorials in Belgium and Luxembourg, according to a Boston Globe report.
Participation in the grave-adoption program in Epinal, France, has skyrocketed in recent years. Jocelyne Papelard, who is in charge of the program, says it’s “the least the French can do.” Echoing Wilson, she adds, “American soldiers not only came once, but twice to liberate and help this country for a cause which was not theirs an ocean away.”
According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, there are 124,909 American war dead buried at cemeteries on foreign soil, including 30,921 from World War I and 93,238 from World War II—many of them resting in Europe. As Stars and Stripes details, American military cemeteries in Europe range in size from the tiny Flanders Field American Cemetery in Belgium, where 386 Americans are buried, to the massive Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France, where 14,246 Americans are laid to rest. Both of these are World War I cemeteries. The largest American World War II cemetery in Europe is Lorraine American Cemetery in France, where 10,489 Americans are buried.
“You leave your dead in our hands,” Marshal Ferdinand Foch declared after the Great War had been won, as the American Expeditionary Force departed. “On our soil we will care for them religiously and zealously, as bearing witness to the powerful aid you brought us.”
Leaders in France and all across the European Union may be frustrated today by Washington’s tough stance on trade, withdrawal from the Iran deal and pullout from the Paris Climate Accords, but it’s heartening to know that France and other corners of Europe that were freed and rescued by American blood continue to keep Marshal Foch’s promise.
This is to their credit. More than that, it’s a reminder that what binds America and Europe is far greater than what divides us.