Not far from Paris is the small town of Meaux. This is where the Museum of the Great War is located. (For more information, please visit their website www.museedelagrandeguerre.eu/en.html.) Everything in the museum came from a single private collection of World War I memorabilia. The tour in the museum starts with the end of the previous conflict between France and Germany in 1870, and ends with the Treaty of Versailles in 1918. Plan on a few hours at the museum to learn about the causes and effects of the war.
There were several causes of the Great War, among them the alliances that formed in Europe between England, France and Russia to confront Germany; also, there was an alliance between Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy. Some other causes were the assassinations of Jean Jaurès, the leader of the French socialists, and the Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife Isabella of Sarajevo. The killing of Mr. Jaurès made it easier to rally the French workers to the national cause of war against Germany. The assassinations of the Crown Prince and his wife gave the excuse to declare war on Serbia. Not long after, Russia mobilized their troops followed by France. Germany declared war on Russia and France, then invaded Belgium which brought in England. Germany then called on its alliance with Sarajevo and Italy, and boom. All of Europe is at war.
The war raged for three years before America joined the fight. It was the sinking of the Lusitania that was the impetus for joining the war effort. Before that, America was refusing to join the war.
There was a huge push to produce more food, while consuming less and sending the surplus to save the French people.
The war quickly became stuck in the mud and trenches. Conditions were bad at best and appalling at worst. To give you an idea of what the trenches look like, there is a mock-up in the museum:
Above the trenches was “No man’s land”, or the space between the enemy trenches. Many trenches were just yards apart, usually slightly further than one could throw a grenade.
To give you perspective from the trenches, sometimes soldiers would see this over the top of their bunker. Not something to be happy about.
There was a large human cost to the war as well. Thousands came home “shell shocked”, what we call PTSD today, and many thousands returned from the war wounded and maimed. A new medical science had to be developed to cope with the injuries, and that is the field of prosthetics. Every conceivable form of prostheses had to be developed for these former soldiers to even cope with life after the war. Here is an image of the myriad forms of prosthetics developed.
After four long years of battle, the war ended on November 11, 1918, and the armistice was signed at 11:00am that morning, this became known as Armistice Day which we celebrate as Veteran’s Day today. The treaty of Versailles was signed a few months later officially ended the war and set the stage for World War II. Germany got the short end of the stick in the Treaty, they had to pay reparations to the rest of Europe, and rebuild their country at the same time. This devastated their economy and allowed a young radical named Adolf Hitler to gain power in the country to rebuild the military, which was banned under the Treaty.
This monument was built by the American Friends of France in 1932, and it was dedicated to memory and silent voices of those who gave their lives in the Battle of Marne, in September 1914. This monument sits behind the Museum of the Great War.
A few miles away at Chateau-Thierry stands the American Memorial to the Great War. The inscription reads: “This monument has been erected by the United States of America to commemorate the services of her troops and those of France who fought in this region during the World War. It stands as a lasting symbol of the friendship and cooperation between the French and American Armies.” The figures were sculpted by Alfred-Alphonse Bottiau, and represent Marianne (symbol of France) and Columbia (symbol of America) clasping hands to represent the lasting friendship between the two nations.
This monument was erected in 1930.
Underneath the monument is the American museum dedicated to the service of American troops in France during World War I.
A few kilometers away is Belleau Wood, the location of a fierce battle between the Americans and the Germans. It is now the location of the US cemetery for World War I soldiers. Sadly, we arrived just as they were getting ready to close the gates for the day. Every soldier buried here received the Purple Heart individually, to their families posthumously, but there is one here for all the soldiers.
A stone’s throw from the American cemetery is the German cemetery for the Battle of Belleau Wood.
The white crosses in the background is the American Cemetery, and the German cemetery in the foreground. Over 8,000 men are buried in the German cemetery, and about 67,000 men are buried in the American cemetery.
It was a very humbling experience to visit these locations and learn the history as it really happened. My goal here is to convey a sense of history that normally isn’t discussed or viewed. It’s my wish that everyone could visit these monuments, museums and cemeteries to gain a better understanding of our history so we don’t repeat it. It’s also my wish to pay homage to these men for paying the ultimate sacrifice to pay for the freedom that exists in the world today. I also wish to honor all those who have served and are serving in the Armed Forces today.
Happy Veteran’s Day,