Friday, November 5, 2010


Cantigny.  May 28, 1918.  This small French village was the epicenter of the first American offensive in World War I.  More than anything, it was a test for the American Expeditionary Force.  The allies wanted to see what these so-called "doughboys" could do.

The battle figures prominently in Lilac Wine.  Robert Bishop, prone to nightmares which have a tendency to come true, is haunted by images of the war.  Cantigny is in his dreams:

The sky to the east was just beginning to lighten as the first of the artillery exploded overhead. As the shells found their marks, blasts revealed the silhouetted ruins of a small village in the distance. Except for a lone chimney standing defiantly against the barrage, rubble and fallen walls were all that remained; nothing but piles of brick and branchless trees.
     The men were packed tightly in crudely dug trenches, not more than three feet deep. Several hundred yards of wheat, pocketed here and there by large, blackened craters, lay between them and the decimated village. In the darkness, disrupted by sporadic flashes of light, those craters looked deep and endless, like mouths waiting to swallow up the unsuspecting.
     Some men looked up to the sky, struggling vainly to discern the stars that tried to shine beyond the smoke that drifted overhead. Some curled, face down in the dirt, clutching their rifles tightly to their chests. Others, with eyes closed, repeated prayers over and over. Each man contemplated what was to occur in his own way. Most thought about home, though---of loved ones they hoped to see once again.
     The artillery was answered with thunderous replies from the other side. Chunks of earth hurled through the air with each explosion, sending dirt and rock upon the helmets of those who sat in the trembling ground awaiting their orders. The pebbles striking the metal of the helmets were not unlike the sounds of hailstones pelting a roof during a heavy storm.
     The back and forth exchange continued from some time. The explosions were deafening. Screams would occasionally punctuate a burst. Men cupped their ears with their palms, not knowing if one of the whistles was going to bring instant death from the sky. That was the worst of it: not knowing where they were going to fall and knowing full well that there was nothing that could be done.
     The sun gradually peeked over the horizon and the men were told to get ready. An officer’s whistle cut through the clamor as the detonations faded and a momentary silence fell over the land. Although the artillery was now quiet, the explosions lingered in the ears of every man who now stood from his position and stepped up over the edge of the trench. Their bayonets caught the rising sun as they slowly walked forward through the wheat, the equipment in their backpacks gently clanging with each step.
     Suddenly, a deep rumbling sound came from both sides of the line. Large tanks rolled out of the woods. Like mechanized haystacks, the tanks led the men across the field, opening fire on the helpless village. Machine guns started to clatter overhead, providing cover for the soldiers while they ascended to the ruins. As they approached, men walked out of the rubble with arms held in the air. They were quickly apprehended by the soldiers and told with the barrels of their rifles to lie on the ground. Here and there soldiers of a different sort followed closely behind the tanks. They wore dark blue overcoats, the tips of their weapons glowing with flame. Their eyes searched the rubble for shadowed holes and remnants of cellars that once held fine French wine and wintered grain preserved from the last harvest, but were now home to enemy soldiers.
     “Raus mit ihm!” screamed one into a cellar just before pulling the trigger. Orange jets of flames shot from the tip, roaring like a waterfall. The air shimmered in the heat as rock and brick caught fire. Screams peaked for a moment from within the bowels of the darkness and then were silent. (Lilac Wine, Chapter 9)
American memorial outside of Cantigny.

The 28th Regiment of the American First Division successfully wrestled this French village from the Germans, marking a successful first offensive for the inexperienced doughboys.  For three days, Germans pounded the village in a vain attempt to regain the territory.  The village was destroyed and the Americans suffered over 1,000 casualties. But they held the line until reinforcements came.

Cantigny may have been a small battle when compared to others.  However, Cantigny's influence was enormous.  This was the first step Americans had made on a world stage, tipping the scales in a war that had consumed the youth of Europe for almost four years.

Next week is Veterans Day.  Originally "Armistice Day," the holiday was created to commemorate those who had fought and died in the Great War and is still celebrated as such the world over.  Poppies are symbolic of Armistice Day as it is believed that poppies grew where soldiers had died.  In 1954, Congress changed the name to "Veterans Day" to commemorate all veterans who had fought and died in America's wars.

There aren't too many veterans left from World War I.  In fact, there are only three worldwide. Frank Buckles, now 109, is the only living American veteran from the Great War.  He was a mere 16 years old when he served, driving cars and ambulances in both England and France.

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