Shared by Academic Travel Abroad’s Guest Service Adviser, Rosalie DeFilippo and written by Julia Train.
The Times Journeys trip, “Remembering the Great War,” brought the history of World War I alive for me more than any textbook did in college. As a history major, I found myself at home surrounded by like-minded history geeks and experts while exploring famous battlefields, cemeteries and memorials. The Times Journeys expert on our trip, Dr. Mitch Yockelson (military historian, professor at Norwich University, archivist for the National Archives & published by New American Library) and our tour manager, Ian Glennie (City London Guide for over twenty years with a strong military history background) were a dream team. The other travelers in our group also made the trip more interesting and dynamic. One traveler brought a collection of maps, marking where his grandfather served with the 32nd division. He was able to visit one of the battlefields near Verdun where his grandfather fought. Although it’s been a century since the war, one can still see the craters carved in the ground from exploded mines and the remnants of damaged buildings. “Remembering the Great War” became an emotional and stimulating experience as we followed the footsteps of brave soldiers that served in one of the bloodiest wars in modern times.
One of the highlights for many of us was visiting the monument of Sergeant Alvin York with our local tour guide, Guillaume. From Mitch and Guillaume, we learned how Alvin York earned a Medal of Honor when he almost single-handedly captured 132 German soldiers using a rifle and pistol, while the Germans above him had 32 machine guns. He became a hero for leading this attack which saved the Lost Battalion of about 500 allied soldiers. Guillaume’s knowledge of Alvin York and the Meuse-Argonne offensive was extensive and it seemed there was no question he didn’t have an answer to.
The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery moved me more than any other cemetery we visited on tour. The largest number of American soldiers (a total of 14,246), are buried there. Rows of headstones stretch endlessly over the hundred and thirty acres of land where a white-marbled memorial sits perched on top of a ridge. It was there, at the Meuse-Argonne Memorial, that two of our travelers laid a wreath in honor of their grandparents who served in the war. Our group was sometimes moved to tears as we gazed at solemn cemeteries while listening to stories of young adolescent boys lying about their age to enter the war only to succumb to death too soon. For me, “Remembering the Great War” was not only an educational experience, but also a trip to honor the fallen.
I also found visiting and walking among the trenches at Verdun a memorable and fascinating experience. In the height of the ten month Battle of Verdun, 28,000 people died a day for seven days in a row, making it the longest and bloodiest battle of the Great War. The trenches and remnants of the battle largely remain untouched, as the French take pride in preserving the history. A century later, the ground remains littered with unexploded shells, barbed wire and cement walls. After exploring the underground forts, seeing the tiny bunk beds where two soldiers per bed had to sleep, and experiencing the damp tunnels, I felt like I understood what being a solider in WWI must have been like. While walking among the scarred landscape of Verdun, I picked up a bullet I found lying in the muddy earth. A piece of the war was in my hand.