The largest American cemetery in Europe is in north-east France in Lorraine, at Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. It’s a huge site, set in 130 acres of gently sloping land. 14,246 soldiers who died in World War I are buried here in straight military lines.
The graves are not set according to rank: you find a captain next to an orderly, a pilot awarded a Medal of Honor next to an African American in the Labour Division. Most of them fought and died, in the offensive launched in 1918 to liberate the Meuse. The Americans were led by General Pershing.
You drive past the two towers at the entrance into the cemetery. On one hill, you’ll find the Visitor Center where you can meet staff, sign the guest register and find out more about the war and the cemetery. Better still is to book in advance for a guided tour that is accurate, interesting and full of anecdotes. You learn far more than you would by just walking around.
From here you walk down the slope to a circular pool with a fountain and flowering lilies. Facing you at the top of the hill is the chapel. In between stand the massed graves. Of the 14,246 headstones, 13,978 are Latin crosses and 268 are Stars of David. To the right lie 486 graves marking the remains of unknown soldiers.
Most, but not all, of those buried here were killed in the offensive launched in 1918 to liberate the Meuse. But also buried here are some civilians, including seven women who were nurses or secretaries, three children, and three chaplains. There are 18 sets of brothers buried here though not side by side and nine Medal of Honor recipients.
The headstones are simple, with the name, the rank, the regiment and the date of death. The Divisions were mainly geographical in origin: the 91st was called the Wild Wild West Division from California and the western states; the 77th was the Statue of Liberty Division from New York. There are exceptions: the 82nd was the All American division, formed of soldiers from the whole country, while the 93rd was the segregated black division.
The cemetery was created from 150 temporary cemeteries which lay close to the relevant battlefields, as soldiers had to be buried within the requisite two to three days after death. The Meuse-Argonne cemetery was finally dedicated on May 30th, 1937, with some of the soldiers reburied four times.
The Chapel and Memorial Wall
The chapel stands high on a hill. It’s a small building with a simple interior. Facing the entrance is an altar with flags of the United States and the principal Allied nations behind. To the right and the left, two large stained glass windows show the insignia of the various American regiments.
Again, if you don’t know these, it’s a good idea to have a guide to identify them. Outside, two wings flank the chapel, inscribed with the names of those missing in action – 954 names are carved here. On one side a large map in relief shows the battle and the surrounding countryside.
Medals of Honor
There are nine recipients of the Medal of Honor in the cemetery, distinguished by the gold lettering on the graves. There are many stories of extraordinary gallantry, but the strangest is probably that of Frank Luke Jr. (May 19, 1897-September 29, 1918).
Frank Luke was born in Phoenix, Arizona after his father emigrated to America in 1873. In September 1917, Frank enlisted in the Aviation Section, U.S. Signal Corps. In July 1918 he went to France and was assigned to the 17th Aero Squadron. A feisty character prepared to disobey orders, from the beginning he was determined to become an ace pilot.
He volunteered to destroy German observation balloons, a dangerous task due to effective anti-aircraft gun defenses. With his friend Lt. Joseph Frank Wehner flying protective cover, the two were remarkably successful. On September 18, 1918, Wehner was killed defending Luke who then shot down the two Fokker D. VIIs that had attacked Wehner, followed by two more balloons.
Between September 12th and 29th, Luke shot down 14 German balloons and four airplanes, a feat no other pilot achieved in World War I. Luke’s inevitable end came on September 29th. He shot down three balloons but was wounded by a single machine gun bullet fired from a hillside above him as he flew close to the ground. He fired at a group of German soldiers as he went down, then died still firing at the Germans who were trying to take him prisoner.
Luke was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously. The family later donated the medal to the National Museum of the United States Air Force near Dayton, Ohio, where it is on display with various other items belonging to the ace.
The American Army and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
Before 1914, the American army ranked 19th in the world in numbers, just behind Portugal. It consisted of just over 100,000 full-time soldiers. By 1918, it was up to 4 million soldiers, 2 million of whom went to France.
The Americans fought alongside the French in the Meuse-Argonne offensive which lasted from September 26th to November 11th, 1918. 30,000 US soldiers were killed in five weeks, at an average rate of 750 to 800 per day. In the whole of World War I, 119 medals of honor were earned in a very short period of time.
Compared to the numbers of allied soldiers killed, it was a relatively small number, but it marked the beginning of American involvement in Europe. At the time, it was the largest battle in American history. After the war, the American wish to leave a lasting architectural presence in Europe led to the cemetery.
Tel.: 00 33 (0)3 29 85 14 18
The Cemetery is open daily 9am-5pm. Closed Dec 25, Jan 1.
Directions The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is located east of the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon (Meuse), 26 miles northwest of Verdun.
By car From Verdun take the D603 towards Reims, then the D946 towards Varennes-en-Argonne and follow the American Cemetery signs.
By train: Take the TGV or the ordinary train from Paris Est and change either at Chalons-en-Champagne or the Meuse TGV station. Depending on the route the journey takes either around 1 hour 40 minute or a little over 3 hours. Local taxis are available in Verdun.