OVER THERE: A century later, searching for vestiges of the American role in the Great War in France (Sunday read from The New York Times)

Copyright 2014 New York Times News Service


It's not entirely our fault: Americans have been conditioned by nearly a century of British revisionist histories to believe that the United States didn't do much in World War I, and by countless anecdotes about rude cabdrivers and haughty waiters to believe that the French don't much care for Americans.

But both beliefs are, in fact, mistaken, and a big reason the second is untrue is that the first is quite far from true, and the French know it.

They have never forgotten that when the war was mired at a grim stalemate and they and their British allies were exhausted nearly to the point of collapse, it was the Americans — fresh and eager to fight and showing up in great numbers — who stepped in, just in time, and tipped the balance.

True, the French don't speak much English, and they charge an outrageous amount for a small bottle of Coke; but they are grateful.

Very grateful. They remember. Go to France and they'll remind you, too.

One afternoon this summer, I set out from the village of Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, in the French region of Lorraine, to find a certain farmhouse.

I had spent the morning tromping around local fields and through forests, searching for vestiges of the Great War, including places connected to some of the three dozen or so American World War I veterans, aged 101 to 113, whom I had interviewed starting in 2003.

The house I was looking for now, though, had a more notorious association: In 1914, as the Germans were first taking the area, a young second lieutenant named Erwin Rommel stopped there to eat and rest.

A guide I know drew me a map to the place.

Good thing: Like a lot of Lorraine, in the northeastern corner of the country, this area is quite rural, and much of what you might want to see here is not accessible by the kind of roads many Americans would recognize as viable thoroughfares.

I managed to find the place, took some photos, and was about to get back into my car when a silver Nissan 4x4 pulled up. A ruddy, thickset man in his 60s with bright blue eyes climbed out and greeted me, friendly but clearly wondering what I was doing there.

I asked him, in rudimentary French — he spoke no English at all — if he knew about Rommel and this house.

He didn't; but that house, he quickly added, gesturing at a smaller edifice a half-mile off on the other side of a couple of small gates — Douglas MacArthur had been there in 1918.

“Do you want to see it?” he asked, smiling.

READ MORE, SEE THE PHOTOS that accompanied this New York Times travel story: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/24/travel/100-years-of-gratitude.html?ref=travel&_r=0

(Our contract with The New York Times News Service does not allow us to file the full story, just this excerpt.)

Last modified: August 24. 2014 10:35AM
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