With Memorial Day approaching, history buffs and descendants of the American soldiers stationed in France and Belgium during World War I may be interested to learn of the growing number of overseas docents dedicated to preserving the memory of the American Expeditionary Forces who fought in 1918. The sort of detailed guidance they provide is an excellent resource for general battlefield travelers, but it's invaluable to Americans who want to see the very trenches where their fathers and grandfathers fought.
All of the following guides are fluent in spoken and written English and have spent an average of fifteen years studying AEF unit histories and walking the ground over which the doughboys fought. Many parts of former battlefields are now private property, but a number of European guides are able to access nooks and crannies that would otherwise be off-limits to foreign travelers. Knowing the local residents and landowners, these instructors have carte blanche to many of the more interesting sites and vestiges de la guerre: They're able to show us the foxholes and trenches of AEF units -- down to the company level, in many cases. What's more, they're qualified to recommend a range of lodgings, including bed-and-breakfast establishments, cottages, and hotels.
The following European historians have been very active in guiding Americans (both private parties and tour groups), around the old AEF battle areas. Prices vary but seem to run around $200 a day on average (a bargain compared with most escorted package history tours of this quality). Call individual guides for rates.
U.S. Battlefields Throughout France And Belgium
United Kingdom-based Tony Noyes (e-mail: email@example.com) runs Flanders Tours (tel. 01-480-8-90-966; www.flanderstours.co.uk) with Teddy Noyes. He and Teddy have led many Americans through all the U.S. battlefields in France and Belgium, with the exception of those located in the Vosges mountains. Tony makes a point of taking travelers to "walk the ground," to understand how and under what conditions the battles were fought. As a retired chairman of the Western Front Association, he has lectured about the Western Front for more than 25 years.
AEF Battlefields North of Paris
Several French historians are qualified to lead travelers through the American battlefields north of Paris, where the U.S. 27th and 30th Divisions fought at the Hindenburg Line, and where the U.S. 1st Division fought at Cantigny, among other locations. A resident of Chauny, France, Yves Fohlen (tel. 01-33-323-400-492; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a full-time guide at the Chemin-des-Dames "Caverne du Dragon," and for many years he worked as a custodian-guide at the Somme American Cemetery in Bony, France. Yves has spent 33 years studying the battlefields of World War I and specializes in guiding Americans through the battlefields north of Paris.
A resident of Nauroy, France, Murielle Defrenne (tel. 01-33-323-098-134; e-mail: email@example.com) specializes in the area of the Hindenburg Line campaigns in the north of Aisne, the Battle of St. Souplet, La Selle River, and the Somme Sector. Defrenne works as a custodian-guide at the Somme American Cemetery in Bony, France.
The Marne Salient of 1918 and Belleau Wood
A resident of Marigny-en-Orxois, France, Gilles Lagin (tel. 01-33-323-70-46-54; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), specializes in the Mame River salient of 1918 -- that large triangle formed by Reims, Chateau-Thierry and Soissons -- and the battles fought there by the U.S. 1st 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 26th, 28th, 32nd, 42nd, and 77th Divisions. Lagin is especially knowledgeable concerning the early-on battles of the U.S. 2nd Division and the Marine Corps at Hill 142, Belleau Wood, and Bouresches, and the Pas Fini sector. His knowledge of American battlefields and operations during the offensive operations of the AEF, and their drives north to the Ourcq and Vesle Rivers is very extensive. Gilles is also well-versed in the battlefields of the U.S. 3rd Divisions east of Chateau-Thierry and those of the U.S. 1st, 2nd, and 4th Divisions in their drives from the sides of the Mame salient.
Lagin may be the only historian who can show you exactly where the German machine guns were on Hill 142, and where the command posts of the 30th and 38th regiments (U.S. 3rd Division) were in the Bois d'Aigremont. He also knows Belleau Wood in extreme detail.
Lagin is expert at preparing a very interesting folder of maps, photographs, and other descriptions concerning the service of AEF members in the Mame salient. If you can provide him with some basic information about your AEF soldier, Gilles can probably enlighten you about the man's service, even down to producing photographs of where the soldier served, was wounded, or was buried.
Lagin is the owner/operator of the only museum in France devoted solely to the American Expeditionary Forces, located in Marigny-en-Orxois. He coordinates his battlefield guide activities with the officials at the American Embassy in Paris, France, and with the superintendent at the Aisne-Mame American Military Cemetery in Belleau, France.
Another guide for Belleau Wood and its surrounding area is retired Colonel William Anderson, USMC (tel. 540/850-4213; e-mail: email@example.com), a resident of Virginia. Colonel Anderson has been leading USMC staff rides and tours of Belleau Wood for ten years, starting in 1988, when he was serving at SHAPE, the NATO military headquarters in Belgium. Colonel Anderson guides travelers from the perspective of a former Marine, and he spends much time on the ground walking the battlefields as Marines did, conveying his appreciation for the terrain, and sharing personal stories he has collected over the years. He also discusses weapons, tactics, and the activity of the German opponents.
A resident of Vitry-le-Francois, Florent Deludet (tel. 01-33-326-74-70-93; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) leads travelers through the grounds of the Champagne-area battles fought by the U.S. 2nd Division and 42nd Division marine brigades, as well as many areas of the Meuse-Argonne Campaign. Deludet is perhaps the only person who can identify the exact location of the "Essen Hook" trench, on the Blanc Mont battlefield. His areas of expertise are the battles of Champagne in 1915, 1917, and 1918; the AEF in Champagne -- specifically, the U.S. 2nd, 36th, and 42nd Divisions at Blanc Mont, and the U.S. 93rd Division (African American troops) with the French Army; and the AEF in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive -- expressly, the U.S. 1st, 28th, 35th, 42nd, 77th, 78th, 82nd, and 91st Divisions). Deludet states that his special area of interest is that of the 42nd (Rainbow) Division.
St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne
Ingrid Ferrand (tel. 01-33-3-29-87-63-47; e-mail: email@example.com; website: www.ingridtourisme-verdun.com) conducts tours of the area of the American Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel Campaign regions. Fluent in English and a licensed guide for the Verdun area of France, Ferrand is especially adept at leading Americans to the sites in the Meuse-Argonne where their fathers or grandfathers fought, were wounded, or died.
Frederic Castier (tel. 01-33-612-983-347; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is the French representative of the U.S. 1st Infantry Division (Veteran's Associations), and he works closely with the McCormick Tribune Foundation in Chicago, Illinois. Frederick is well-qualified to act as a guide on many of the American battlefields of World War I: Somme (Cantigny), and the Meuse-Argonne, where he knows of many private sites and their owners. Castier also works with the U.S. Army to conduct World War II staff rides in the American invasion area of Normandy, France.
For the area of the Meuse-Argonne, St. Mihiel, and Verdun, another highly recommended guide is Christina Holstein (e-mail: email@example.com), the European Coordinator for the Western Front Association.
For many years, Rob de Soete (tel. 01-31-40-28-11-670; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), a resident of the Netherlands who is fluent in English, has made a specialty of studying and traveling over the AEF Meuse-Argonne battlefields. De Soete's specialty is the region around Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, excluding the areas west of the Argonne Forest.
In addition to the foreign nationals mentioned above, several well-qualified Americans can also lead individuals or small groups over the AEF battlefields of 1918. Michael Hanlon (tel. 510/215-7107; e-mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org) is webmaster for the Great War Society and Western Front Association and officer of the WFA (USA), a graduate of Penn State University, and a former USAF officer. Hanlon has many areas of expertise regarding the Western Front, but where American travelers are concerned, his specialties are the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battlefields. Hanlon has led professional and private tours over the World War I battlefields and with the Great War Society.
Another guide for the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne areas of France is Dr. John T. Snow (tel. 405/325-3148; e-mail: email@example.com), dean of the College of Geosciences, at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Snow has studied the American Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel campaigns in detail and has a very good working knowledge of both AEF battle areas. Dr. Snow hopes to retire shortly and start up a guide business in France.
Stephen McGeorge -- a retired major in the U.S. Army (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) and the newly appointed curator of collections for the National Museum of the United States Army -- has also expressed interest in leading battlefield tours over the Meuse-Argonne campaign area. McGeorge spent a good deal of time exploring the AEF battlefields in the Meuse-Argonne when he was assigned to the Army Airborne Brigade in Vincenza, Italy. Stephen McGeorge has also taught military history on the faculty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Doug Gangler, a retired American naval officer, takes tours to the battlefields of the AEF. For further details see his web site at: www.ww1and2-specialtours.com. Doug operates van sized vehicles as well as personal automobiles.
Larger Tour Companies
I have been asked many times if there are larger tour companies that take travelers to the AEF battlefields. Generally speaking, the answer is no. All of the 'biggies' in the travel industry, if they visit any of the AEF battlefields, only do so as part of a much more inclusive tour that always includes the British battlefields of the Somme, Ypres, and, of course, the French battleground at Verdun. These are the well-known battlefields of the Great War of 1914-1918. It seems that visitations to the AEF battlefields by the larger tour companies is a token gesture at best.
For the year of 2006 (as far as I know, and I try assiduously to keep in touch with the subject), there is only ONE planned tour by an American tour company to the WWI battlefields. Valor Tours, of Sausalito, California, owned and operated by Robert (Bob) Reynolds, is taking a tour overseas between May 14-24, 2006. Reynolds, a former WWII Lancaster bomber pilot, just sent me a brochure on this tour, and I was extremely gratified to read in that brochure that the tour would visit some of the old AEF battlefields. Of course, the obligatory Ypres, Somme and Verdun battlegrounds are also included in the tour. Contact: www.valortours.com.
There are two historical organizations that normally have annual tours to the WWI battlefields, the Western Front Association and the Great War Society. Unfortunately, they have no tours planned for 2006. When they do have tours they both follow the same basic itinerary of Ypres, Somme, Verdun. Perhaps they might briefly stop at Belleau Wood, or Montfaucon in the Argonne, where a few people alight from the 40-passenger Diesel coach and then it is on to another French or British battlefield. Sometimes they visit the appropriate American military cemeteries that are en-route.
David C. Homsher (tel. 650/347-6073; e-mail: email@example.com), a veteran of U.S. Army service during the Korean War, and now retired, is a historian/author who writes about of the American soldier of World War I and his battlefields. Homsher has traveled extensively over many of the battlegrounds of both World Wars and he is currently writing a series of guidebooks to the American battlefields of the World War I in France and Belgium.
You can post questions and comments regarding this article on our Europe Message Boards.