Olivier Dirson, WWI battlefield guide: one history leads to another

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Through films, books, maps, and travels one quickly gains a sense of the sweeping movement of World War II combat. In Normandy in particular, the D-Day Landing Beaches and the sites and museums maps devoted of the ten weeks of fighting in the Invasion of Normandy quickly reveal to visitors the efforts of Germans forces to defend the coast, the efforts of Allied forces to gain a foothold on the continent, and the momentum of their thrust inland. Wall-size maps at the American Cemetery are clear as can be: five red arrows arrive on the coast of Normandy, they expand and grow tentacles, black arrows counterattack, and the red arrows push on toward Berlin.

Imagining what constituted progress in northern France and Belgium during the First World War is more complicated. Films are fewer, books are more complex, and battle maps look like tidal maps on a coast of shifting sandbars. And as to travels, while trenches, caves, and cemeteries speak volumes, it can be difficult to know where to begin. That’s why I started with a guide.

I met with Olivier Dirson for an afternoon’s expedition to the battlefields surrounding Saint Quentin, 102 miles (165 km) northeast of Paris, in the region of Picardy. Olivier would take me to several battle sites, monuments, cemeteries, and reconstructed towns and villages, within a 10-mile radius of Saint Quentin. By the end of the afternoon I would begin to understand how the events in that area fit in with the larger picture of the First World War. I would also get a sense of how Olivier’s own personal history fits in with the larger picture of France.

A personal history within French history

His father was born in August 1944, “on the day that Saint Quentin was liberated by American forces,” Olivier notes. That’s a coincidence of course, especially considering that Olivier’s grandparents didn’t live in Saint Quentin. But what follows was not.

In 1959, his paternal grandmother wrote to Charles de Gaulle, who a year earlier had been elected president of France, to ask if he would accept to be her daughter’s godfather. Surprisingly, de Gaulle, with whom the family otherwise had no connection apart from that of the nation as a whole, wrote back to say that he would accept, provided that his godchild be named Anne, after his daughter who, born with Down syndrome, had died at the age of 20 in 1948.

Eight years later, 1967, Olivier’s father was looking for work, and through family correspondence with the de Gaulles, he was offered a job as gardener at La Boisserie, the de Gaulle family home in Colombey-les-deux-églises in the region of Lorraine. While working there he and his wife lived nearby in Chaumont-en-Champagne. That’s where Olivier was born in 1969, the year de Gaulle left office and retired to La Boisserie. But the Dirson family, like the rest of France, was moving on. Never a gardener by vocation, his father took and passed the national exam to become a policeman and that same year the family moved to Picardy.

Olivier therefore grew up a Picard yet the family regularly vacationed in nearby Normandy, specifically the resort town of Cabourg, just outside the D-Day Landing Zone. Olivier remembers visiting the D-Day Beaches with his father when he was 7 or 8 and of wanting to return to explore even when the rest of the family, including his father, had tired of it. His father eventually retired to and still lives in Cabourg, and Olivier now takes his own family there on vacation. His/Their connection with the history, memory, sites and cemeteries of Invasion of Normandy continues.

But Olivier is a Picard, not a Norman, and Picardy is particularly marked by the events of WWI, a war defined not by the vast sweeping of troops across sea and land, but by trench warfare and millions of men inching their way back and forth across ridges, valleys, quarries, fields, and canals in a tug-of-war lasting four year. His childhood interest in WWII led to an adult interest in WWI and in-depth study of the battlefields in his own backyard. (I find that same backward chronology among men who first visit Normandy and then get curious about the battlefields of the previous war.)

After years working in human resources, Olivier beefed up his knowledge of the history and (in)humanity of WWI and its aftermath, created the company Chemins d’histoires (Paths of History) and in 2009 took his passion on the road by giving battlefield tours.

French history within world history

Saint Quentin, 70-90 minutes by train north of Paris, is Olivier’s home base, but he will also meet travelers arriving in Amiens or Lille, depending on the traveler’s particular interests: the Battle of the Sommethe Hindenburg LineVimy RidgeFromelles, evenFlanders.

Driving a van that can accommodate up to seven passengers, Olivier leads personalized half-day, full-day, and extended tours adapted to the interests and background of his clients. One naturally wants to tour sites and cemeteries associated with one’s own nationality; nevertheless, understanding the international nature of WWI is extremely significant in grasping the scope of the war, so a parallel curiosity about the sacrifices of other nations will be well rewarded. Among Olivier’s talents as a guide, I found, is his ability to adapt his presentation to the nationality of his clientele (American, Canadian, English, Australian, New Zealander, or other) without being patronizing. He also enjoys sleuthing around to find traces (graves and troop movements) of the ancestors of his clients.

During my afternoon tour we focused on the zone of the war’s endgame where the Hindenburg Line gave way in late September and early October 1918. We also visited several specifically American sites, including the Somme Cemetery, which is surrounded by fields near the town of Bony, 10 miles north of Saint Quentin. One of eight American military cemeteries of the First World War, the cemetery contains 1844 tombs, including 138 unknown soldiers, with the names of 333 soldiers missing in action inscribed on the walls of the cemetery chapel. It is one of eight American military cemeteries of the First World War in Europe, one in Belgium, one in England, six in France.

Three miles from the cemetery is the Bellicourt Monument, built above the canal that was a part of the Hindenburg Line. A map on the back illustrates the American operations involved in breaking through at this point.

About 120,000 Americans lost their lives and over 200,000 were wounded in 1917 and 1918, mostly between May and October 1918. The Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.

The significance of the American presence in WWI is not found in numbers alone, especially since they represent a small percentage of casualties in a war that caused some 10 million military deaths, countless wounded, and many millions of civilian deaths. About 1.1 million soldiers of the British Empire died in the conflict, including 885,000 from the U.K. and significant numbers from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand as percentage of the overall population of those countries. About 1.4 million French soldiers died, with an unfathomable 75% casualty rate. No wonder WWI memorials honoring local soldiers lost in combat are found in villages throughout France. Over 2 million German soldiers died in WWI.

Shared history

Apart from his work as a guide, Olivier Dirson is president of the association Les Parrains de la Mémoire—France Remembrance Association, whose mission is to remember and honor the sacrifices of Americans who fought alongside the French and British Armies in 1917 and 1918. Members undertake to recognize the sacrifice of foreign soldiers through the laying of flowers on one or more graves at least once per year, if possible on American Memorial Day. Created in 2007, the association further seeks to transmit that gesture of remembrance to future generations and therefore encourages family membership so as to involve children and grandchildren in the laying of flowers. Olivier, his companion Marjorie, and their 9-year-old daughter Tara each “sponsor” a soldier’s grave. In the photo above, Olivier is standing in the Somme American Cemetery by the tomb of John A. Norton that he flowers each year during the Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery.

Echoing Olivier’s interest in the battlefields of WWI through his interest in those of WWII, Les Parrains de le Mémoire was inspired efforts of remembrance by Les Fleurs de la Mémoire, a similar association concerned with the American war cemeteries of Colleville (Omaha Beach) and Saint James (near Mont Saint Michel) in Normandy.

Guide or no guide, by forward or backward chronology, the battlefields and cemeteries of France aren’t just sights for war buffs. They are places of history, large and small, international, national, and personal.

© 2010, Gary Lee Kraut

Olivier Dirson, Chemins d’histoire
Saint Quentin Tourist Officehttp://www.saint-quentin-tourisme.fr/
Aisne Tourist Board (department which includes Saint Quentin), www.jaimelaisne.com/en/
Picardy Tourist Board (region which includes Aisne), picardietourisme.com/en/index.aspx
Les Parrains de la Mémoireparrainsdelamemoire.free.fr
Les Fleurs de la Mémoirefleursdelamemoire.free.fr


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