An Hour from Paris: Chateau Thierry’s American WWI Sights (photolog)

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Belleau Wood, the Aisne-Marne American War Cemetery and the Chateau Thierry War Monument are only an hour’s drive from Paris, in Picardy, an easy stop on the way to Champagne, but it took me over 20 year to get there.

It was one of those sights or grouping of sights that I kept hearing about and that I kept ignoring. Each time it rose to the top of my list of places to visit in the months ahead I would push it back a few notches.

Yet Chateau Thierry eventually made it to the top of that list—in part because I’d already toured and written so much about the WWII D-Day Landing Zone that had become increasingly interested in the WWI landscape of France; in part because the 100th anniversary of The Great War, the Der Des Ders, is approaching; and finally because I had the opportunity to interview and tour the WWI sights near Chateau-Thierry with David Atkinson, Superintendent of the Aisne-Marne American War Cemetery.

Here is a photolog of a day visiting WWI sights, followed by information about other sights in and around Chateau-Thierry.

Chateau-Thierry Monument. Photo GLK.

The Chateau-Thierry War Monument overlooks the town and the Marne Valley from above the Champagne vineyards at the top of a hill two miles west of the town center. I arrived on a day of low clouds and on-and-off rain. Though Chateau Thierry is administratively in the department of Aisne in the region of Picardy, the Champagne vineyards start here.

I went up for closer look at the double colonnade monument constructed to “commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of American and French fighting men in the region and cooperation of French and American forces during World War I.”

Chateau-Thierry Monument in the rain. Photo GLK.

 

Constructed in 1930, the memorial was designed by Paul Cret, the French-American architect who received numerous commissions to create war memorials and battlefield monuments in Europe and in the United States. The American Battle Monuments Commission, “guardian of America’s overseas commemorative cemeteries and memories,” was created in 1923.

A description of the significance of the battles involving American soldiers that began in the Marne Valley is engraved on the memorial.

Figures representing the United States and France hold hands at the center of the west façade.

Detail of west facade of Chateau-Thierry Monument. Photo GLK.

Visitors unfamiliar with the region may have difficulty situating the towns on the map below of the Aisne-Marne Salient that’s engraved on the monument. You’ll notice that the big Champagne towns of Epernay and Reims are just to the east and northeast. Among the WWI sites indicated on the map, the tunnels and trenches of the Chemin de Dames, near the top, are also worth visiting.

The Aisne-Marne American Cemetery is 4.5 miles northwest of the monument, 6.5 miles from the town. The cemetery and the woods above it comprise the area’s main WWI sight for symbolic value and, though largely unknown to Americans, those woods are of utmost to members of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Entrance to the Aisne-Marne Cemetery with Belleau Wood leading to Belleau Wood. Photo GLK.

Belleau Wood: the very name is a battle cry for the Marines Corps. It was in the fierce Battle of Belleau Wood that the Marines earned their military lettres de noblesse by holding off an important sector of the final German offensives of 1918, before pursuing, along with French and British forces, the advances that would eventually lead to Germany’s recognition of defeat in the form of the Armistice of November 11.

The Army was naturally also a major force along this front though the headlines at the time emphasized the Marines, so there remains a hearty rivalry between Army and Marines as to the credit each deserves. In any case, 17% of those buried at this cemetery were Marines, according to David Atkinson, Superintendent of the Aisne-Marne Cemetery.

With drama similar to the position of the Normandy American Cemetery on the cliff above the once-bloodied tides of Omaha Beach, the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery lies at the foot of the great battleground that was Belleau Wood.

The cemetery, more particularly Belleau Wood itself, has ever since been a pilgrimage site for the Marines. On leave from Afganistan or Iraq or stationed elsewhere, says Atkinson, Marines will come here and ask (or frequently not ask) to spend the night in the woods.

David Atkinson, Superintendent of the American Cemetery. The cemetery chapel is seen over his shoulder, with Belleau Wood beyond. Photo GLK.

David Atkinson’s American father landed in Normandy a week after D-Day and took part in the Battle of Normandy 1944 as part of the Engineering Corps… and met Atkinson’s French mother there.

Atkinson oversaw the cemetery as superintendent from 2002 to 2003 and has been at the post again since 2007.

He says that despite the site’s significance in American military history, no sitting president has visited the site, though Nixon visited after his presidency. The cemetery nevertheless hosts one of Europe’s largest American Memorial Day commemorations.

The cemetery contains the remains of 2289 war dead, most of whom fought in the vicinity and in the Marne Valley in the late spring and summer of 1918. The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, a 30-minute drive (about 17 miles) northeast of here near the town of Fère-en-Tardenois, contains far more tombs (6012) than Aisne-Marne, however the latter’s connection with Belleau Wood gives it its special symbolic meaning.

American Aisne-Marne Cemetery. Photo GLK.

Eighty, ninety years on, it’s necessary to replace or restore some of the original Italian marble headstones.

Inside the chapel…

… the walls are inscribed with the names of 1060 originally listed as missing. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered or identified.

A German Cemetery with the remains of 8625 soldiers lies a half-mile up the road.

Superintendent Atkinson took me on a tour of Belleau Wood, where we stopped to overlook the chapel…

View of the cemetery chapel from the edge of Belleau Wood. Photo GLK.

… and to glimpse the cemetery between the trees.

View over cemetery from Belleau Wood. Photo GLK.

The outline of trenches of 1918 can still be seen in Belleau Wood.

Captured Germany artillery is still there.

A monument shows a Marine attacking with rifle and bayonet.

The thickest of the oak trees standing in the woods were witness to the fighting of June 1918. Superintendent Atkinson says that visiting Marines will often want to take a piece of the wood home with them, harming trees in the process. That led him to carve up some trees that were to be removed anyway in efforts to preserve Belleau Wood and to offer up engraved pieces as gifts to visiting Marines and to certain other curious visitors.

I thank him for including me among the latter. Here is my piece of Belleau Wood, along with the flags he kindly supplied.

A most worthy sight that deserves to be must further up the list.

Opening times: The cemetery is open daily from 9am to 5pm except Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.

Getting there: Chateau Thierry is 54 miles east from Paris, an hour by train or by car. Reims is another 30 minutes further east. By car, the war sights are easily visited just off the A-4 autoroute on the way to or from Champagne or on an overnight in the Chateau Thierry area. By train, it’s possible to take a taxi to the monument and to the cemetery or to rent a car for the day.

In terms of logistics from Paris, visiting the WWI sights near Chateau Thierry are comparable to visiting Monet’s House at Giverny on the opposite side of the capital.

Tourist information: The official tourist website for Chateau Thierry and the surrounding area in this southern portion of the department of Aisne.

Other notable sights in and around Chateau Thierry

Museum of the Treasure of the Hotel Dieu
The town’s most artful site is its Hotel Dieu, a former convent and Church-run hospital-cum-public hospital that presents its treasure-trove of paintings, sculptures, earthenware, furniture and religious articles, all of which were donated to the institution over the centuries. Chateau Thierry’s Hotel Dieu was founded by Queen Jeanne de Navarre in 1304 and had its heyday as a religious institution thanks to major benefactors of the late 17th and 18th centuries. Among modern benefactors are the Friends of French Art California who helped finance the restoration of a painting and a buffet. A guided tour (the only way to access the museum) explains the history of the institution, opens the doors to its treasures, and tells the fascinating and sometimes horrific story of the cloistered life. The Hotel Dieu served as a public hospital until 1983 and remains the property of the public hospital system. There are limited touring times (Fri. and Sat. Nov.-March, also Sun. April-Oct.), so check the website in advance for times and/or call town hall (03 23 83 51 14) for a reservation.

The La Fontaine Museum
Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) is the French-speaking world’s most famous fable teller. (The English-speaking world is more familiar with the work of Aesop, whose work comes to us from Greek then Roman Antiquity.) La Fontaine’s birthplace and family home, dating from 1559, has been a museum in his honor since 1876 and has recently been restored. Open daily except Monday.

Chateau de Condé
There’s little to be seen of the castle that gave Chateau Thierry its name, but there is a notable private chateau 10 miles east that’s open to the public. The Chateau de Condé, in the village of Condé en Brie, is rather under-visited considering the quality of its décor of the 17th and 18th centuries and the possibility of encountering members of the Pasté de Rochefort family, owners since 1983. Open April 15-Oct. 15 daily except Mon., 2:30-5:30pm. Open for groups upon reservation at other times.

Dance with the Eagles
A live outdoor show of birds of prey is held daily April 1-Nov. 2 by the ruins of Thierry’s castle. Here, to close the American theme of this photolog, is an American Bald Eagle that I met in its dressing room after the show.

Bald eagles at “Danse avec les aigles,” Chateau-Thierry. Photo GLK.

Photos and text © 2011, Gary Lee Kraut.

For another article about WWI memorials and cemeteries in northern France read “Olivier Dirson, WWI Battlefield Guide: One History Leads to Another.”

11 COMMENTS

  1. On April 5, 2012 my daughter and I had the great pleasure and honor of visiting the memorial. My Grandfather, Private Francis J. Ryan of the Second Engineers , US Army was injured at Bellau Woods. Before my mother passed away I promised her I would go to Bellau Woods and bring something of his there. Flora Nicolas (American Battle Monuments Commission) and Marie Christine Garrido were there to greet us. They gave us a tour and allowed my daughter and I to fold the American flags when it was time for Taps. Ms. Garrido further honored us by accepting a medal and photos from my Grandfather for the Chateau-Thierry Tourism Museum. This is a day that we will never, ever forget; I, my daughter and my brothers who could not be there with me are ever grateful for the kindness and the graciousness shown to us.

  2. Christine,
    Thanks for your beautiful report. It’s nice to hear of personal connections with fallen soldiers that continues after nearly 100 years. When I revisited the cemetery with a group of travelers the week after you, Superintendent David Atkinson told us a number of wonderful stories of family members visiting a grave two or three generations later. The staff there is incredibly helpful and available to insist and inform visitors.
    Best regards,
    Gary

  3. Dear Gary:

    I just discovered your web article and beautiful photo log of Chateau-Thierry and Belleau. I wish I saw this excellent material prior to visiting this area in September 2012.

    You see, my father who served in World War II in Normandy had a photo taken with several of his buddies on the World War I Monument in Chateau-Thierry. As a child, I discovered the photo and was always curious about the circumstances of photo and the area. The inscription on the back of the photo simply said, ” Chateau Thierry, France.” Never in a million years could I ever believe that I would one day stand on the same monument where my father stood 68 years earlier. He died at the age of 61 in 1984 when I was 21. I guess I will never know the details of his visit or of the photo.

    Nevertheless, I am honored to have been able to visit Chateau-Thierry and Belleau France and pay tribute to the many lives lost during both World War I and WW II. We must remember: “Time will not dim the glory of their deeds.”

    Thank you for your reporting. I would definitely encourage visitors to this area. David Atkinson was very accommodating to my husband and me during our visit and was happy to share his knowledge and information about this beautiful area so rich in historical significance.

    Sincerely,

    Rose Marie (Bednarick) Kozubal

    • Dear Rose,

      What a pleasure to receive your moving comments on this Memorial Day weekend, when Chateau-Thierry holds one of France’s major American Memorial Day commemorations.

      While it’s too bad that you didn’t see my photolog before you went, its clear that you did fine on your own. David Atkinson is wonderful representative/superintendent for the cemetery, always very helpful and kind. Your father was apparently stationed nearby at some point during the war, so knowing what division he was in it might be possible to figure out how and when he would have visited the cemetery.

      Thanks for your testimonial.

      Best regards,

      Gary

  4. Gary – We are planning to visit the Cemetery the first week of June in 2015. My Gr-Gr Grandfather was Maj. Gen. Edward Mann Lewis, who commanded the 3rd Bat, 2nd Div in the battle, later commanded the 30th Inf. Div when they broke through the Hindenburg Line. We may be able to go a week earlier if the Memorial Day celebration is on 5/30/15 next year – Could you put me in contact with David Atkinson before our visit? I have some photos to share, and want to pay our respects to the boys who kept us free, and did not come home. Thanks for this wonderful site and keeping the memory alive… Cindy

  5. My wife and I will be going this Octobere 2014. We will spend 10 days in Paris one of which we will definitely spend at Belleau Wooid. I spent 4 years in the Marine Corps. It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of this battle in Marine Corps history. This nearly 73 year old Marine is looking forward to visiting this hallowed ground.

  6. Thank you for this informative story. I found it because I’m going thru some old photos and and discovered many that were taken there during the war by my grandfather with descriptions written on the back.
    I’ts amazing that it’s been 100 years!

    • Nancy,
      Glad to hear that you appreciate the photolog.
      I’d love to see some of your grandfather’s photos if you can to send any to me at gary [at] francerevisited.com.
      Best regards,
      Gary

  7. I have a great uncle in each of these two cemeteries. One died on the first day of the battle and one died as it was ending. As far as I know they never met. I also have two uncles who died in WWII in the Pacific, one of them on the Arizona and the other on some nameless atoll in the South Africa. Since I survived Vietnam I had hopes that that would be the end of it for the Peerys contribution to our wars. Alas, my half-brother, also a Peery, was killed by Khadafi’s agents in the 80s. Will it ever stop?

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