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.
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.”
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.
Figures representing the United States and France hold hands at the center of the west façade.
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.
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’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.
Superintendent Atkinson took me on a tour of Belleau Wood, where we stopped to overlook the chapel…
… and to glimpse the cemetery between the trees.
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.
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.
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.”