In the Trenches

A majority of the locations I’ve visited in Europe have had a museum, statue, plaque, or some component of written information from which I gather data. Embracing the interdisciplinary nature of my research, however, I have recently ventured into an abbreviated form of historical archaeology in which I got down and dirty with my marines in the trenches of France.

Nearly a century has passed since the events with which I am wrestling and attempting to fashion into some semblance of coherence for my final paper. That means that their physical traces aren’t as readily apparent as I might wish them to be. I’m lucky (perhaps a strange choice of words) that the methods of warfare employed in WWI carved literal, deep scars in the French countryside, and these extant trenches are still visible today. I walked in them. I sheltered in their dugouts – just shallow, mostly filled-in depressions at this point. I even slipped and fell in the mud trying to go “over the top,” which I had to laugh at considering I’ve transcribed countless letters that mentioned the nuisance of French mud and how difficult it is to navigate (granted this was 100 years ago when the trenches were much deeper, lacked the grass cover that now clothes them, and had been freshly dug into the relatively high water table of the Meuse-Argonne, but I still felt a particular solidarity with my infantrymen in that moment). These zig-zagging pathways, however, are in many areas the only reminder that any sort of conflict has taken place. The trees have all grown back, the fields have been cultivated by French farmers returning to their livelihoods, and as time has gone on shell casings and other ordnance have either been scavenged or buried and don’t lie readily to hand for those venturing into old battlefields. What possible benefit, then, could be reaped by my striking out on my own into areas that don’t exist on tourist maps?

The data gathered when working in the field depends on the researcher – their level of involvement with the site, the prior legwork they’ve done that will enable them to see what is no longer visible on-scene, and the ability to visualize things that other people visiting the area may fail to notice. There were several times in a trench in Verdun, atop the Ridge at Blanc Mont, or walking through the wheat fields of Bouresches when I wished I had a metal detector, because I knew there was a whole mass of history lying several feet below me that I was missing out on; regardless, because of battle maps, a familiarity with the progression of battle in these locations, and the fact that I travel with a compass, I was able to follow some of these trenches to extant (albeit ruined) structures that had no indicative signposts and were not on the radar of other visitors in the area.

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The sign is a danger warning – Verdun exists on the border of the ‘Zone Rouge’ or ‘Red Zone,’ which is a region of land deemed too physically and environmentally damaged by the war to be inhabited, and which contains unexploded ordnance and leftover materiel that still pose a danger to those poking around in old battle zones.

This isn’t to say I discovered anything new, of course. My field of study isn’t remotely novel enough for me to have happened across a standing building unknown to those who have spent decades devoted to mapping these wars out to the square foot. What I am saying is that entering the field with even my infant grasp on the logistics of combat at my research sites allowed me to break away from those who stuck to the memorials and museums (which isn’t a bad thing, obviously, I’ve done the same thing as I mentioned at the beginning of this post). Despite the radically different environment a century later I was able to gain a more authentic understanding of where my marines were and what they were seeing as they were writing their letters home and praying they lived to the next day. When writing about the experience of the infantry in war I think that’s pretty valuable information to have.

Comments

  1. This is such a unique research opportunity! It’s very cool that you were able to use your previous knowledge to explore parts of the country less explored by tourists. It goes to show that education can be a gateway for fuller adventure!

  2. Monica Cronin says:

    Thanks for your comment! I definitely agree. I particularly appreciated how courses I took at W&M (especially one on U.S. military history) prepared me in concrete ways for the work I was doing. I love it when you can see the different pieces of your education coming together.

  3. ahbradford says:

    It sounds like visiting these sites has really added to your picture of the marines’ experience in WWI. There is a tendency when studying history (and in particular, war) to remove yourself from the events that were unfolding, especially when the circumstances weren’t that great. I’m really glad you had the opportunity to visit those sites and walk the grounds of the men you’ve been studying.

    On another note, have you read Mont Blanc by Shelley? After our visit to the Lake District, I hope you’ve been keeping up with the Romantic poems that go along with the sites you’ve been visiting 😉
    https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45130

  4. waverlygarner says:

    Dear Monica,

    No matter how much you protest, I will still picture you sitting among dusty, piled parchment papers, with your cloak, discovering the secrets of the World Wars. Your posts make me smile and remind me of how much I have missed you. I look forward to seeing you this coming semester.
    Your adventure is fascinating. Old letters are a bit of a fetish in my family. We love to collect and keep letters from my great-great-great… grand peoples. One of the most memorable letters is that of a solider, my great-great-great grandfather who fought for the confederacy during the Civil War. The first words of the letter are, “I am still alive.” He was captured by what he called a “bushwacker,” but who was actually a union officer, and escaped. His shotgun is hanging on the mantle, along with a picture of him with his bowie knife.
    Most of the other letter are old love letters or general correspondence. Mum just put together a book of them; they are treasures. Sincerely is spelled at least 18 different times throughout the whole of the collection. Phonetics.
    But, this is a ramble, so, returning to topic – ahem – I appreciate the personal approach you are taking to constructing a narrative of these soldiers’ lives and combat experience in the field. Though WWII was filled with many horrors, the idea of trench warfare sends shivers up my spine. No Man’s Land is perhaps the closest I can come to envisioning something like hell. I had no idea there was anything called the Red Zone. This is definitely sparking a literature search asap. What a creepy concept! Do you think they’ll ever be able to clear it one day? Are they working on making it safe and habitable?
    Recently, (phew this is a long comment) I have been watching “The War” by Ken Burns. It has been a brutal experience and I have cried at least once during every. single. episode. Normandy just happened yesterday. The aspect of the documentary that really drives it home for me is the reading of the letters, especially those of a brave, young boy nicknamed, Babe. I am awestruck that during the most brutal combat he could find the strength somewhere to write the words, “I am in the very best of health and hope to hear the same from you always” in every one of his letters home.
    Please, when you get back, if you have the chance, I would love to hear about the stories you have unearthed (literally and figuratively) and the narrative you are constructing to tie it all together. Best of luck, Monica.
    Godspeed.

    –Waverly

  5. Monica Cronin says:

    I hadn’t read the poem until now, actually, but Mont Blanc and Blanc Mont Ridge are actually two separate locations (classic French). My GPS got confused for a bit too. I hope Shelley got a bit more peace out of visiting the mountain than my Marines did out of their muddy trenches.
    I need you around to keep my on top of my Romantic poets – you’re much better acquainted with them than I am. Exploring the expression of war in poetry is fascinating, so although Shelley might be a bit too far removed for this research project I’d love to chat over John Allan Wyeth, Herbert Kaufman, or Alan Seeger’s super intense “I Have A Rendezvous With Death.”