Using Then-and-Now Photos
Bringing a battlefield to life, i.e. teaching people to “see” and understand the significance of a particular battlefield, is a critical part of our job. We use several methods to get our clients knee-deep into history and to bring the battlefield back to life. One of our most popular methods is the use of then-and-now photos. Fortunately, thousands of Signal Corps and private photos were taken during WW1 and WW2 and a decent percentage of them can still serve as “then” photos.
One of the most-visited sites in the Meuse-Argonne is the American Battle Monument Commission’s (ABMC) Montfaucon American Memorial. Situated in the center of the battle lines, the highly fortified town of Montfaucon was meant to be taken on day 1, September 26, 1918. However, it was not, and the delay bought more time for the Imperial German Army to reinforce its troops in the sector. In the 1930s the ABMC erected its memorial to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive atop the hill in the ruins of Montfaucon. In order to make Montfaucon accessible as a memorial park, the ABMC had to sanitize the site and make it safe for battlefield tourists. Signal Corps photo 111-SC-24885 is the perfect “then” photo, showing the physical remains of the town in October 1918. The “now” photo shows the same street leading up to the church on the hilltop, with the buildings razed and the rubble essentially forming the elevations on both sides of the road today. There are no more ruins for people to get injured on, except for the carefully preserved ruins of the church atop the hill. This is just one of several then-and-now comparisons I use to show the transition of Montfaucon from the battlefield to the memorial park.
Maps work in much the same way, allowing one to see what military installations were present at a given point in time. The French Artillery Objectives map section below shows German railroads and military installations around Dun-sur-Meuse and Doulcon in June 1918. The railroad station (French: Gare) was a key target for squadrons of the 1st Day Bombardment Group during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and the attacking aviators suffered significant casualties in their bombing attempts that will be discussed on our September 2024 Hamilton Coolidge Reburial: WW1 Airfield and Battlefield Tour.
Using First-Person Accounts
Reading personal accounts at the site where they occurred is also very powerful. Corporal Willliam McGinnis, 102nd Field Artillery, 26th Division was wounded and was brought to a casualty clearing station. He writes, “…This place was in an old church in a small village about eight kilometers from the front. Several operating tables were set up and the surgeons with aprons covered with blood were attending to the worst cases, mostly amputations. Here I was tagged for evacuation to a hospital. There were several hundred stretcher cases laid out on the floor. The yard surrounding the church was also full of men, with bandaged heads, arms, and legs. The groans of the severely wounded were terrible to listen to and over the cries of agony could be heard the everlasting cry for water and cigarettes. I was getting weaker, owing to the fact that I was bleeding quite freely. I distinctly remember a peculiar buzzing sound in my ears; everything seemed to change color; I took one hasty glance at the corner [where the dead were being placed] and made one supreme effort to pull myself together, but failed and lapsed into unconsciousness. (Hallas. Doughboy War: The American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Page 153.) Pictured below is the church at Bézu-le-Guéry, where this event took place.
Exploring Physical Remains
Exploring physical remains is also very evocative. However, not all battlefields were created equally. In general terms, there are many more physical remains of the Western Front fighting during WW1 than WW2. Why? The Western Front trench lines changed relatively little over four-plus years of fighting, leaving a lasting footprint on the ground. In contrast, the Allies landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944 and Nazi Germany surrendered in May 1945, less than one year later. Thus, the battle lines during WW2 moved a lot quicker. The photo below shows a German command bunker of the Hindenburg Line in the Meuse-Argonne Sector near Cunel France.
One even finds a difference between WW1 battlefields. In broad terms, sites in Belgium and Northern France are fewer in number, smaller, and more manicured. They are less likely to be found in the open. However, from the Meuse-Argonne south to the Vosges Mountains, including Verdun and the St. Mihiel Salient, one finds more remains simply situated in the forests. There are two reasons for this: One reason is that a greater percentage of the northern battlefields were returned to agricultural or industrial use after the war. A second reason is that large portions of the battlefields near Verdun were declared Zone Rouge after the war. In order to let nature help reclaim these battlefields, the French government forested large parcels of land during the 1920s and 1930s. This resulted in sites being protected by the cover of trees—at least until the bark beetle infestation that has been plaguing Europe over the last decade.
The Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial Park, pictured below, is a great example of a well-preserved battlefield in the Somme Sector in Northern France. Trench lines and shell holes are still visible. However, because of the extreme number of (largely UK) visitors, much of the battlefield has been roped off, and even the trenches that one can explore have wooden duckboards in the bottom to prevent further erosion. Twenty years ago that was not the case.
Are you someone who thinks of history as a dry retelling of dates, facts, and figures? Yes, a battlefield tour guide has to provide that sort of information; but the battlefield comes to life when he/she weaves photos, maps, and personal accounts into the story. KDIH’s ability to do this can be sensed in this testimony from John Decker. We ran a 2023 private tour for him and eleven family members, including numerous brothers, spouses, and grandchildren, that covered both WW1 and WW2 sites:
“Dear Randy & Markus, This week has been a dream come true for me, thanks to the meticulous preparation and execution of the two of you. I truly felt as if I was walking in the footsteps of my grand-uncle in WWI and of my dad in WWII, seeing and trying to imagine what each of them might have been thinking and feeling during their respective wartime experiences. I couldn’t have asked for a more meaningful experience and the way the two of you embraced my entire family made the experience even more magical and memorable for me. I can’t thank you enough!” John Decker
As always, we encourage you to get knee-deep into history on one of our battlefield tours. Our 2024 schedule can be viewed here and our tour testimonials here. Visit our website or email owner Randy Gaulke directly.
|After decades of personal battlefield tours, Randy Gaulke quit his job as a financial analyst in Manhattan and spent eight months in France in 2017-18 as a freelance guide during the World War I Centennial.
He subsequently founded Knee Deep Into History, with a philosophy of getting clients into the field on a small-group tour designed for the military history enthusiast. Equally important is the attempt to tell both sides of the story and to help Americans bridge cultures. Most tours are led jointly with European guides, including retired Bundeswehr officer and historian Markus Klauer. The groups enjoy family-owned European hotels and restaurants.
Experience a military history tour that brings the battlefield to life! Learn more at www.kneedeepintohistory.com
Slow Travel Tours is an affiliation of small-group tour operators who offer personalized trips in Italy, France and other European countries.