France gives highest honor to old soldier

Medal: In recognizing World War I veterans, the French bestow the Chevalier Cross of the Legion of Honor on one of `Baltimore's Own.'

January 24, 1999|By DAN FESPERMAN | DAN FESPERMAN,SUN STAFF

From Thailand to New Zealand, from Los Angeles to Punxsutawney, Pa., French emissaries bearing medals have fanned out across the globe for almost a year. Their mission: to muster the old soldiers of World War I's Western Front one last time, calling them to attention for a final, halting march to fame.

Yesterday the mission stopped at a retirement community in Catonsville, where 102-year-old George Manns of Baltimore rose slowly to his feet to accept the Chevalier Cross of the Legion of Honor. It is the highest national honor of France -- a red ribbon trailing a white and turquoise cross -- and French Consul General Alain de Keghel pinned it neatly onto the left breast pocket of Manns' black suit.

It has been more than 80 years since Manns tumbled into a shell hole in France, just after a chunk of shrapnel tore through his left hand. It was the second day of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, one of the final drives to defeat the Germans. He wound up in a field hospital that night, and a few weeks later he was on a ship home to Baltimore.

Now, he has joined a growing line of frail men being honored by France to commemorate last November's 80th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. Holding firmly to an aluminum walker, Manns stepped carefully down the aisle of Our Lady of the Angels Chapel yesterday morning. With his daughter Dorothy Snouffer helping him, he passed between two saluting rows of four men apiece, a Veterans of Foreign Wars honor guard.

"The French have not forgotten -- I have not forgotten the bravery of these young soldiers who risked their lives on French soil in terrible conditions," de Keghel told Manns and about 120 spectators moments later.

Manns seemed to take it all in stride. While appreciative of the honor, and of the handshakes and popping flashbulbs, he downplayed his role in the war, saying, "We're here, and that's all there is to it. I didn't have as much experience on the battlefield as most of the men had."

Slaughter and stalemate

In 1918, surviving any portion of the war was a sort of heroism. The war was more than four years of wholesale slaughter and muddy stalemate. Some 10 million soldiers died, often in waves, and usually over the gain or loss of a few feet of a shell-pocked battleground. Never had generals ordered so many attacks against such a terrifying array of entrenched weaponry -- machine guns, huge artillery, poison gas.

But with the average age of its veterans approaching 100, the Great War has begun yielding a different brand of hero -- the survivor of time and history.

If Manns makes it to the year 2000, he will have lived in three different centuries. He was a boy in the age of telegraph, a young man in the age of radio and as he pushed 60, radio gave way to TV. Now, he can log on to the Internet and find his name on a French government Web site, along with those of 157 other Americans who have been designated for the Legion of Honor.

For some of these veterans, the sudden recognition by France has unlocked memories they have rarely spoken of in years, if at all.

"My father has been very reticent about that," said Snouffer, 76, one of Manns' two daughters. "My uncle used to say to me, `Dorothy, your father just doesn't want to talk about the war.' So, when he's been giving interviews during the last few days, I've learned more about it than I ever knew."

He was 21 then, a draftee into the 313th Infantry Regiment, known as "Baltimore's Own."

It was a unit of men from all over the city, and they trained at Camp Meade, a warren of shacks that later became Fort Meade. They once marched there from Baltimore, all 23 miles, with packs on their backs, the day after President Woodrow Wilson had reviewed them as they paraded through downtown.

Manns, like most of the unit, shipped to France aboard the Leviathan, but not until Sept. 26, 1918, was he tossed into battle. "They marched us out overnight and into the trenches that morning," he recalled. "And then we went over the top."

The 313th was pushing north, hoping to overrun German lines on the hills near a town in northeastern France called Montfaucon. Part of the way forward passed through a shattered forest, but the ground was not at all like a tranquil path through the woods.

The Sun's war correspondent at the time, Raymond S. Tompkins, wrote in his book, "Maryland Fighters in the Great War," "The shell holes that covered the face of the land lay almost rim to rim, and were deep. There was no jumping them. They had to be descended into on one side and scaled like mountain sides on the other. Snarls of barbed wire lay in the holes or up on the edges, torn and tangled by shell-fire."

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