Reliving a battle that's lost in history

Remembering: Two brothers return to the French battleground where their grandfather, a green recruit, fought in World War I.

November 07, 1999|By Charles S. Fax

AT 5:30 ON THE cold, wet morning of Sept. 26, 1918, in a remote corner of northeast France between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest, a line of U.S. soldiers 20 miles long rose up from the trenches as one and began the final battle of World War I.

This great U.S. offensive, led by Gen. John Pershing, now is all but forgotten. For most of the more than 1 million U.S. soldiers under Pershing's command, it was their first time in battle. For the 120,000 U.S. troops killed and wounded, it was their last. The armistice was declared a month and a half later, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year, the day we celebrate this week as Veterans Day.

This bloodiest of all centuries has witnessed many wars. World War II, which concluded with the most devastating weapon ever developed by mankind, dominates modern memory. Yet World War II would not have occurred but for World War I, by far more senseless and devastating -- including that final cataclysm in eastern France that popular history now barely recalls.

The doughboys' first objective in the center of the Meuse-Argonne attack was a promontory named Montfaucon -- Mountain of the Falcons. Owing to its geographic prominence in a then-strategically important part of northern Europe, it had seen military action in innumerable wars since before the first millennium. It took the young Americans two days to conquer Montfaucon.

We have held it ever since. After the war, the French government gave Montfaucon and a nearby site to the United States for a permanent memorial to the U.S. soldiers who fought there, and as a permanent resting place for those who died there. Montfaucon is U.S. soil.

Several weeks ago, at approximately 7 a.m. on a cold, wet October dawn 81 years after the assault on Montfaucon, my brother, Gene, and I stood below the mountain, on the spot where our grandfather, Oscar Lobe, began his war. It was easy to find his trench. The fields and communally owned adjacent woods have the same borders as before the war. The rural population, small at the turn of the century, is even smaller today. The maps used by the soldiers in World War I are still accurate. The forest floor is untouched. The craters remain where the rounds fell. The trenches are eroded only by time. Only one thing has changed. The shell craters in the fields have been filled. Yet shell fragments, shrapnel, weapons, bullets and all the other detritus of war lie buried in the mud beneath the trees that sheltered the Americans as they edged forward and began their attack.

A friend told us that he spotted a helmet in these woods, and picking it up out of the mud, found a skull inside. Maps and research showed Gene where the 79th Division of the 1st Army stood on the line of battle, and where, within the division, the 313th Regiment -- Grandpa's outfit -- was placed. The sector maps reveal the foot paths that demarcated the various sectors, so we were able to find the paths and the forward trenches where the 313th began its assault.

Our grandfather, just 21 in 1918, was a corporal in the 313th Regiment, which was made up of green draftees from Baltimore -- youngsters who had never fired a weapon in combat. Unlike the celebrated 29th Division filled with Marylanders and Virginians who took Omaha Beach on D-Day 26 years later, these Baltimore boys were raw, untrained citizen soldiers, unprepared for what they were about to do.

Scaling the trench and walking deliberately, we followed their line of attack through the woods, out into the fields and into what had been the face of the German machine guns, down the hollow, and up the rise toward the top of the mountain. The desolation and absolute silence that pervade these fields allow the visitor to visualize the battle.

The boys from Baltimore who fought here attacked over an open, exposed upward slope against older, seasoned German troops, well-entrenched in the high ground. But slowly, in fits and starts and with massive casualties, the Americans miraculously worked their way up the mountain and conquered it.

Our grandfather returned from this battle. Walking among the tombstones in the U.S.cemetery, I saw the graves of many soldiers who were younger than Grandpa when they were killed. They did not go home to marry and raise families with grandchildren who could come to Montfaucon to honor them. Their graves are well tended, and veterans' associations lay bouquets of flowers on the anniversaries of their deaths. But doubtless few have families to mourn them.

Surveying the masses of crosses intermingled with Jewish stars at Montfaucon, and recalling the other military cemeteries we have seen in this region -- French, American, British, and German -- we cannot fail to ask what the world would have been like had this needless slaughter not occurred. I consider the small contributions that the family descended from my grandfather has made and I wonder: What great contributions might the unborn children and grandchildren of the boys who lie here have made?

It is an unanswerable question, of course. We can honor the known sacrifice of these heroes, but it is pointless to lament that which never was. And so we do the little that we can. In the visitors' book in the U.S. cemetery at Montfaucon, my brother has inscribed, "To the memory of Grandfather Oscar Lobe, and to the memory of the men of the 79th Division." They fought and died for freedom -- and for us.

Charles S. Fax practices law at the Baltimore law firm of Shapiro and Olander.

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