by Martha F. Barkley
Last summer at the Belgrade Public Library, Richard Rubin from Brunswick, Maine, reminded the crowd gathered that the French have not forgotten what the American soldiers sacrificed for them one hundred years ago. Maybe we Americans have, but the French have not.
The Last of the Doughboys, 2013, and the newly published Back Over There by historian Rubin both tell the stories of "The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War." After he spent years traveling to interview WWI veterans across the USA before they died, Rubin's historical account made such a splash that the New York Times sent him to France to find the farm fields and forests where these momentous battles were fought when American troops entered in 1917.
We were shown slides of some of the WWI vets covered extensively in Doughboys: Moses Hardy of Aberdeen, Mississippi on his 113th birthday and Samuel Goldberg in Greenville, RI at age 106, et al. Yes, alive and responsive to Rubin's several visits and multiple interviews. "Some say (doughboys) refers to the phenomenon of infantry, covered in dust after a long march down dirt roads, looking as if they had rolled in flour; others attribute it to the popularity of doughnuts distributed by the Salvation Army…"
Most of the slides shared at the library presentation were from Rubin's later visits to the verdant Alsace farming country and tractor roads where the bloody battles took place. The beautiful Argonne forests have vacation pathways where off, in the trees, are trenches, cement and earthen, and much evidence of WWI. He collected many a souvenir of war, one quite dangerous that he did not touch. His local guide and WWI museum owner, sprayed the dangerous munition with bright orange. After twenty or so such finds, the explosive experts will arrive to remove them. Too often people are hurt or killed in this area of embattlement 100 years later.
One particular find surprised me greatly. Rubin said there were many, like mushrooms, when fields were tilled. They are the German electrical connectors for all their cement trenches and underground tunnels. The Germans electrified villages as they conquered them.
"In the last forty-seven days of World War I, 26,277 Americans were killed fighting in the vicinity, in what is now known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive; it remains, to this day, the deadliest battle in American history. More than fourteen thousand of them are buried in Romagne, spread out over 130 acres in what is the largest American cemetery in Europe". General Pershing was the man in charge of these magnificent cemeteries with rows and rows of crosses or the Star of David for every soldier.
Not many Americans visit these places, but the local French people smiled every time Rubin revealed he was American and not British. Perhaps some of us could make the pilgrimage to find these same places so carefully explored in Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler, 100 Years Since the Great War, 500 Miles of Battle-Scarred French Countryside, and Too Many Trenches, Shells, Legends and Ghosts to Count.