This afternoon our guide, Dr. Thomson, took us to Vauquois, a rural French village on a hill turned World War I battle site. Dr. Thomson explained to us that the hill had originally held a small community, but the desolation caused by artillery shells, mining, and trench building caused the hill to significantly shorten and become too dangerous for habitation.
Because it was in close proximity to the Argonne Forest and relatively accessible, Vauquois was a combat site for the entirety of the war. When the mobility of the early 1914 battles gave way to the permanence of trench warfare, French and German troops ended up digging in on either side of the hill. In addition to the usual set up of barracks, trenches, and barbed wire, Vauquois was a site in which troops on both sides utilized tunneling and land mines. Men would tunnel tough the hill and listen for the enemies, attempting to estimate the enemy’s locations on or in the hill so they could plant explosives. In 1918, once the American troops had entered the war, Vauquois was used as a jumping off point for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on Seltember 26.
It was surreal to find ourselves at the top of this hill. Five years of brutal warfare has permanently scarred the landscape; we could see dozens of craters that turned the center of the hill into what almost seemed like an uneven valley. Barbed wire that had been constructed by French and German soldiers over 100 years ago still stood in wavy lines that indicated the pattern of their trenches.
We were fortunate enough to be able to walk through a short stretch restored German trench. The entrance was dark and narrow, requiring is to nearly crawl through at first. Once we were inside, we saw a rough, narrow pathway, its tall walls fortified by metal sheets and model sandbags. There were various shelters and firing ledges carved into the walls. There was minimal space to do more than stand or walk, and it was difficult to see out across the hill while staying “hidden” from view.
Walking through this trench was incredibly humbling. Although it is easy to find memoirs and narratives describing life in the trenches, I could never fully conceptualize what it must have been like until today. I cannot imagine living in such a small, unprotected space for days at a time and returning every week for five years. The fact that this trench represented daily life for soldiers just 100 years ago, many of whom were my age at the time, is astounding. Experiencing even a small taste of what so many Bucknellians had endured reaffirms the importance of honoring their sacrifices and legacies, especially as the anniversary of the armistice draws near.