WHERE HE FOUGHT
Editor’s note: Earlier this fall former Sun advertising employee Tom Sexton Jr., of Tewksbury, and his son, Tom Sexton III, of Hingham, traveled to France and retraced the northward push of the 327th Infantry during World War I, a unit that included their father/grandfather, Tom Sexton Sr. As a roadmap, the intrepid travelers, now 87 and 58, used Sexton Sr.’s meticulously kept WWI diary. This is an account of that emotional trip.
By Tom Sexton III
Special to The Sun
Just east from Charles de Gaulle Airport, outside Paris, the land quickly becomes rural as the A4 Autoroute follows the Marne River through vast stretches of farmland all the way to the German border, about 300 miles away.
My father, Tom Sexton Jr., and I were traveling along this route the first week of October, on our way to the battlefields of World War I, where his father, Tom Sr., fought during the Great War’s final days exactly 100 years earlier. Guided by Tom Sr.‘s war diary and a detailed history of his military unit, the 327th Infantry, we planned to trace his footsteps through the Meuse-Argonne offensive, still the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. military, which lasted from Sept. 28 until the Armistice was signed on Nov. 11, 1918. We timed our arrival to closely coincide with the order he received to head to the front, “battle packs only plus two days’ rations,” at 6:50 p.m. on Oct. 6. The plan was to stand precisely where he stood, 100 years later to the day.
The Sun published this article by Chris Lisinski on Oct. 4 as we were preparing to leave for France, describing the family lore that led us on this journey through time and space, connecting us in some way with our namesake when he was a young man, caught up in events that shaped the world we live in today and that nearly got him killed.
The idea for the trip had been simmering for a long time, fueled by the imaginations of the little boys who had read Tom Sr.’s careful, if vague, descriptions of basic training in Georgia, a long sea voyage involving a close encounter with a German torpedo, travel by trains and trucks and cattle boats deeper in the war, of being gassed, bombed and wounded.
The greatest hardship we faced on our journey was jet lag, briefly conquered by lunch in Chateau-Thierry, about 60 miles into the drive. It was here that the American Expeditionary Force, led by John “Blackjack” Pershing, became the first organized U.S. troops to fight in the Old World, pushing the Germans back across the Marne River, ending their march toward Paris and final victory.
A monument to the event sits just outside of town on a hill overlooking the Marne, its grand scale standing in contrast to the empty parking lot watched by a lonely security guard. Though obviously pleased to have visitors, he tired quickly of our terrible French, leading us to a small museum beneath the monument, where we had to clear security, emptying our pockets before going through the metal detector. The irony of a French guard screening two Americans in this empty corner of their shared glory seemed not to concern him.
In fact, all of the cemeteries, museums and monuments we visited, all of them kept immaculately, were empty. No one comes here to mark this war, the “war to end all wars.” Even on its centennial, we were assured of only chirping birds for company. Compared with Normandy, five hours by car to the west, this remote part of France where 127,000 U.S. soldiers gave their lives and where many of them are buried doesn’t get many visitors.
An hour or so farther east, the fields roll away and the Argonne Forest starts to emerge. The forest today is actively managed for timber, but 100 years ago it was the western edge of a 30-mile-wide battlefield, which the Germans had spent four years fortifying with trenches, barbed wire, hardened bunkers and machine gun nests. Many of these are visible today, along with shell craters in the fields where farmers still turn up metal war artifacts, including the occasional unexploded mortar or canister of mustard gas.
In Romagne-Sous Montfaucon, near the American Military Cemetery that sits in the middle of the huge battlefield, is another small museum, this one curated by Jean-Paul de Vries, who has spent 40-plus years collecting the detritus of the war, left behind by millions of soldiers. Helmets, bayonets, shell casings, buttons, utensils, spades, assorted weapons -- thousands of items dropped in fields and along ridges by German, French and American troops -- have been retrieved and displayed by Jean Paul. He dispenses his vast knowledge in the cafe attached to his museum.
“Everywhere you go around here, in the woods and fields, all these items are just lying there,” he said, while preparing simple lunch for some visitors. A frequent stop for tourists, including those with ancestors who fought in Le Grande Guerre, the Romagne ’14-’18 museum and de Vries are a wealth of collected knowledge on the region, the war and especially the American troops who fought in it.
Le Main de Massiges is a restoration project about 20 miles away dedicated to the preservation of local history, including the war. It was the scene of bitter, entrenched fighting between the French and Germans throughout the war. Today it’s an open-air history lesson on the brutality of trench warfare carved into the chalk Champagne soil. You can actually walk through history here and see how people tried to survive under constant threat of death from a shell or getting gassed.
On Oct. 6 in the late afternoon we drove to Varennes-en-Argonne where Tom Sr. and the rest of the 327th Infantry had been held in reserve for a few days precisely a century earlier. At 6:30 p.m. they got the order to go to the front with their combat packs, taking “the Army road” along the Aire River to Chatel-Chehery. There followed several weeks of intense fighting as the Allies slowly pushed the Germans north, breaking their last lines of defense and supply, and leading to the Armistice on Nov. 11.
Over the next day we followed the same route, through the small towns of Cornay, Fleville and Sommerance, stopping to look at photos posted on buildings showing how they looked right after the fighting. In a small square in the southern end of Cornay is a historical marker that describes the battles in the area. I believe the buildings surrounding the square, including a school and some houses, are the same ones where our story nearly ended.
It was here, in the morning and early afternoon of Oct. 9, 1918, that my grandfather’s commanding officer, Col. Frank D. Ely, pinned in these same buildings with his men, sent a series of desperate messages to his command:
“Large force of Boche counter attacked and captured Cornay just before 13 o’clock,” Ely wrote. “My forces there killed and captured. Some escaped. Shall counter attack at 18 o’clock with remaining men available, organizing on Hill 180, and have called on artillery to shell Cornay between parallels 81.6 -- and 82 ... Our success may be doubtful.
“Find my men exhausted and gassed. Probably 200 can be mustered for counter attack, but these are practically exhausted and nearly worthless.
“All my Regiment have been in continuously gassed area since midnight October 6th ... All of us are more or less gassed and ineffective.”
Tom Sr.’s diary says only:
“Oct. 7 Boys went over the top at Chatel Chehery jumping off the line at Cornay attacking Hill 180
Oct. 8 Over the top again
Oct. 9 ” ”
Oct. 10 ” ” ”
I wonder what he would have made of his son and grandson standing together in the place where he nearly died, and we with him, on that long-ago day. Had he been killed, his body would likely lie with all the others at the military cemetery in Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, his memory long forgotten. Instead, through luck or fate, he got to go home and we get to remember him.
The history of the 327th Infantry can be found here: