Army Reserve Soldiers from the 7th Mission Support Command got a taste of what a different generation of Soldiers faced 100 years ago, helping mark the centennial of the American Expeditionary Force's campaigns in France during World War I.
The 7th MSC operated a logistics command post for Operation Victory Over There near Verdun, France, working with the French military at Base d'Etain. Victory Over There was a series of commemorative events running from Sept. 20-24 conducted jointly by the American Battle Monuments Commission and the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
"Our Soldiers visited historic battlefields, learned about their lineage and heard stories of hardship and gallantry in battle," said Brig. Gen. Fred Maiocco, the 7th MSC commanding general. "Most importantly, they were able to participate in some of the ceremonies honoring the men and women who sacrificed themselves in the cause of liberty and freedom during the Great War."
Responsibilities for the 7th included getting distinguished visitors, ceremony participants, and support personnel into France, as well as coordinating lodging, transportation and force protection during the various events, according to Maj. J.D. Etienne, an operations planner for the 7th.
"This was a multi [Army] component, multi-services mission," he said, of the international effort.
The French military played an important part in the success of the command's mission.
"We were honored by many allied and partner nations which participated in these events," Maiocco said. "In particular, the French were incredibly gracious and supportive. The French Government and its Army hosted our Task Force at their regional base near the city of Etain, the site of a former U.S. military base. Task force members and memorial participants were able to gather at the base for onward movement and support for the many events scheduled in the five days of WWI Centennial Commemoration."
The Meuse-Argonne and St. Mihiel offenses in late September of 1918 were a combined U.S. and French effort, and precipitated the end of the war that led to the death of nearly 18 million Soldiers and civilians from all countries involved. The campaigns were meant to put a final end to such international aggressions, and prior to World War II, the war held the moniker of "The War to End All Wars."
American Battle Monuments Commission and CMH commemorative events supported by the 7th MSC included ceremonies at the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne American military cemeteries and a symbolic walk that approximated American force movements from the famous Hill 304 to the towering monument at Montfaucon.
There also were a series of educational tours hosted by military historians from CMH that focused on key events of the AEF's mission in France. These included the Sergeant York Trail, a tour of the Lost Battalion battle site and tours that traced the historical axes of advance and significant events of leading U.S. Army units in the war, I Corps, III Corps and V Corps, all under the command of General John J. Pershing.
On the symbolic walk, the weather echoed the conditions likely seen by Soldiers of the campaigns and so common to September in that part of France. But the strong winds and rain barely slowed the hundreds of military and civilian marchers, both American and French.
The people of the French countryside and towns emerged in the weather to greet and provide refreshments to the marchers and gather at their side at one of the walk's periodic stops. Historians on the walk provided accounts of key moments in the U.S. offensive into German held terrain and drew attention to dilapidated machine gun nests, hilltop firing points, artillery dimpled fields and marshy bogs through which advancing American and French Soldiers prevailed against German mortar and machine gun fire.
At the U.S. Military Cemetery at St. Mihiel, on Sept. 22, distinguished military visitors, French and American descendants of WWI Soldiers, as well as hundreds of interested French civilians flocked to this beautifully maintained countryside cemetery to memorialize the more than 4000 American "Doughboys" that lay to rest, and to pay tribute to the long lived alliance between America and its oldest ally.
Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti spoke to the historic partnership between France and the United States, stretching back to the days of the American Colonies. Nearly140 years later, America rushed troops to the European theater for its first-ever large overseas campaign.
"The French and British provided arms, ammunition and aircraft for the Americans to train and fight with," he said in his speech. "During these days the bonds and friendships forged between our nations over a century prior grew even stronger."
At Meuse-Argonne cemetery on Sept. 23, hundreds of interested spectators, French and American Soldiers in formations, as well as civilian and military volunteers braved more strong winds and rain to place and light candles at each of more than 14,000 graves. Because of the weather, they had to replace and relight hundreds knocked to the ground by the wind. The US Navy band was forced under the shelter of the chapel's atrium wing.
There, mixed tightly with members of the public and French and American news media, the band played on as the main portions of the ceremony were pushed into the cemetery's tiny chapel.
The ceremony caused the only pause in the day-long procession of eager French and American volunteers who, from the chapel's doorway, faced the descending columns and rows of immaculately trimmed graves and read the names of each of the fallen 14 thousand American Soldiers there.
Centered between immense, high resolution television screens that displayed an hours-long rotation of hundreds of photographs cataloging the war, the name readings continued until dusk.
For Soldiers of the Army Reserve's 7th MSC, the historic events paid tribute to the many U.S. Army Reserve units that continue today upon the legacy of the more than 80,000 reserve Soldiers, then called the National Army, who were called to serve in 1917. They further represented 26 percent of all American casualties during the final offenses.
"Over 13,000 killed in action, over 52,000 wounded," Etienne said.
During those final months of the war, reserve Soldiers helped tip the balance of the war in favor of the allies, he said.
The impact from participation in these events for 7th Soldiers was personal.
"It was an amazing experience, having the opportunity to work side by side with the French military, local police and the French people," said, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Serrano, a senior logistics non-commissioned officer at the 7th.
"They truly embraced us, and greatly helped our logistical efforts there," he said.
When the candles had fallen to the ground at the Meuse-Argonne cemetery, Serrano was one of the volunteers who promptly commenced to replace them.
"Just like that, in the blink of an eye, all of those burning candles were out," he said. Amidst the graves of so many US Soldiers it was difficult to restrain an emotional reflection on war.
"Someone can be here one moment and gone in the next," he said.
At the placement and lighting of each candle at Meuse-Argonne, the many volunteers, from where ever they came, read the name, rank and unit marked on every one of the 14,000 graves.