It was time, at last, to follow in the actual footsteps of the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I.
We set out the next morning with Roger and soon ended up on a gravel road following a sign that read Abri du Kronprinz. Roger had something to show us before we officially set out. (The considerable advantage of having a tour guide who is a WWI buff and happens to live in France is that he can take you to all the places you might otherwise miss.)
Down that gravel road were bunkers built for the German crown prince Wilhelm, son of Wilhelm II. Years worth of leaves filled the entrance to these magnificent bunkers, most of them quite ornate. We edged down the slope into one to see remnants of the once flamboyant hideaway in the midst of a horrific war. Fireplace inserts and what I would call a bay window showed the luxury German officers and leaders often enjoyed.
Climbing around the moss-covered fortifications and imagining everyday life here was an experience you can’t get from a book. (Though I did try my best to convey it in the novel.)
From there, we traveled roads with signs I couldn’t read, but I did start to see familiar names and places and dates. Anytime I spotted 1914-1918, I knew we were on the right track. We made a few more side stops, including a Cistercian Abbey in Lachalade that was in the midst of renovation. I’m not sure it was really open to the public, but the door was unlocked, and there was no one working.
We marveled at the centuries-old abbey. It was in bad shape but the feelings it brought up in me…knowing we weren’t at an oft-visited tourist stop, but something genuine, authentic, ancient. There were tombs inside—and outside. The cemetery held Commonwealth War Graves and other monuments.
Right across the street from the abbey was a WWI monument where a panel in three languages told more history.
Traveling through French towns—some modern, some very much not—I spotted a road sign that made my heart do a flip: Somme-Suippe, a place the 36th division traveled through on the way to battle.
We continued on to Suippes and found a public restroom (rare in the countryside) next to an ancient cathedral still in everyday use. There was a ceremony going on inside, the door propped open.
Loading back into the car with sandwiches from a sweet French lady’s shop, we noted a sign that read Musée 14-18. I knew it was a place we needed to visit. But in the relaxed hours of the French, the museum was closed for their two-hour lunch.
Off we went a few miles down the road to one of the monuments we absolutely had to see. Along the way, WWI cemeteries reminded us of the incredible impact the war had on this country. A large French cemetery with rows and rows of white crosses rested in the midst of rolling green grass near the road. In the next picture on my camera, as I was snapping out the car window, is a German concrete bunker sitting by the roadside. Not an unusual sight for locals.
In the parking lot of the monument was a panel we’d come to see. In the lower right-hand corner, surrounded by French words I couldn’t read, was Choctaw Code Talker and WWI hero Joseph Oklahombi.
Tiajuana had brought a miniature Choctaw Nation flag for this occasion, and we placed it next to his picture. After photos, we headed up the concrete sidewalk to a monument perched atop Blanc Mont Ridge. The Sommepy American Monument honors divisions that helped take the region during the final days of the war in 1918. Edged by a well-manicured communication trench, the golden-yellow limestone tower rose into the sky with its bold American eagle on the front. We walked around it and found our beloved 36th Division with the Texas T nestled inside an arrowhead.
We would have climbed the interior to the observation tower, but it was closed. Despite my fear of heights, I was disappointed. But the view from the base of the monument was incredible and easy to see why this ridge was a critical objective for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
Then we were off to one of the most familiar French village names for me—Saint-Étienne-à-Arnes.
The first battle of the 36th Division was at St. Étienne, a true baptism of fire. It was disastrous with shocking casualties.
We drove around in the Sunday-afternoon quiet village, searching for cemeteries and the famed cathedral that once housed a German sniper where he shot at Choctaw doughboys.
When you drive three times around deserted streets of a village, you’re bound to arouse a bit of suspicion. We parked next to the current cathedral, fairly certain it was rebuilt after the war. I went up the stone steps on the side of the building and did a video reading of Company E men who died in the battle for St. Étienne.
Not long after, here came an older woman—not elderly—to where we lounged in the shade by the car. She and Roger spoke in French awhile, and as he always did when we encountered someone, he told her the story of the Choctaw Code Talkers of World War I. He asked her when the cathedral had been built. He translated to us that the entire town had been rebuilt after the war except for a few buildings. We found one of those buildings, able to see the bullet holes and shell pockmarks that were already a familiar sight to me.
On the edge of town, we found a German cemetery with its black iron crosses, symbolizing their grief at losing the war. There was also a monument along the road for the 2nd Division, the division the 36th relieved at the battle for the final push of the war.
We returned to Suippes, knowing that museum would be closed on our way back at the end of the day. Musée 14-18 was well worth the extra time. I was especially captivated by their interactive room that I went in twice. When you enter and start the story, it gives you a 360-degree view of the war with video footage, dynamic sound, and room filled with replica sandbags, barbed wire, and lighting that flashes brilliantly with the booms of artillery fire and gunshots.
It was nothing like what the soldiers actually experienced, but it was an experience nonetheless.
Anticipation built when we returned to tracing the same road, the same journey the 36th Division took from Suippes to St. Étienne. I carefully observed the countryside and the Roman-built road that didn’t curve to the right or left but went straight ahead. Just like the doughboys of the 36th Division.
North-ish of St. Étienne, it wasn’t long before we entered the “river loop” and…Forest Ferme.
Roger had graciously contacted the current owner of Forest Ferme. I was surprised it was still a working farm, and that we actually were able to drive onto it. What a moment.
The farm was laid out like many we had seen in the countryside. A long barn, three stories at one end, housed equipment and the caretaker’s residence. There was another enormous barn with more equipment, and the stately farmhouse.
The owner wasn’t home, as Roger had already known, and it was only minutes before the caretaker came out to talk with him.
There was a copse of trees by the main road, and we had been curious about what might be in them. Were there German bunkers or perhaps unexploded shells and shrapnel? What did it hold?
We waited while Roger chatted with the man. They laughed a few times and then we headed back out. Roger told us about his conversation, which revealed the man knew very little about the war and that there was nothing of interest in the trees.
But our time on that battlefield wasn’t over. We kept following the road around the loop. It was thrilling to think how we were in that horseshoe in the river loop I had read so much about! There we were, on the battlefield where the Choctaws fought. Yet the greatest moment was yet to come, thanks to Roger.
He turned onto another road, crossed the canal on a narrow bridge and the Aisne river, then up the long hill we went, the road winding and steep. The cabriolet strained at the climb, weighted down as she was with the three of us. But she made it and soon we were inside the hilly village of Voncq. It reminded me of Branson, Missouri, only Voncq is carved out of stone.
As with St. Etienne, it was still a quiet Sunday afternoon with few people about. We drove around and couldn’t find the overlook Roger had noted was located there. We finally came on a couple who were outside in their yard.
They strolled over to the car, and Roger began sharing the story about the Choctaw Code Talkers. They asked something, joking, and he laughed, shaking his head and translating for us.
“No, no,” he said, then to us, “They want to know if the Choctaws used smoke signals.”
We laughed, and I heard him explaining with a French accent, “No, no, the telephone, the telephone.”
All through the trip, I felt respect and appreciation from the French for Americans and our sacrifice in both world wars. Given the prevalent stereotypes in Europe of American Indians, it was awesome to be a part of sharing true Choctaw history and culture with French people.
The couple gave us directions to the overlook. And that was the moment…
The overlook resembled a plain roadside park with a few concrete picnic tables and a circular panel situated on a pedestal. I pulled out a printed copy of a military map of the battlefield, and we compared it to the map on the pedestal. A match.
There we stood, staring over the battlefield of Forest Ferme. Not only that, when we looked at the map again, we realized we were staring right where Company E made their charge.
The panoramic view of the French countryside lay before us as we stood on that high hill above the loop in the Aisne River. A quiet, serene setting now oblivious to the thousands of thundering shells and machine gun fire that blanketed the area one hundred years ago. Forest Ferme and the river loop battle went “by the book.” Several commanding officers credited the use of the Choctaw language on the telephone as the reason the division took the critical river loop.
That place became the final scene in the novel when Matthew stands atop the overlook, reflecting on the war. I lived that scene vicariously.
We took photos and videos, talked, stood on the benches, scanned the area, studied the flow of the river. As the sun lowered toward the horizon, we retrieved our snacks and lunch leftovers from the boot and settled at a concrete picnic table. We ate and chatted a while longer. I didn’t want to leave, not ever. Well, at least not for a long while. But it was getting late, and we had a long drive back to Roger’s house and then still further to our hotel.
Roger had said he wanted to let the car cool off which was one of the reasons we stayed longer. I was glad for that, though it did concern me a little when he talked about the engine getting overheated in the rural countryside. What an adventure that might’ve been had we broken down in a small French village…
A story idea for another time.
We drove down the hill and stopped for a few more pictures at the canal and railroad tracks, wondering if Choctaws had crossed them, too. We guessed them to be older than WWI and took photos of the long, lonely stretch of track.
Then it was off to the races, back through the Argonne Forest in a hurry to return. We arrived at Roger’s home right at dark and scheduled to meet up the next day.
We did have to drive the French country roads in the dark, but Tiajuana did well. We passed a tractor going the other direction with its headlights on. (It seems French farmers never stop working.)
That day, that experience at the Forest Ferme battlefield was one of the most moving times of the trip—the reason I had gone to France.
Yet there was still much, much more to the journey.