World War I was defined by the trenches that stretched 450 miles through Belgium and France, from the North Sea to the German border along the Western Front. It was a zig-zagged maze of mud and disease that, if stretched out straight, would encompass the globe. That’s about 25,000 miles, but that’s not why they called this a world war.
The battleground of St. Mihiel, France was the first place my sister and I stepped into those trenches. Our grandfather did not fight here during those bloody three days in September 1918, but he was on his way, crossing the English Channel on a steamer, according to the diary he kept. He would find himself in similar trenches in the Argonne Forest in a few more days.
Preserved World War I Trenches
The St. Mihiel battleground is one place where the trenches have been preserved to teach future generations about what happened here. Those that had become home to the French and British for more than three years were made of lumber and sandbags, and as a result, those have been restored in the last 100 years.
The Germans, however, they dug their digs to last. Concrete walls fortified by more sandbags kept those soldiers only slightly less miserable than the French and Brits a few hundred yards away. They have lasted pretty well for this past century.
The trenches are just wide enough for two people to stand abreast of each other. They are, however, wide enough for two men carrying a stretcher loaded with another soldier to pass behind those standing with rifles in their hands, shooting through small “peep” holes, for lack of a better word.
About six feet deep, many soldiers had to stand on a small platform to see the outside world. Our grandpa was 6’1″ before he put on Army boots and a helmet.
St. Mihiel is remembered by military historians as the first use of tanks on a battlefield. Tanks were just one of many inventions from the Great War that helped us kill others a little more efficiently. General Pershing put a young colonel named George Patton in charge and the Allies had the Germans on the run before they knew what was happening.
After walking through those trenches, climb the steps to the memorial commissioned by General Pershing following the war. There you’ll find a map that demonstrates how the battle unfolded.
We looked around at the beautiful French countryside, once again, giving thanks that Grandpa kept his head down and came home.