Monumental matters

In 1919, as the various airfields of the 3rd. Air Instruction Center, Issoudun were being closed down, a monument was erected to commemorate the 171 Americans, including trainee pilots and instructors, who died whilst serving at the Center (Fig.15). Their names appear on twelve plaques of fine-cast bronze. The tall stele is set back from the dead-straight route D960, northwest of Issoudun and just south of the hamlet of Voeu. The field site was once a temporary military cemetery (Volvault). In 2009, on the 90th. anniversary of the Center’s closure, an impressive ceremony took place around the renovated monument, demonstrating the long-term bonds of friendship between France and America (Fig.16).29

Fig. 15 – 3rd. AIC memorial, near Issoudun, before renovation.

Fig. 16 – 3rd. AIC memorial, near Issoudun: 90th. anniversary of closure of the Center. (Courtesy of M. Bernard Gagnepain).

Looking at the gently rolling uplands which surround this monument, one naturally thinks of forced landings. My father, who eventually transferred from the British Army to become a lieutenant-pilot in the Royal Air Force in Egypt (1918), would speak of the extremely high fatality rate amongst novice pilots. In addition to advising me how to get out of a tailspin, he would recall that engine failure during take-off often caused them to forget the golden rule: ‘Never turn back!’. The consequent sideslip to earth was usually fatal.

My accidental discovery of the Bathelémont memorial was made in the early 1970s. Halfhidden by tall summer grasses at the edge of a French back road, a battered metal sign proclaimed that nearby was a memorial to the first American soldiers to be killed in combat in the First World War. Entering the small village of Bathelémont (-lès-Bauzemont) and walking down its main street past a row of old houses was like slipping back through time to the early 1920s. In a working farmyard at the centre of the village, not far from a large concrete dugout, stood the granite block of the American memorial. On its basal plinth a bronze group of three classical runners, arms outstretched, raced into eternity (Fig. 17).

Fig. 17 – Bronze figures on Bathelémont memorial.

The history of this AEF monument is surprisingly complicated.30 Whilst the war was still raging, local communes and cities of Lorraine subscribed to the design and erection of an appropriate monumental tribute. An official inauguration ceremony was held in Nancy on the anniversary date of November 3, 1918 whilst in Bathelémont itself, where German shells were occasionally bursting, representatives of Company F also assembled to pay tribute to their former comrades. A white stone monument was eventually erected in the middle of Bathelémont facing the roofless church. It was 4.5 metres high with a Cross of Lorraine cut into its front face (Fig. 18). Upon its rear face an inscription named the three soldiers, stating that ‘they fought for Right, Liberty and Civilisation against German Imperialisation, Scourge of Mankind. They died on the Field of Honour’, words that would have future repercussions. In time it acquired a bronze American Legion plaque and a low stone wall, topped by a grille of wrought iron. By the early 1930s the three distinctive bronze figures had been added (Fig. 17): they replicate a statue in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris engraved ‘Au But ‘ (To the Goal). Prior to World War II the monument was frequently visited by various dignitaries and pilgrims.

Fig. 18 – Design of original monument at Bathelémont (1918): contemporary postcard.

When the German Wehrmacht occupied the village after the collapse of France in 1940 they soon objected to the uncompromising anti-Teutonic phrases on the monument and ordered the Mayor to remove them. Dissatisfied with the half-hearted attempts to plaster over the incised text, they dynamited the monument on October 6, 1940. Fortunately, the villagers had previously removed the bronze statue and iron railings and hidden them away.

In September 1952, Bathelémont received a distinguished visitor, General George C. Marshall, then serving as president of the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). Recalling the historic significance of this village and his attendance at the burial ceremony in 1917, he suggested that a new monument should be erected. On May 9, 1955, a three-tonne block of rough-textured pink granite from the Vosges mountains was set on the original plinth. Two polished panels, front and back, carried inscriptions. The text on the rear face,’Here lie the first soldiers of the United States to fall on the fields of France for Justice and Liberty’, was taken from General Bordeaux’s 1917 eulogy. In 1957, the bronze statue and iron railings were reinstated with due ceremony. The last official ceremony at this original site within the village was held in November 1967, the fiftieth anniversary of the trench raid.

The monument stood on private farm ground and by the 1970s was often surrounded by items of agricultural equipment and passed daily on either side by cattle. This situation led the ABMC to advocate that a better site be found. In August 1977 the granite monument was moved and re-erected outside the small civilian cemetery about 200 metres from the village centre (Fig. 19). This transfer from the original and fairly central site near the restored church did not receive wholehearted support from all residents of Bathelémont. They sensed, rightly I think, that relocation of the monument well outside the village detracted from its dramatic impact on visitors.

Fig. 19 – The present-day Bathelémont memorial.

The inauguration ceremony for the newly-sited memorial stone was held on September 17, 1977. French and American officials were accompanied by a representative company of the 2nd. US Cavalry Regiment, a reconnaissance force that had liberated Bathelémont in September 1944 when Pattons’s Third Army pushed through Lorraine toward the Rhine.

Further ceremonies marking the decades were held at the Bathelémont monument in November 1987 and 1997.

The battered road sign that once led me to the hillside village of Bathelémont is long gone. The surrounding countryside is very pleasant, in contrast to its bleak treeless appearance in 1917-8, and Bathélemont looks decidedly more prosperous. The concrete shelter remains opposite the Mairie. As for the monument itself, its inscribed text is not wholly accurate: the three soldiers did not ‘here lie’ in the locality for long. In accordance with the wishes of relatives in the USA, on March 9, 1921 the three bodies were exhumed from the nearby military cemetery and repatriated to their home towns. This action was contrary to the personal preference of General Bordeaux.

  1. Eminent historian Bernard Gagnepain was a guiding spirit of this civil/military event. []
  2. J. P. Seichepine et S. Husson, Les Trois Premiers Americains tombés dans les Champs de France (Mairie,54370 Bathelémont, France: Association Jean-Paul Stofflet, 1999) 1-34.This is a definitive account of the Bathelémont incidents.  []