Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

The Great War in the Argonne Forest: French & American Battles, 1914–1918

by Richard Merry
Pen & Sword Military, 2020
Peter L. Belmonte, Reviewer

French Fatigue Party in the Argonne
Note the Terrain

Most students of the Great War are familiar with how the Argonne Forest fit into that conflict. Most will have read about the U.S. troops fighting in and near the forest during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, but many might not know about French and Germans fighting there before the Americans took over in September 1918. For example, an Italian regiment of the French Foreign Legion fought heroically and lost heavily there in 1914 and early 1915. It is stories such as these that Richard Merry recounts in this new book. Merry, who lives in London but spends his summers conducting tours in the Argonne, became interested in the forest when he obtained letters, photographs, and other documents from his great-uncle Robert Merry, who had served as a member of the French Foreign Legion there. In writing about the goal for his book, Richard Merry states:

For keen students of military history in the Argonne in the First World War, this book offers no new or original material… Here I hope you will find for the first time in English a continuous narrative from before, during and after the first world war, with many eyewitness accounts from all the protagonists over the four-year campaign [p. 1]. 

One of the Helpful Maps from the Book

Murray and Anderson recognized the opportunity the war presented, even though the army barred them from medical practice despite the shortage of everything caused by the war. The pair, along with a team of nurses and support staff, went off to Paris to set up a hospital on their own in what came to be known as Claridge’s, a luxury hotel but a most inappropriate building for a hospital.

Merry weaves letters from his great-uncle into his narrative of the early fighting in the forest, and we also learn about the Italian regiment in the French Foreign Legion as well as the German troops involved. Throughout the rest of the section covering the war years the author includes such well-known men as Erwin Rommel, Charles Whittlesey, and Alvin York. Lesser-known people, such as Nicole Mangin-Girard, a pioneer woman doctor in the French Army, and Sister Gabrielle Rosnet, who remained behind to take care of French and German soldiers in a local hospital, make their heroic appearance in subsequent pages. 

American Stretcher Party in the Argonne Forest, 1918

The author devotes a substantial portion of his narrative to postwar activities in the Argonne, including the massive chores of finding and reburying the dead and the general cleaning up of four years of the detritus of war. One of Merry’s reasons for writing the book was to explain the evolution of the disposition of the war dead in France. The handling of the dead is not a topic that is normally discussed or studied, beyond initial battlefield burial, but Merry does a fine job of discussing the decisions of the combatant countries regarding their war dead. Exhuming and removing bodies from France could be done only with French government permission, and that permission was not initially forthcoming.

Even the establishment of large cemeteries was an involved process. Such considerations as the location of concentration cemeteries and the design and physical layout of the grounds and monuments had to be addressed. Many French citizens felt that ossuaries for fallen soldiers would be more appropriate, and they would take up less precious land, too. Eventually the French government allowed removal of bodies from temporary cemeteries and shipment to permanent places of rest within or outside of France. Merry describes what then happened:

Exactly what the French government had wanted to avoid when they forbade the repatriation of the dead in 1919 began to happen in 1921. The country became a ghoulish web of the dead being transported across the country. Bodies were heading to the USA, bodies of Frenchman were being taken home and now bodies of French dead from overseas started arriving home. After a delay due to Italian legislation forbidding the repatriation of war dead, they too begin to go home from their consolidated cemeteries [p. 173].

What makes this book particularly worth reading are the ongoing descriptions of the home front: London’s social life and suffering, rationing, feelings of desperation, fatigue, German bombing, the women casualties in France, bacterial infections, and the onslaught of the flu that possibly killed six times as many as the Great War did. These are aspects of the Great War rarely discussed in other texts.

The author discusses the humongous chore of clearing the Argonne Forest of four years of war waste. The process was unpleasant and fraught with hazards. Even the very wood in the forest was polluted, ruined by poison gas, bullets, and shrapnel. In the years after the war, officials cut down hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of wood and sold it to locals for use as firewood; its use for cooking was deemed too dangerous. Merry also devotes a chapter to the forest during World War II, and his final chapter is a travel guide for readers who wish to visit the region.

Merry includes several maps to help orient the reader. Forty photographs, including a few wonderful portraits, enhance the text. The book’s lack of end notes will prove frustrating to some readers, but Merry’s two-page bibliography should be helpful to those who want to read more. I recommend this book to those who wish to get a fresh approach about what took place in the Argonne Forest during the war and immediately afterwards and for those who are curious about the evolution of the care of war dead in France.

Peter L. Belmonte


  1. I'm about to order this book. Your detailed review has made me do it!

  2. Always a treat to read one of your reviews. Thanks for this one. Cheers

  3. For a historical assessment of the U S military and the "massive chores of finding and reburying the dead" see:
    Drew Gilpin Faust
    This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
    Vintage, 2009

  4. This is a well-written book, easy to read, and packed with interesting information and insights. It will be with me the next time I am in the Argonne. However, the lack of end notes or citations supporting many statements is very frustrating to those of us interested in pursuing the details.

  5. Thanks for the kind words about the review. John, I agree that the lack of endnotes is irritating. Frankly, I don't know why the publisher didn't insist on adding them.

  6. Passed the Argonne Bar and Liquor Store every day on my way to/from elementary school in the 40s-50s. My mother explained...