By Attila Szalay-Berzeviczy
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
After 105 years, the remains of an American Doughboy were finally given a dignified and honored burial.
Although the first troops of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) arrived in France in June 1917, it was not until 28 May 1918 that U.S. units engaged in a major clash with the Germans at Cantigny. By this time, nearly one million American soldiers were preparing at the Western Front to join the fighting, with 10,000 more arriving every day.
The next major American action in the Great War came when the Germans reached the River Marne. On 31 May, General John Pershing, commander of the AEF ordered the 3rd U.S. Division to Château-Thierry. Having been checked here by the Americans, the Germans shifted their forces a few miles to the west, to Belleau Wood in order to seek a breakthrough there. On 6 June 1918, after both sides having sustained heavy casualties, the 2nd U.S. Division launched a large-scale counterattack and by 26 June managed to secure an important victory. By 17 July, the final German offensive thrust of the Great War ran out of steam and ground to a halt. The River Marne, which had dashed the Germans’ hope for a quick victory in 1914, thwarted all remaining hopes of winning the Great War four years later.
As the failure of Germany‘s final attempt at the Marne became obvious, the Allied leadership decided on a major counteroffensive. On 18 July, the Aisne-Marne Offensive was launched. At 4:35 a.m., the French 6th and 10th Armies, supported by the U.S. I and III Corps, attacked on the west and south side of the Aisne-Marne salient toward Soissons. The suddenness and fierceness of the Allied offensive caught the Germans by surprise, as they had no defensive works to take cover, having previously been on the offensive. The particularly ferocious battles fought at Tardenois, Soissonnais and Ourcq forced the Germans to fall back toward their former Aisne-Vesle lines and concede all previous territorial gains.
All in all, the powerful Franco-American advance eventually forced the German leadership to transfer troops from Flanders to the Aisne in order to hold the line. The Second Battle of the Marne became the turning point of the Great War on the Western Front in which the Germans had lost 168,000 soldiers against 95,000 French, 16,000 British, 12,000 Americans and 9,000 Italian casualties.
The U.S. Army’s 42nd Infantry Division – called the Rainbow Division because it contained outfits from across the country – led by future World War II hero General Douglas MacArthur was part of the Aisne-Marne Offensive and fought its first engagement between the Marne and the Aisne at the Ourcq River, less than a mile north of the small French village of Villers-sur-Fere. One of its units was the 165th Infantry Regiment that lost 264 men in the Battle of the Ourcq River.
Almost 104 years later, on 8 February 2022, a local undertaker Jean-Paul Feval was digging a fresh gravesite in the cemetery at Villers-sur-Fere, when he began to unearth human bones, along with American military artifacts from the First World War that included a helmet, bullets still in their pouches, a stretcher, a trench knife and a corroded, unreadable dog tag. In the next one year the French government military agency and U.S. military officials have worked together to identify the soldier. As this was not possible, the effort focused on verifying beyond a reasonable doubt that the remains found were, in fact, American. During the process it was determined that the unknown soldier was from the Rainbow Division’s 165th Infantry Regiment from New York, and was killed in July 1918 around the fight for Villers-sur-Fere.
After 105 years, on 7 June 2023, the remains of an American ‘doughboy’ were finally given a dignified and honored burial about 70 miles northeast of Paris, in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery where 6,012 of his comrades – 597 unknowns – already rest. With this, the American Battle Monuments Commission interred its first Great War unknown in 35 years. The ceremony also marked the first burial of an unknown U.S. soldier at this cemetery since 1932.
“Today, we gather here to honor the remains of an unknown, American, World War I soldier. We do not know his name, his age or his background. But even though we don’t know these details, we do know one thing for certain — this soldier was a hero.” Army Chief of Staff General James C. McConville told the crowd gathered at the reinterment ceremony. “We pay tribute to someone who gave the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield for his country for the cause of democracy and freedom. He was a hero because he embodied the values of courage and honor. He was a hero because he fought for a purpose that was greater than himself. ” McConville added before he pinned a Purple Heart to the soldier’s casket and joined a procession away from the memorial colonnade and to the soldier’s grave site which now reads: “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known But to God”. At the ceremony’s conclusion was a flyover by a World War I-era biplane.
The burial of the unknown ‘doughboy’ came two years after the United States marked the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery and as the American Battle Monuments Commission celebrates its centennial. The event was so significant, so important and so rare that I traveled to France just for this ceremony, in order to document it with my camera. The photos that I have taken here will also appear in the 2nd volume of my book “In the Centennial Footsteps of the Great War” (www.greatwarbook.com) that I am preparing in partnership with the Doughboy Foundation. It will come out on 11 November 2023 on the occasion of the 105th anniversary of the Armistice.