Military students make special visit to WWI sites during history trip to Western Europe

Published: 22 June 2023

By Ryan Klinker – Office of Communications & Public Engagement
via the Liberty University web site


Adjunct history professor and Army veteran Christian DeJohn shares about the history of Chateau-Thierry in France, the site of a fierce WWI battle. (Photo by Hannah Cortes)

During a nine-day military history trip last month to Western Europe led by Department of History Online Dean Dr. Carey Roberts, a group of Liberty University students and one professor (most of them veterans) took an impromptu visit to two landmarks of American World War I history — Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood — to observe their own unique connections to that era in history.

After seeing multiple sites in London, crossing the English Channel to walk the beaches of D-Day in Normandy, and exploring Paris, nine of the 22 members of the Liberty trip saw an opportunity to use an open morning on the itinerary to quickly board a train toward both locations. The trip came in the days leading up to Memorial Day, creating an additional level of reverence for the sites they visited, some of them being the final resting places of their brothers in arms.

Adjunct history professor and Army veteran Christian DeJohn spearheaded the excursion and said the idea became somewhat of an adventure in rural France.

“We had three Army vets, three Marines, and a few civilians, and we sort of went on this joint mission to see these places,” he said. “The Army and Marines teach each other a lot, and we have sort of a rivalry, but it was a really cool example of how this group of Marines and Army vets worked together.”

Chateau-Thierry is one of the first places that the United States Army faced German forces in WWI, and atop Hill 204 sits a temple-like memorial to the American and French forces that fought to save France. The 3rd Infantry Division and 28th Infantry Division were two of multiple U.S. units at the battle, and the 3rd earned the nickname of “The Rock of the Marne” in honor of their firm stand on the banks of the Marne River against the Germans’ seemingly relentless push. Two members of the Liberty group, DeJohn and student Jacob Johnson, have served in the 28th and 3rd, respectively.

Students approach the American Monument on Hill 204 at Chateau-Thierry (Photo by Christian DeJohn)

“When several other units were pushed backwards, parts of the 3rd Infantry Division held its ground, and I believe it was the French that gave the 3rd the nickname of ‘The Rock of the Marne,’” Johnson said. “Still today, that is a tremendous (point of pride) for the division. It was so awesome to stand there after having it become so ingrained in my head as a member of that same unit, just a little over 100 years later.”

The group then walked to the American Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, where 3,000 Americans are buried, and the “Devil Dog Fountain” near the site of the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood. For Marines, a visit to the fountain is considered a pilgrimage of sorts, and drinking its water is a tradition for those who make the journey. Its name comes from a moniker given to the Marines by the Germans at the time — “Teufelhunden”— and the term has become a point of pride among the Corps.

The fountain isn’t on a hill or part of a grand monument; it’s on private land owned by a local man who simply lets visiting Marines borrow the key to the gate surrounding the fountain. DeJohn recalled the caretaker quipping, “Only American veterans would go through all of this craziness and trouble to see this fountain.”

Clay Messick, a retired Marine studying political science with a minor in military history, said visiting the fountain was a valuable opportunity for him to participate in Marine tradition and engage with his family’s military past.

“Not many Marines ever get the opportunity to (visit Belleau Wood),” he said. “I have family members who served in World War II, mostly in the Pacific theater but some in the European theatre. As a veteran, as a Marine especially, our history is very important to us.”

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