It was April 6, 2017, one hundred years to the day since President Wilson and the US Congress declared war on Germany. We had driven from Paris into Northern France to the site of the infamous Hindenburg Line. On that beautiful early morning we stood on a knoll overlooking the landscape once occupied by soldiers and trenches from opposing armies. All evidence of the ‘Great War’ had disappeared, as we were surrounded by vast fields of wheat and mustard seed. We had begun our journey into the past.
|Dave Glaser and Pete Conroy with our 'Beautiful French Girl'|
We, are Dr. David Glaser who has taught history at many of the US military instillations around the world, including Viet Nam during the war there, for the University of Maryland. Neal Tallon whose father Daniel Tallon was a WWI veteran. Pete Conroy and myself for our grandfather Winslow B. Watson and his brother Mark S. Watson who were also WWI veterans. Our mission was to, as near as possible locate the areas where they had served in this conflict. There was one more WWI veteran whose path we were tracing, our old family friend Mr. William Shemin who just last year had the Silver Star that he was awarded for bravery under fire during his time in the trenches here, up graded to the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama. Neal, Pete and myself are Viet Nam War army vets from northern New York State and with the help of David, the historian and US Marine veteran are attempting to walk in the footsteps of these WWI soldiers.
|Pete, Neal and myself...the Viet Nam Vets...Paris, 2017.|
The Watson boys grew up in Plattsburgh, NY and were educated at Union College; Winslow in engineering and Mark in journalism. Daniel Tallon grew up on a farm in Beekmantown, a short distance north of Plattsburgh and left for the war when drafted in 1917. William Shemin enlisted in 1917. He lived at that time in New York City, however his later years were spent just north of Plattsburgh at Chazy Landings on the shores of Lake Champlain.
|Capt. Winslow B. Watson, 106th Inf. American 27th Division|
Driving north from Paris through areas of large farm fields we finally arrived in the town of Peronne which having been destroyed by shell fire during the war, had been rebuilt and is the present location of an excellent WWI museum. The Somme American Cemetery is located outside the nearby town of Bony where Americans who fell in battle over this large area are buried.
Capt. Winslow B. Watson fought with his company in the second Battle of the Somme with the 106th Infantry, American 27th Division. This battle continued from the fall of 1917 till the end of the war on November 11, 1918. Our group was standing on the knoll between Guillemont Farm and the former site of Quennemont Farm. A very striking French farm girl was out this early morning planting potatoes with a large piece of machinery. She was kind enough to make a call to verify the farm locations. During that battle, Capt. Winslow Watson led his troops on the attack of the nearly impregnable, Hindenburg Line which had to be breached to defeat the Germans who had been on the run since the Battle of St. Quenten Canal during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. These operations were difficult to envision while looking over these wide open well-kept fields today.
A direct order quoted here from the history of the 27th Division shows the seriousness of the operation.“Those were desperate days. It was truly victory or death. ‘If a gun team cannot remain here alive it will remain here dead, but in any case, it will remain here’ reads a paragraph of the order. ‘Should any man, through shell shock or other cause attempt to surrender, he will remain here dead’ reads another paragraph. Inferentially, he was to die by the hands of his sterner, stronger comrades, rather than be permitted to surrender’. Machine gun companies were aptly named ‘suicide squads’.
Winslow Watson the grandfather whom I never met drowned in Lake Champlain three years after he returned home. I never felt closer to him than on the knoll by Guillelmont Farm 100 years after this ferocious battle.
Sgt. William Shemin joined the U.S. Army on Oct. 2, 1917. His unit, G Company, 2nd Battalion, 47th Infantry, 4th Division of the American Expeditionary Forces fought here during the Second Battle of the Marne during the Spring & Summer of 1918. As near as we could determine, the actions that he undertook to be awarded the DSC took place near the spot where we now stood along the Vesle River just outside of the village of Bazoches.
Sgt. Shemin was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in France during early August of 1918. His citation reads as follows:
"The President of the United States of America, authorized by Act of Congress ... takes pleasure in presenting the Distinguished Service Cross to Sergeant William Shemin (ASN: 558173), United States Army, for extraordinary heroism ... on the Vesle River, near Bazoches, France, 7, 8, and 9 August 1918.
|Sgt. William Shemin's 4th Inf. Div. moument, Varennes, France|
"Sergeant Shemin, upon three different occasions, left cover and crossed an open space (of) 150 yards, exposed to heavy machine-gun and rifle fire, to rescue wounded.
"After officers and senior non-commissioned officers had become casualties, Sergeant Shemin took command of the platoon and displayed great initiative under fire until wounded on 9 August."
According to Capt. Rupert Purdon, a superior officer who recommended Sgt. Shemin for the Medal of Honor at that time, "he sprang from his position in the trench and dashed out in full sight of the Germans, who opened and maintained a furious burst of machine-gun and rifle fire all the while Sgt. Shemin was rescuing the wounded.”
|Trench system entry point, Varennes, France|
He took over the command of his platoon for the next three days, leading it until shrapnel wounds and a bullet to the back of his head forced him from the field. After a hospital stay of three months, he was discharged, partially deaf and lame.
It was determined by the US Army in 2016 that Sgt William Shemin had been denied the Medal of Honor because of his Jewish religion. Through the efforts of his daughter Elsie Shemin Roth President Obama upgraded the Distinguished Service Cross that Sgt. Shemin had been awarded in 1918 to the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sgt. William Shemin, 4th Infantry Division, American Expeditionary Forces received his award for his actions along the Velse River where today we saw swans swimming peacefully on the placid waters. During the WWI battle here in 1918, the Germans were on one side of the river and the Americans on the other.
On the present modern highway along the river was a monument dedicated to the 4th inf. Div. Sgt. Shemin’s unit, was in Varennes. The 2nd Battle of the Marne. The nearby Argonne American Cemetery, very well kept. The Star of David is on the crosses of the Jewish dead. There were pics of black soldiers, male and female, in the museum of this cemetery. Again, as with Mr. Shemin, minority and Jewish soldiers were not afforded the recognition they deserved for acts of bravery because of their ethnicity.
|Left to Right...Sgt. William Shemin, in the field w/the boys, WWI|
Cpl. Daniel Tallon served in the 82nd Division, 327 Regiment, the unit of Sgt. Alvin York, the most recognized veteran of WWI who received the Medal of Honor and was portrayed in the famous movie by Gary Cooper. The Sgt. York Trail which traces the location of York’s activity the day he was commended for bravery is well marked by a Boy Scout Troop from the US and is outside the town Chatel- Chehery. The trail was a couple of miles along the exact location of the actions that won York the Medal of Honor during the Meuse-Aragón Offensive.
|Pete Conroy and Dave Glaser at the Chateau of Chaumont-Bois.|
It was on October 8, 1918 that Corporal York and sixteen other soldiers were dispatched to take command of the Deconville Railroad behind Hill 223 in the Chatel-Chehery sector. These seventeen men mistakenly wound up behind enemy lines and after a brief but confusing firefight took the surrender of a superior German force. The Germans eventually realized the limitations of the American Force and turned their machine guns on them killing nine Americans. York was then ordered to silence the machine guns and was successful. In the end, the nine remaining American soldiers had captured 132 Germans. Cpl. Tallon was supplying the trenches and the front lines during the push against the Hindenburg Line while the Sgt. York episode was taking place. He returned to the US and the home farm in Beekmantown in the spring in 1919.
Maj. Mark S. Watson graduated from Plattsburgh High School in 1906, joined the army on the leadup to the American entry in the war in 1917, then trained with the US Calvary at Fr. Riley Kansas. He was stationed at General ‘Blackjack’ Pershing Headquarters in Chaumont France for his WWI Tour of Duty. The Gen. Pershing headquarters building today is a police academy. During his time in Chaumont, Mark Watson was billeted in the Couillard family home, the Chateau of Chaumont-le-Bois. He established a close friendship with that family, especially with the daughter, Marcelle Parde who worked with the French Resistance during World War II, was eventually arrested by the Gestapo in August of 1944 and shipped to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. On his return to Chaumont on September 30, 1944 as a reporter with the US Army, Maj. Watson indeed found that Marcelle Parde had been arrested by the Gestapo. It was later determined that she chose to remain with her secretary, also arrested and with the resistance, rather than take an offer to escape alone. Both disappeared during deportation in 1945 and were presumed dead.
|Cpl. Danial Tallon at war's end.|
As the war ended Mark Watson was appointed Officer in Charge in the Paris office of the Stars and Stripes, the soldier’s newspaper. He was with the Baltimore Sun for most of his professional life and became the assistant managing editor in 1920 eventually becoming the Sunday editor. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1945 for reporting from Europe during WWII and President Kennedy made him one of the first recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963. His first job in journalism was reporting for the Plattsburgh Press.
|Maj. Mark S. Watson at Pershing's Headqurters, Chaumont, France, 1918.|
We had a sense of completion upon leaving the battlefields of the Somme coming so close to the footsteps of our friend and ancestors. Perhaps too a sense of sadness as we left that hallowed ground knowing that after one hundred years their sacrifices have led only to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
A version of this article appeared in the Press Republican on 12/6/17.