Remnants of American history from a World War I battle that ended 94 years ago are going on exhibit Saturday, beginning in war hero Alvin C. York’s home state of Tennessee and eventually travelling to other states and on to France.
After years of research to verify the battle site where York and his men overtook a German stronghold outside Châtel Chéhéry, France, a Tennessee Tech University historian and a Middle Tennessee State University geographer led a team in 2006 to find the battlefield and begin recovering more than 1,400 artifacts of war.
“Americans are woefully ignorant of the First World War, and as we approach the 100th anniversary of the conflict, the exhibit will, hopefully, begin to create new interest in the conflict,” said Michael Birdwell, TTU associate history professor.
“While involved in just over eight months of fighting in 1918, more than twice as many Americans died than in 10 years in Vietnam. It is altogether fitting that this exhibit is opening on the eve of Veterans' Day.”
Uncovered shell casings, gravesites and German and American artifacts strongly support that the site is indeed the battleground where York’s company killed 21 German soldiers and captured another 132 during an attack Oct. 8, 1918.
The most prized find for Birdwell is a U.S. Army collar disk, stamped 328 Infantry G.
“The collar disk connects us to the people who fought in this war, and assures us that we know where some of them rest,” said Birdwell. “Seeing these artifacts helps us walk in their shoes and tangibly experience history instead of just talking about it.”
One of those people that Tennesseans readily connect to is York. One of Tennessee’s most celebrated veterans and a native of Fentress County, York was one of 17 members of Company G of the 328th Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Division.
The 328th was sent to rescue nine companies from the 308th Infantry of the New York 77th Division, members of the Lost Battalion who were cut off from allied supply lines and surrounded by German troops.
The rescue effort took place during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, an allied assault on German lines and the last major battle of World War I.
After 47 days of fighting in the hillsides between the Argonne Forest and the Meuse River, near Châtel Chéhéry, France, York was promoted to sergeant and awarded the Medal of Honor, which details his actions on Oct. 8, 1918.
“After his platoon had suffered heavy casualties and three other non-commissioned offers had become casualties, Cpl. York assumed command,” according to the medal’s documentation. “Fearlessly leading seven men, he charged with great daring a machinegun nest which was pouring deadly and incessant fire upon his platoon. In this heroic feat, the machinegun nest was taken, together with 4 officers and 128 men and several guns.”
The battle raged until Nov. 11, 1918. York and seven Company G soldiers, all of whom are commemorated in the exhibit, went on to march about 200 prisoners of war more than six miles south to the brigade headquarters in Varennes.
The site of the Oct. 8 fight was under dispute for years, given that a stream in the area had been rerouted and scholars had differing opinions on the exact site.
In 2006, MTSU’s Tom Nolan used geographic information system technology to combine spatial information from French and German battle maps and maps annotated by York’s commanding officers, Col. G. Edward Buxton and Maj. E. C. B. Danforth, with written accounts by both German and American participants. The information was then superimposed upon the modern landscape to help the international research team focus their metal detection fieldwork.
“The first trip, we were in the field three days and found nothing. Then we realized our metal detectors were on different settings,” Birdwell said. “We were right on top of it.”
From 2006 to 2009, the team recovered hundreds of artifacts as well as the graves of the six members of the 328th who died in the fighting on Oct. 8. Pvt. William E. Wine is known to have died with a head wound. A helmet with a gunshot hole was uncovered by the research team and will be on exhibit. It is believed to be Wine’s helmet.
Other found artifacts are items discarded by German soldiers as they surrendered to U.S. forces, including gas masks and filters, bayonets, Mauser rifle bolts and fired German rifle rounds.
Spent Colt .45 rounds were found at the site as well. York is known to have had a pistol, and forensic testing by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation on the artifacts has concluded that at least one other American soldier carried a revolver. Pistols were not standard issue for non-commissioned officers during World War I, but most soldiers made sure they acquired one, Birdwell said.
“In the Footsteps of Sergeant York” will open Saturday at the Military Branch of the Tennessee State Museum, which is in the War Memorial Building on 6th Ave. in downtown Nashville. Admission is free.
Former TTU student and Southern Illinois University alumnus David Currey designed the exhibit panels, written by Nolan and Birdwell and commissioned by Dr. David McCoy and the Museum of the American Military Experience.
Birdwell, Nolan and Currey will talk about the exhibit and their research during a forum Saturday at 9:30 a.m. at Fort Negley, 1100 Fort Negley Blvd., Nashville. For directions and parking information, visit www.tnmuseum.org.