TTU historian teams with MTSU geographer to discover site of Sgt. York's World War I heroics

A Tennessee Tech University historian and a Middle Tennessee State University geographer working together may have discovered the site in France where Sgt. Alvin C. York earned his reputation as America’s greatest World War I hero.

TTU’s Michael Birdwell and MTSU’s Tom Nolan think they have the artifacts to prove it — including 12 of 15 rounds from a Lee Enfield Model 17 rifle believed to have been fired by the Tennessee war hero when his marksmanship killed 25 German enemy troops and helped him capture 132 more in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne.

“The exact location of York’s engagement has been in dispute since shortly after the incident happened, but we found some pretty specific artifacts to link York to the site,” Birdwell said. “We’re hoping that a further analysis of these artifacts will reinforce that connection.”

He and Nolan pinpointed the site, which is located near the French village of Chatel-Chehery, by applying global positioning technology to coordinates from a series of historical maps and by considering locations described in documents from the time.

Another historian only a few years ago believed he had found the site, but Birdwell’s and Nolan’s GPS application demonstrated that the previous researcher’s accuracy was off by about a half-mile.

York, a native of Pall Mall, Tenn., and his Company G of the 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, had been commanded on the morning of Oct. 8, 1918, to intercept a Decauville railroad supplying the Germans. The 17 American troops, however, encountered four German soldiers and pursued them beyond enemy lines, engaging a much larger group of enemy troops.

“As the sharpshooter of Company G, it became York’s responsibility to silence a German machine gun nest on a hill above him, and by his own account, he was firing toward the west side of a stream that flowed through the area,” Birdwell said.

“It would have been hard to determine the exact location without using GPS and spatial positioning software, though,” he continued. “That’s because the area in question involves two different streams running between the valleys of three different hills.”

But even with technology and York’s own description to guide them, finding the location still didn’t prove that simple. Birdwell and Nolan excavated for two days on the west side of the stream before learning that heavy logging in the area had altered the stream’s flow from it’s original course.

“We began excavating on what’s now the east side of the stream and started uncovering some of the things we were hoping to find,” Birdwell said.

In addition to the spent 30.06 rifle rounds believed to have been fired by York, some of the other artifacts that were unearthed include a box of live grenades, a German mess kit, 162 rounds from German heavy machine guns and 28 shell craters.

The next step, Birdwell said, is to query the Tennessee State Museum and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation for permission to compare the 12 rifle rounds found during the recent French excavation with ones actually fired from York’s rifle.

In the meantime, the artifacts will be presented to members of York’s family and put on display at the World War I hero’s home in Pall Mall. “York’s brass will be coming home to Pall Mall where everyone can see it,” Birdwell said.

The excavation was captured on video by Nashville filmmaker David Currey, who will be producing a documentary from the footage.

Birdwell is an associate professor of history at TTU and the curator of York’s personal papers and documents. Nolan is director of the Laboratory for Spatial Technology at MTSU.