TTU represented at French ceremony linking sister villages of historic Sgt. York sites

What does the Argonne Forest region of northern France have in common with Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau?

The two areas are linked by the World War I heroics of Sgt. Alvin C. York, a native of Fentress County’s Pall Mall community whose marksmanship helped him and his Company G of the 328th Infantry, 82nd Division, kill 25 German enemy troops and capture 132 more in the 1918 battle of Meuse-Argonne.

Tennessee Tech University historian Michael Birdwell and Middle Tennessee State University geographer Tom Nolan announced last year their finding of what they believe to be the exact location near the French village of Chatel-Chehery where those heroics took place.

And this past Saturday, Tennessee representatives — including TTU President Bob Bell — traveled to the region for a ceremony that recognizes Pall Mall and Chatel-Chehery as sister villages linked by that history.

“Both Pall Mall and Chatel-Chehery played crucial roles in forging the character of a hero they can proudly call their own,” says a proclamation approved by the Tennessee General Assembly and signed by Gov. Phil Bredesen and presented by Bell at the celebration.

“This was a great opportunity to build new relationships, new alliances and hopefully to cultivate new and continuing friendships,” Bell said. “It was also a chance to celebrate our similarities.
“From the perspective of the university, I’m very proud of the research and scholarship of Dr. Birdwell,” he continued.

According to an account by Jim Tanner in the Oct. 7 issue of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, many residents of the small village — whose population numbers fewer than 200 — turned out for the Saturday morning celebration, which was held on the steps of the town hall, in front of a stone monument and plaque honoring Sgt. York.

The scene was decorated with both French and American flags, and the ceremony included the national anthems of each country, said Tanner’s report.

“This is important [for our village] because we have found again the memory of Sgt. York,” Chatel-Chehery Mayor Roland Destenay said through an interpreter.

Because the village did not exist at the time of the 1918 battle, it wasn’t until about 20 years ago before an awareness of the region’s World War I history began to develop, Destenay said.

Following the ceremony, Tanner reports, residents and guests hiked into the forest, to the area where Birdwell and Nolan found evidence linking it to York, and the French villagers then hosted a luncheon for their guests to further celebrate its new sister village in Tennessee.

Until Birdwell and Nolan’s discovery, the exact location of the York battlefield site had been in dispute for nearly 90 years — since shortly after the engagement happened.

Some research groups still today claim different theories about where York actually stood on Oct. 8, 1918 — but Birdwell said he and Nolan “found some pretty specific artifacts to link York to the site.”

Their most conclusive piece of evidence to date, for instance, is a U.S. Army uniform collar disk from the 328 Infantry G, the company to which York belonged.

“The icing on the cake is that collar disk,” Birdwell said. “It came, more than likely, from one of the six American soldiers who was killed in that battle, and it makes it very clear that we are in the right location.”

For more information about Sgt. York, Birdwell and Nolan’s discovery and the recent celebration in France, log on to the following links from the Chattanooga Times Free Press:

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