Cadets Visit Battlefields of the Great War

By Lt. Col. Charles Payne, U.S. Army (retired), deputy commandant for 3rd Battalion

This year, the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets (VTCC) Global Scholars Program added a second program of study to explore the battlefields of World War I. Five cadets traveled to France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and Germany in May to visit select locations following a semester of coursework.  

“I have done many things and learned a lot in the years I have spent in the VTCC, but this program has by far been one of the best experiences and will without a doubt stick with me for the rest of my life,” said Cadet Peter Szwerc ’19, a mathematics major in Navy ROTC.

“The program as a whole was an unforgettable experience that I will strive to learn from for the rest of my life. It showed me the importance of being a global leader, and it provided me the foundation that I will need to truly become one,” said Cadet Elijah Moats ’19, a marketing major in Air Force ROTC.

Inspired by and modeled on the Normandy course devised by Lt. Col. Don Russell, deputy commandant for the Citizen-Leader Track program, Lt. Col. Charles Payne, deputy commandant for 3rd Battalion, designed the World War I program as another avenue of professional growth for cadets, while further elevating the Corps’ prestige in the academic arena.

Cadets walk the restored trench system at Massignes, France.
Cadets walk the restored trench system at Massignes, France. This trenchline changed hands three times during the war. Cadets were most impressed by what they saw at Massignes.

Similar to the Normandy program now entering its fourth year, the World War I study consisted of a three-credit hour course taught during the spring 2018 semester by Payne. Classroom work provides cadets with an overview of the war, to include all theaters and major participants, while focusing on the military systems of each major power. 

Particular discussion involved the cataclysmic battles of Verdun and the Somme, and a lengthy summary of the creation, development, training, and introduction to the Western Front of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Cadets also analyzed the battles of Belleau Wood and Chateau-Thierry, the AEF’s first large-scale deployments into combat against German forces. 

We placed special emphasis on the first-time employment of a wholly independent American army on foreign soil during the AEF offensives in the St. Mihiel Campaign and the Meuse-Argonne Campaign — the largest offensive campaign undertaken by the U.S. Army in its history to date. 

Sgt. Maj. David Combs, the 3rd Battalion senior enlisted advisor, joined in this effort and traveled with the class. In addition to Szwerc and Moats, the participating cadets were Cadet Katherine Hoeft ‘20, Austin Kassman ’20, and Eryn Wolfe ’20. 

The group traveled for eight days. Stops included the Beaumont-Hamel battlefield in the Somme region, the Great War Museum in Meaux, Chateau-Thierry, Belleau Wood, the St. Mihiel Salient, the Meuse-Argonne region, and Verdun. 

The group joined 6,000 attendees at the annual commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood. This ceremony is held each year at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery to mark Memorial Day while commemorating the Belleau Wood battle and the AEF’s operations in the Aisne-Marne region during World War I. 

Cadets walk toward the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme
The first site visit during the World War I trip was to the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, a memorial to 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battles of the Somme of the First World War between 1915 and 1918, with no known grave.

Among the destinations that the cadets found particularly riveting was a restored trench line just outside the small French village of Massignes. These trenches are truly off the proverbial beaten path and unknown by many tourists.

These frontline trenches  provide an authentic look at the realities of World War I warfare. The cadets spent considerable time walking through them, exploring dugouts, bunkers, command posts, and saps, as well as viewing countless artifacts found. 

For two days, the group was fortunate to have a local tour guide, Florence La Mousse, a French citizen who is both an employee of the American Battle Monuments Commission and a licensed historical tour guide. 

La Mousse is an absolute goldmine in terms of knowledge. She guided cadets as they visited the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne battlefields, providing immense commentary and taking the cadets to some places most tourists never see. 

One such visit was to Troyon Fort, a key French installation defending the Woëvre Plain at the beginning of the war. Demolished by German artillery in September 1914, the fort is private property today and cannot be visited without special provisions.

One of the most meaningful events of the trip occurred one afternoon as the group was heading back to the hotel. La Mousse had quietly arranged to have the cadets lower the flags at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial outside the town of Thiaucourt. As the van pulled into the cemetery at the end of a long day, just as it was closing, we announced to the group their mission: “You will fold both flags in the cemetery, and do so with precision and due solemnity.” Observed and coached by Combs, the cadets proceeded to do just that. 

“I learned from my family members — after posting a few pictures of the trip to social media — that when I had the honor of lowering the flag at the St. Mihiel American Cemetery and Memorial, I was lowering the flag at the same cemetery where my great-grandfather is buried,” Hoeft said. 

The group visits a German trenchline in the St. Mihiel Salient.
Lt. Col. Charles Payne discusses a machine gun position located in a German trenchline in the St. Mihiel Salient.

After a week on the road, the group headed to Trier, Germany, for a different cultural experience and a day of rest and recreation. Established by the Romans in the 1st century BC and considered the oldest city in Germany, Trier has several extant Roman ruins, including a gladiatorial arena. 

The World War I course was a terrific success in every regard. The overseas portion was the capstone event that allowed the cadets to see and experience the reality of the war in a way that was tangible, personal, and sobering. All came away more mature, more committed to their development as leaders, and prouder as Americans. 

“I think that this changed the way that I think of leadership and how I plan to conduct myself as a leader because it put a whole new level of responsibility on the meaning of serving my country,” Wolfe said.

“Seeing our flag flown in a foreign country, being celebrated for our actions and remembered for our countrymen lost made me realize that this country is special, this country is appreciated, and this country has a lot of responsibility,” she said.

“I know that I will most likely never run the United States, but it made me realize that as a representative of the leadership of the U.S. armed forces, I hold some of that responsibility,” Wolfe said. “I am in part responsible for making sure that our country remains respected, appreciated, useful, and so is everyone that graduates from Virginia Tech and the Corps of Cadets.” 

The group stands in front of the World War I Chateau-Thierry American Monument.
The group stands in front of the World War I Chateau-Thierry American Monument. It is on a hill 2 miles west of Chateau-Thierry, France, and commands a wide view of the valley of the Marne River. It commemorates the sacrifices and achievements of the Americans and French before and during the Aisne-Marne and Oise-Aisne offensives.