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Traveling the Western Front
Traveling the Western Front
Stephen Skinner
Published by stephen
31 December 2003
Traveling the Western Front


One of 35 forts near Verdun, Fort de Souville was abandoned and open for the adventurous traveler (me). Crumbling and overgrown, "danger" and "keep out" signs were everywhere. I, of course, ignored them.

Inside Fort de Souville. The pitch black corridors ran deeper inside the mountain, further than I had the nerve or the time to go. Very spooky. Despite the brightness of the flash, the interior was very dark, making each step an adventure. Need a team of 3 or 4 brave hearts, heavily equipped with cameras and flashlights, for my next tour of Souville.

The "hospital" inside Fort Vaux. I was standing with my back to the wall, so believe me, there was nothing else to see. The upper level was supposed to be a mini-office for the doctor. Several hundred casualties during the battle for the fort... facilities for six wounded. The dead and dying lined the hallways to your left, just outside the hospital... and in an underground concrete fort, you can't bury them.

Probably the last thing half a dozen German soldiers ever saw... the church on the main street in the village of Murvaux. Frank Luke flew a few feet overhead on the way to his final landing.

Standing at the foot of the memorial on the west side of Murvaux, looking back on the D102 toward the village. Note the church steeple along the main road. Luke made his strafing run, then flew over the small houses on the left of the photo, and touched down a few yards o the left out of this picture. The Cote St. Germain is in the background on the far left.

Luke's memorial. The outline of the plaque still remains. The residents of the house beyond have kindly placed flowers at the base. The memorial is in desperate need of professional maintenance, but the missing plaque is the most pressing item.

The field where Frank Luke earned his Medal of Honor, standing at the foot of the memorial and looking north across the D102. Luke came from the village (on the right, just out of the photo), touched down somewhere near the right edge of the photo and trundled to a stop somewhere near the two large trees in the center of the picture. The stream can be seen just beyond the far fence line, bordered by a row of dead, brown weeds. The original plaque on his memorial stated that Luke landed 700 yards north of the spot where this photo was taken... does that place it on the near or far side of the stream? The sheep grazing on the hillside will give you a size reference. The fence posts on the far side of the field are about chest high. The far side of the stream is on an incline at the foot of the Cote St. Germain... hey, you pilots... could you manage to land a SPAD XIII on that sort of incline? My guess is that he landed on the near side of the stream, which is also closer to the road and in better alignment with his presumed flight path.

My German machine gun nest. The only entrance was at the bottom left, behind two rows of barbed wire. Notice how the right side machine gun port was double cut to accommodate a better view of the road, which I was standing on when I took this photo.

Stephen and Alice Skinner near the Eiffel Tower on the northwest side of Paris.

Just flew back from Paris on Sat night [31 October 1998], and here's the report you guys requested from my trip to the Western Front. Tell me what you think!

Day 1. Flew into Brussels. Tired. Full flight. Drove south to Waterloo battlefield 'cause it was too close to pass up. Amazing. Should have spent more time there. Wonderful sites and easily toured by a guidebook. Drove to Arras and spent night in 16th century bed and breakfast at Duisans.

Day 2. Izel le Hameau airfield, Filescamp Farm. Wow! "No Parachute" fans, arise! Drove along the sunken lane just southeast of Izel and found airfield and farm without the slightest difficulty. Miserable weather; farmers hard at work. Very kind and allowed us to walk the farm unescorted as long as we liked. Took special joy in lining up old photos from the war. Found the old 60 Squadron tennis court site, the orchard, and the tree lined driveway, virtually unchanged during the last 8 decades. Albert Ball, Billy Bishop and A G Lee all flew from here. Field was too muddy to walk, but I stood in the rain for 10 minutes staring across the old airstrip reliving the war in my mind. Got back in car and drove into Izel, which housed the far end of the same airfield. Went to the town cemetery, where Ferrie, Ballantyne and Armitage of 46 Squadron are still buried. If you have a copy of "No Parachute," take it with you, look up the dates on the tombstones, then look up the corresponding entries in A G Lee's letters and you'll read the whole story. Lee helped bury two of them. Still raining, and struggled to keep the water off my autographed copy. So close to history you could almost touch it. Drove to Arras to tour underground tunnel system that held 25,000 British troops during war, dug by Romans a thousand years ago. Driving past Loippy, found a German bunker/MG nest in a farmers field in the middle of nowhere. Couldn't resist. Through two barbed wire fences and inside, wife yelling at me the whole time. Dark and wet. Downright scary. Every footstep echoed. Size of an average house with a flat top. Angles of attack on the nearby road and field were murderous... any attack would be quite literally suicide. Big holes in the floor were evidence of a lower level, filled to the ceiling with water. What would happen to me, by myself deep inside, if the floor gave way? Maybe Alice was right. Came back out... but what an experience. Back to Duisans for night.

Day 3. Met the lovely and talented Stephanie Renner at our hotel, but was too sick to do much in the morning. Flu bug. In the afternoon, Steph, my wife Alice and I all drove to Vaux sur Somme and retraced what is now known simply as "The Chase." Drove along the Somme canal, through Hamel and Vaux, past the church steeple that nearly saved everyone else the trouble of taking out Manfred von Richthofen, up the ridge and stopped at the brickworks. A somber crash site without so much as a marker. Steady drizzle again, so too muddy to get out. Not that it mattered. The Rusty Baron died 50 yards in front of our rental car. Then drove to Verdun, still sick as a dog, to take in the memorial/museum set up in the tunnel system below the city. In the souvenir shop, bought an original '17 edition of the Croix de Guerre for $20 US. On my mantle now, beside my autographed photo from Doug Campbell. Heh, heh.

Day 4. Feeling a little better. Went to Ft. Vaux, but the electricity was out. Okay, fine. We go to Douamont instead. Dark, damp and leaking water profusely, the fort is in much the same shape as 1916. Appalling conditions for any animal, let alone human being. Footsteps echo for a hundred yards down the corridor... what would a gunshot sound like... or a 40 mm shell? Would surely cause deafness and possibly insanity. Grisly tombs where German soldiers were crushed by a chance artillery shot. Lavatories designed for 600 men overflowed by several thousand. Toured the Verdun memorial, tromped through a communications trench at dusk with Stephanie, and wandered through what was once the village of Fleury, annihilated by the battle and never rebuilt. Drove to Luxembourg for a late night pizza, regretfully parted company with Stephanie, and turned in for the night.

Day 5. Drove to the microscopic town of Murvaux. The village is much the same as that fateful day in Sept of '18. Entering from the east (if memory serves) we followed Frank Luke's flight path along the Cote St. Germain, beyond which he'd flamed three more balloons. His fight with the Fokker D.VIIs took place a mile or two over our left shoulder. Wounded, he flew a couple hundred feet over our rental car and mowed down half a dozen German troops in front of the church, which is smack in the center of town, on the left side of the road as you follow Luke's path. On the west side of Murvaux was the landing site. Unmistakable and untouched for 80 years. Still a farmer's field. The movie will have to find a way to hide the 3 new homes built on that side of the village, but everything else is unchanged... even the barns and fences. Standing at the plaqueless roadside marker, I got out of the car and stood in the rain - again - playing out both scenarios in my mind, and taking pictures of everything that caught my eye. The town is so small and the singular road so unmistakable that it takes little imagination to see what took place. With or without a shootout, Luke's last fight was a feat which dwarfs even MvR's superhuman landing effort in his final seconds. Three balloons, possibly two Fokkers, the strafing run and the landing with or without a shootout... the Congressional Medal of Honor was never more deserved, and it all happened a few yards from where the rain was soaking me to the bone. EVERYONE should go here at least once. Drove to Dun sur Meuse and saw the American cemetery (another must site for every American), a nearby German cemetery, and a review of the battlegrounds. Lunched at a small restaurant at Dun where the owner kept telling us what an ugly language our English was and how beautiful his French is. Of course, without we crude Americans he'd be speaking German, but that never occurred to him. Nice guy but a little overbearing. Drove to Neidersteinbach for the night, high in the Vosges mountains near the German border.

Day 6. Drove to two castles. The Fleckenstein castle in France, where my wife and I literally had the entire castle to explore without another soul on the property. So alone it was spooky. And the Berwartstein castle in Germany, still inhabited and with a breathtaking view of the mountain range.

Day 7. Back to Verdun. Electricity was fixed at Vaux, and we were delighted with the tour. Much better than Douamont, and more of a museum atmosphere. Detailed descriptions of the hand to hand fighting within the fort itself in June of '16. Put this one on your list. A sacred sight for the French, and for good reason.

Day 8-10. Paris and Versailles. The celebrated palace of Versailles was a grotesque display of ego by Louis XIV, built by the earnings he raped from the people he was supposed to be serving. One room like this would be beautiful; three rooms of it sort of nice; a small city of it becomes meaningless. See this site for the artistic value, but be prepared to throw up your lunch when you realize what European monarchs did to their "subjects" to pay for endless monuments to their own greatness. Paris was gorgeous for a visitor, but I'd never move there and become one of the people who have to pay for it all. Walking along the Seine near the foot of the Eiffel Tower scores big points with the Mrs. The food is excellent and, similar to big American cities, the average person is nice and there is an occasional jerk. Still in love with Europe. Still in love with the history of WWI... now more than ever. Next trip, 3 years. Stay tuned.

By Balloon_Buster on 21 February 2006, 08:52 AM
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Fascinating! Thanks for sharing!
By stephen on 2 March 2006, 05:51 PM
Glad you enjoyed it. It was a wonderful trip and I've been back four times since to research Frank Luke... and I just love the country. Gorgeous.
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