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France To Honor 'Les Sammies,' Uncle Sam's World War I Troops


A hundred years ago this month, American soldiers known as doughboys began arriving in France to fight in World War I. As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, all year long, France is going to be remembering Uncle Sam's troops.


ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Atlantic coast town of Saint-Nazaire celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of General Pershing's American Expeditionary Forces with jazz concerts, exhibits and fireworks. Saint-Nazaire was the largest port of embarkation for the more than 2 million American soldiers who would arrive in France between 1917 and '18. Jean-Pierre Verney is a World War I specialist.

JEAN-PIERRE VERNEY: (Through interpreter) The Allies were heavily counting on the fresh American troops because, by this point, there were more than a million dead in Europe.

BEARDSLEY: Verney says America's decision to enter the war wasn't easy. For starters, the U.S. was home to a large diaspora of German, Italian and Irish immigrants who weren't particularly inclined to help Britain or France. Verney says, in the end, German U-boat attacks on ships in the Atlantic, rumors of German atrocities and the enormous death toll in places like Verdun and the Somme swayed American public opinion.

A hundred years on, most Americans know more about the D-Day beaches than any World War I battlefields. But with their land still scarred by Western Front trenches, the French haven't forgotten World War I. Neither have the U.S. Marines.

JAMES HALL: When I was in boot camp was the first time we heard of the Battle of Belleau Wood.

BEARDSLEY: That's Marine Sgt. James Hall, who's currently serving at the U.S. embassy in Paris. He says the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood is part of Marine Corps lore.

HALL: The Germans gave us a nickname, teufel hunden, which translates roughly into devil dog. And it's because they say that we fought like hounds from hell.


BEARDSLEY: In the middle of villages and farmland about an hour's drive east of Paris, an immaculately groomed American cemetery hugs Belleau Wood. Retired Marine David White is standing silently between the white headstones.

DAVID WHITE: This is like the Mecca for the Marine Corps. It's where our devil dog - the nickname came from - was this battle. There was valor on top of valor on top of valor, saving each other, fighting for each other. It's a pretty moving place for sure.

BEARDSLEY: World War I historian Verney says the four-week Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918 was the Americans' first major engagement.

VERNEY: (Through interpreter) And to the general's surprise, the green American regiments were valorous and resisted. The Allied generals then realized the Americans could fight and be integrated into the frontlines.

BEARDSLEY: Against all odds, the Marines stopped the German advance at Belleau Wood. They paid a huge price and forged their reputation. Verney says the international press of the day was impassioned by the Marines and their battle.

GILLES LAGIN: (Laughter, speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: That passion continues today. Fifty-three-year-old French mechanic Gilles Lagin is giving a tour through Belleau Wood. He's been studying the American involvement here since he first visited as a 9-year-old boy.

LAGIN: Very hard fight - thick forest, a lot of machine gun nests, no water, no food, hot. The Marines wanted to prove to the world that they were able to fight against the Germans. And the Germans were very proud themselves not to let these young, crazy American soldiers going through Belleau Wood.

BEARDSLEY: This year on its national holiday, Bastille Day, France will honor the American doughboys, and U.S. Marines will march side by side with French soldiers down the Champs-Elysees. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.