Many of the delegates at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 sought relief from their demanding work and satisfied their curiosity about the Great War – the war they were charged with formally ending – with weekend trips to the battlefields of the Western Front.  Lloyd George made several such trips during the first half of 1919, seeming to enjoy both the physical activity and the idea of outings with his mistress.  Woodrow Wilson, initially reluctant, visited battlefields in both northern France and Belgium.  Those who accompanied Lloyd George and Wilson have left accounts of their trips.

A number of delegates, lesser lights, not only made many visits but also described them at some length in diaries or letters.  The battlefields, and by extension the battles, will be explored by following in the footsteps and seeing with the eyes of these visitors.  Two of the American experts in Paris, both historians, merit particular notice.  James Shotwell was the most rigorous and determined of all the tourists, visiting the entire front, from Switzerland to Belgium, between March and June, and recording his experiences in his diary.  Charles Seymour was busier in Paris for longer, stumbling through a Balkans maze, but he was able to undertake several trips and to describe them in long and lively letters to his wife’s parents.  One frequent visitor, not a delegate, was Margaret Hall, a 42-year-old Boston spinster and heiress.  Tremendously spirited and courageous, she went to work at the American Red Cross station at Châlons, east of Paris, in September 1918 and began to visit the battlefields the day after the armistice of 11 November 1918.  She possibly saw more than any other single person and wrote up her experiences in an informative and insightful memoir which has recently been published.

The Shotwell, Seymour and Hall accounts are marvellous books, rich in colour and detail, which readers are recommended to try to see.  The first two are out of print, but Margaret Higonnet’s memoir of Margaret Hall is recently published and still on sale.[1]

This is a study of battles fought by the French.  It is by no means complete, with the Champagne offensive of 1915 and the French role on the Somme in 1916 the most glaring omissions.  Nevertheless, it is hoped that some measure of compensation for the Anglo-centric focus that characterises most British accounts has been achieved.

The battlefields are presented in the following order.

  1. First Marne.
  2. Rheims.
  3. Verdun.
  4. Nivelle.
  5. Victory.

[1] James T. Shotwell, At the Paris Peace Conference (New York, 1937).  Charles Seymour, Letters from the Paris Peace Conference by Charles Seymour, edited by Harold B. Whiteman, Jr. (New Haven and London, 1965). Margaret R. Higonnet with Susan Solomon, eds., Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall (Boston, 2014).  Unfortunately, Margaret Hall did not act on her desire ride on a donkey along the entire length of the line of trenches from Switzerland to the sea.  Ibid., 139, 1 April 1919.