Even today French locals, other Europeans and Americans find themselves drawn to the Meuse-Argonne region of France. Once drawn there, many return time and again; often working on multi-year research or preservation projects. In this irregular interview series, the webmaster hopes to introduce readers to some of these individuals and their labors of love.
1) What is your name, nationality and occupation?
Mark D. Van Ells, American, Professor of History at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York, and the author of America and World War I: A Traveler’s Guide.
2) Which languages do you speak, and how fluently do you speak them?
Aside from English, I can speak a little German and even less French, but I try.
3) When was your first visit to the Meuse-Argonne?
My first visit was on November 11, 2012, while researching my WW1 guidebook. In fact, I was atop the Butte de Vauquois late that morning when I heard church bells ringing in the towns and villages below. It was 11:00am — the moment of the armistice. I found it a rather touching moment.
4) When did you really find yourself drawn to the Meuse-Argonne?
My interest in the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division is probably what first made me think seriously about the Meuse-Argonne region. I am a native of Wisconsin and much of the 32nd came from the Badger State. Indeed, my great-uncle Andrew Van Ells served in the division, but was killed in August 1918 before it got to the Meuse-Argonne.
5) What is your primary interest in the region?
Clearly, WW1 is my primary interest, but I also enjoy rural France.
6) Approximately how many times and/or how often do you visit the Meuse-Argonne?
I don’t get there nearly as often as I’d like, but I visit whenever I get the chance.
7) What do you do when you visit?
I visit the WW1 sites, of course, but I also simply enjoy the countryside. The small towns are picturesque, and a welcome change of pace from Paris and other large cities.
8) What research or preservation projects are you working on currently?
A colleague and I are working on a project to publish the WW1 postcard collection of a Doughboy from Pennsylvania. In addition to that, I’m exploring the possibility of another history-related travel guide, this one about the U.S. Home Front during WWII.
9) What research or preservation projects have you completed in the past?
Aside from my present teaching and writing, I worked at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum in Madison during the 1990s. At that time, the Doughboys were passing on and family members were donating lots of WW1 artifacts, letters, and other such items to the museum. The kinds of things that came out of the basements and attics of people’s homes never ceased to amaze me. I also ran the Wisconsin Veteran’s Oral History Program. Most of my interview subjects were WWII veterans, but there were also a few WW1 vets too.
Webmaster’s note: Of course, Mr. Van Ells’ 2015 book America and WW1: A Traveler’s Guide was also quite a project! The webmaster is reading it now, and will publish a book review in the very near future.
10) What is your favorite spot in the Meuse-Argonne, and why?
This may be a little outside the Meuse-Argonne area, but I think my favorite spot is the Henry Gunther memorial in the hills above Chaumont-devant-Damvillers. Gunther was a Doughboy from Baltimore, and served in the 79th Division. He was killed at 10:59 on November 11, 1918, and was the last American soldier killed in action in World War I.
11) History aside, what is your favorite thing to do in the Meuse-Argonne?
I enjoy the idyllic countryside — now delightfully peaceful.
12) Schedule permitting, would you consider being a tour guide for individuals or groups travelling to the sector?
13) How can readers contact you for assistance or for more details?
My website is markdvanells.com. I also have a Facebook page, and on it I post photos of my WW1 travels ever week or so. Feel free to “like” it.
14) Any other comments?
I’m glad that there are growing numbers of Americans interested in the WW1. It was a very important event in U.S. history, but we Americans seldom give it a second thought.