Editor's note: The Times was fortunate to receive this article last week and is grateful for the workd done by its author. Prof. Hargreaves wrote that two of his sources - the inscription on the memorial in Apalachicola, unveiled in 1921, and the citation for the award of the Distinguished Service Cross, published under War Department general orders in 1923 – 1st Lt. Marks died on Oct. 12, 1918. Two other sources, Hargreaves wrote, say Marks died on Oct. 14, the date given in Marks’ military service record, typed on a pro-forma card printed after the war and stored in the Florida State Archives. The same date (October 14) is cited by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), which has administered the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery since 1934. The ABMC account of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the battle around the village of Cunel in which Marks died, raged intensely from Oct. 12 to 14, by when the German main line of defense was broken.
One hundred years ago, a World War I hero from Apalachicola died in one of the bloodiest battles ever fought by American troops. This week I travelled to the cemetery where he is buried in north-eastern France and laid flowers on his grave.
First Lieutenant Willoughby Ryan Marks, whose valor is commemorated in a memorial that stands opposite the Gibson Inn and the Franklin County Courthouse in Apalachicola, died while trying to rescue a wounded comrade. The climactic battle in which he fell in October 1918 in the Argonne region of France played a key role in helping to bring the war to an end with the defeat of Germany a few weeks later.
As a French professor at Florida State University, I often gazed on the memorial to Lt. Marks during weekends spent at the Gibson Inn, and wanted to know more about him. After retiring from FSU and moving to France, I conducted searches of U.S. military archives and other sources. These showed that Marks’ final resting place is in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe. Most of the 14,246 Americans buried there, including Marks, lost their lives during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918.
On my visit to the cemetery to commemorate the centenary of Mark’s death I was joined by a friend from FSU, Bill Cloonan, also a retired French professor. We took a wreath bearing the words “Remembered in Apalachicola, 2018” and a photograph of present-day Apalachicola showing the memorial to Marks erected in the town in 1921.
Like many other parts of north-eastern France, the wooded terrain of the Argonne region, close to the river Meuse, was laid waste during ferocious fighting on the Western Front, in which small hilltops became bitterly contested military objectives. Today, the gently undulating countryside, dotted with sleepy villages and small towns, is a haven of peace. In contrast with the rain-soaked mud with which the Western Front became synonymous, our visit was bathed in bright sunshine, highlighting row after row of white gravestones running up the beautifully landscaped hillside on which the U.S. cemetery stands. Lieutenant Marks’s grave lies half way up the slope. After laying our wreath on Marks’s grave, Bill and I observed a minute’s silence. Then we reflected on the chain of events that brought Marks to this final resting place.
Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1888, Marks grew up in Apalachicola, where his father Charles Willoughby Marks died in 1900. His mother, Annie Marks, was a founding member of the Philaco Woman’s Reading Club, which was to play an important role in helping to provide library facilities for Apalachicola’s inhabitants. In Nov. 1917, Marks was called into military service at the age of 29. After training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, and passing through Camp Greene, North Carolina, he shipped out to Europe from Camp Merritt, New Jersey, in April 1918.
A year earlier, when the United States entered World War I, the nation had a regular army of 130,000 men. Boosted by the draft, introduced in June 1917, the numbers in uniform were to rise to over four million by the time war ended in Nov. 1918. Among these, Marks, a first lieutenant in the 5th Division, was one of nearly a million Americans stationed in France in the summer of 1918. After four years of stalemate in which the European powers had inflicted millions of casualties upon each other, France and Britain desperately hoped that this new influx of manpower from the United States would at last enable them to defeat Germany.
In the early fall, Marks was among 600,000 American soldiers positioned in the Meuse-Argonne sector, where the last major attack of the war was launched on Sept. 26. The Meuse-Argonne offensive – the largest battle in which Americans had fought – raged until Nov. 11, when the retreating Germans signed the Armistice that ended the war, a date that has since then been commemorated in the annual observation of Veterans Day in the United States.
Marks was killed in action at the height of one of the fiercest phases of the battle in a wooded area off the road between the villages of Cunel and Brieulles within sight of another small village, Romagne, where the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery now stands. The citation for the Distinguished Service Cross awarded to Marks posthumously reads as follows:
While in command of Company C, 61st Infantry, he was severely wounded but continued to lead his company, refusing to be evacuated until the objective was reached and his lines reorganized. About to be evacuated, he learned that an officer of his battalion was mortally wounded and lying exposed to terrific enemy fire in front of the lines. With utter disregard for his own safety he rushed forward to rescue his fellow officer, and in the attempt was struck by enemy high-explosive shellfire and mortally wounded, dying a few minutes later. His undaunted courage and devotion to duty served as a splendid example of soldierly conduct to the men of his command.
Not far from the American Cemetery lies the hilltop village of Montfaucon, where a 200-feet high granite tower was erected to commemorate the six-week long Meuse-Argonne offensive. At the bottom of the tower, in a description of key phases of the offensive, we read: “The prolonged struggles for the strongly fortified German main line of defense on the heights near Brieulles, Cunel and Romagne were unsurpassed in fury but by October 14 this line had been broken.” It was during that crucial phase of the battle that Marks lost his life in an act of heroism that a century later is still remembered in the memorial to him in Apalachicola and in the cemetery of Meuse-Argonne in France.
Alec G. Hargreaves is the Emeritus Winthrop-King Professor of Transcultural French Studies at Florida State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org