By: Laurie Button
In spite of ample photographic evidence—it’s hard to believe we were actually there. Standing in a castle built in the 1600s where Louis the XIV once slept, I was able to look out the window and gaze at the rolling French landscape that frames the village of Louppy-sur-Loison. It may have been November, but the trees were still covered with muted orange, yellow, and red leaves. Gentle rain had been falling the entire day and the moisture seemed to energize the bright green tones of the grass. Joel pointed toward a place in the field a few hundred yards in front of us.
“They think that’s where Wave fell.”
Walter Wave Miguel died helping to liberate Louppy on Nov. 10, 1918 and we had ventured there one hundred years to the day after his death to pay homage. Wave was killed alongside five other soldiers when a shell exploded near them. It was the day before the armistice was signed that ended the fighting of World War I.
So, how are Wave and I connected? I’ve written about him several times before, so I won’t bog you down with details. Let’s just say our relationship isn’t based upon genealogy but instead, simply by chance. In 1990 a fledgling writer’s route to work took her past a small cemetery in Arnolds Park, Iowa. Her imagination was captured by a white cross with a military helmet mounted on its top. A woman with insatiable curiosity, finally, one day she stopped to investigate. That aspiring writer was me and that day would alter the path my life would take from that day forward.
During a difficult time in life, Wave’s gravesite became my safe haven. It was a place of peace and solitude and being there gave me strength. Plus, it was a given that he didn’t criticize any of the decisions I was about to make. All that aside, and as illogical as it may be, I believe he listened.
Almost thirty years later, resources available on the Internet and through the National Archives have allowed me to assemble the pieces of Wave’s life and his military service. Henry and Nellie Miguel had four sons; three of them fought on the battlefields of France. Two returned home safely. Their youngest son was also in the Army, but the war ended before he was sent overseas. Too old to enlist, his father wanted to do his part and traveled to Seattle to help build ships for the war effort.
In January when I began making plans to be at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery to commemorate the Centenary, it was even more important that we be in Louppy-sur-Loison on Nov. 10th, the day Wave died. In the spring I found an email address for the village’s mayor and wrote him explaining our desire to visit. I also asked if they planned to have any Armistice Day ceremonies. He didn’t respond. When we finally met three weeks ago, Mayor Chatton admitted he’d believed my message was “fake news.” After all, why would a strange American woman want to visit their tiny village? He thought my inquiry must have been leading up to some sort of an Internet scam.
Undeterred, I wrote the mayor again last August. This time I also attempted to contact a man named Antoine Callot who I’d seen giving historic tours in videos on Louppy’s Facebook page. A few days later they both replied.
In the weeks that followed, Mayor Challot and Antoine began planning a very special commemoration honoring the Americans who died there Nov. 10, 1918. I learned that only 38 of the village’s 300 residents at the time remained during the four years the Germans occupied Louppy. Those that were allowed to stay were elderly or had some sort of physical disability. Because of that, the people know very little about that period in their history. After our collaboration and with the help of many friends on the Facebook page Meuse-Argonne.com, we all now know much more. During our visit, Joel and I presented Antoine with a 50-page scrapbook containing all of my research and a number of photographs taken by the US Army Signal Corps. It’s our hope the book and the relationships we continue to foster will keep history alive for future generations.
As mentioned earlier, it was raining this year on Nov. 10th. That shouldn’t have been a surprise because the weather in Louppy was much the same 100 years ago. Due to stubborn drizzle, the ceremony was moved into the church and there were 230 people crowded into the pews. We should note the population of the village is currently just 131. There was a piper, a drummer, a bugler, reenactors in uniform, and more flagbearers than I could count. Among the speakers were dignitaries from other towns and organizations in the region, as well as a Dutch ambassador, and an Admiral who was the former head of the French Navy. In addition, there were eight other Americans seated in places of honor at the front of the church, including our dear friend Bob Higley from Estes Park. Our town’s mayor, Todd Jirsa, sent a special message I read during the program. Finally, a beautiful plaque was unveiled listing the Americans who died liberating the area. In a very special moment, the mayor invited me to read their names along with him.
After the ceremony there was a procession to the castle where its owners Antoine de Roffignac and his wife, Isabelle, hosted an unbelievable champagne luncheon. The greetings we received were so warm and heartfelt, Joel and I know we’ve found a new extended family in France. It was truly overwhelming. Most in our nation may have forgotten WWI, but the French have not.
Later we were treated with private tours of the village’s historic first church and the castle itself. Then it was time for a few more glasses of champagne and more hors d'oeuvres. Joel became the designated driver and I must say he masterfully navigated all of the roundabouts we encountered on the return trip to Verdun.
The day before the ceremony we were blessed to have an American guide—Randy Gaulke—help Joel, Bob, and me retrace the path Wave’s unit took during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. We walked in his footsteps. As a surprise, Randy ended the day at the church in Louppy. He’d scouted out the location the day before and knew people were inside preparing for the ceremony. I will never, ever forget the look on Mayor Chatton’s face when he saw four strangers walk into the church. When we announced ourselves, a smile exploded on his face and he began patting his chest as if he was having heart palpitations. Fortunately, it was simply excitement. I will treasure that moment forever.
In conclusion, perhaps Antoine Collot offered the most poignant statement about the experience we all shared. In an email several days after the ceremony he wrote: “Who would have thought that Walter, with your help, could have gathered so many people 100 years after his death. I think we could not give him a better homage.”
So, what do I do now? It would seem I’ve come full circle when it comes to my relationship with Wave. Not so. I’m currently awaiting the burial records of two soldiers I believe may have been with him when he died and buried in the graves next to his. If that proves to be true, there are still three others I need to identify. And there were others who died in Remoiville, Brandeville, Jametz and other nearby villages. I won’t stop the research until I’ve identified and honored as many of those soldiers as is humanly possible. They all have stories that need to be heard and I intend to do everything in my power to tell them.
There is so much more I want to share with you. Pease join us from 5 to 6:30 p.m. Monday, Dec. 3rd at the Estes Valley Library as we talk much more about our entire journey and what it was like to be an American doughboy in WWI. Visit the library’s website at estesvalleylibrary.org to register. As part of the program, participants will be provided with copies of the WWI classic All Quiet on the Western Front.