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13 April 2024

French village finds messages from WWI-era US soldiers


A resident of the small French village of Charmoy discovered mysterious messages written in English on the walls of his house. After years of research, he discovered that the messages were written by US soldiers 100 years ago during World War I.

While stripping the paint from a chimney in a holiday home that he had just bought in the town of Charmoy in 2002, Olivier Claudon discovered a cryptic message: “Sergeant W.D. Whittet. 2275 Church Street. Grass Valley. California USA”.

“It was written in pencil on the stone. Seeing it gradually appear underneath the paint stripper and the spatula was really an amazing feeling,” he said.

As Claudon continued working on his house, he found other messages.

“At first I didn’t understand. I was right in thinking that these were from American soldiers because they wrote their ranks and their addresses in the United States,” he said. “…They spent some time here. But when and why? That was the mystery.”

Messages from the past

So Claudon decided to investigate further. No one in the village had any memory of the American soldiers and he could not find any relevant records online. Years passed before Claudon found his first clue.

“By searching online for the surname Whittet, I found a book about the history of the 27th Engineers, a regiment in the US Army. The document briefly mentions their stay in Charmoy in 1918.”

Claudon’s research traced the messages back to a century ago. He found out that the soldiers were part of the second battalion of a group of special forces called the Mining Regiment, which recruited its men from large US mining companies to undertake the treacherous task of building tunnels for combat.

The men arrived in France in September 1918 and spent a month in Charmoy before going to the front. The book about the 27th Engineers talks about their training and exercise sessions, Claudon said. “They set up in barns, storehouses and people’s houses. They also erected big tents for the officers’ mess, medical station and recreational space in which to write letters home or watch films on a projector.

“You can imagine the kind of impact it made, these men coming to a village with only 300 inhabitants. There were twice as many soldiers as there were villagers,” he said.

After their stay in Charmoy, the American soldiers fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.

“Their main job was to build bridges. As it turned out, they were often called to fortify them so that reinforcements could get through to help with the offensive. Often they had to do this work at night and within range of the German artillery – even while under bombardment,” explains Claudon. From the 27th Engineers, 20 men died and 28 were wounded.

A forgotten chapter

Olivier Claudon put his findings on a blog called Charmoy, un village à l’heure américaine (Charmoy, A Village at the time of the Americans).

In November this year, the village plans to hold an exhibition about this period in the village’s history.
“It will enable us to honour the time the 27th Engineers spent in our village, and to celebrate the centenary of the Armistice. It’s a forgotten episode that should go down in history. The 2nd battalion of the 27th Engineers has clearly been ignored by historians. They did not leave many traces behind.”

For Claudon, there’s still more to uncover. People have contacted him about another discovery on planks of wood near a storehouse, on which are written the names of soldiers from the 27th Engineers as well as a date: the October 13, 1918. Everything seems to fit.

“I’ve also been notified about some signatures in a third location, in another old farmhouse. I’ve got a lot of things to verify and check. Now we’re starting to talk a lot more about the American soldiers in the streets of Charmoy,” he added excitedly.