Fossils on the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield

August 16th, 2010

Cretaceous oysters in marly sediment near Baulny, northeastern France.

VIENNE LE CHATEAU, FRANCE–To my delight, while exploring the Meuse-Argonne area this morning, I found an exposure of marly Cretaceous sediments very near where my Grandfather’s tank brigade assembled for an attack at dawn on October 4, 1918. The sediment is poorly consolidated and saturated with water, as expected. Mud again — the same mud that must have been an annoyance and danger to those nervous tank crews that October morning.

The Cretaceous marl in a roadside outcrop near Baulny, France (N49.25672°, E5.01696°).

Some of the fossils from today cleaned up in the hotel room. (They must hate it when I do this.)

The fossils are small oysters, and they are there by the thousands. The only other species I saw were serpulid worm tubes attached to their upper valves. When found in place the oysters are articulated (both valves still in place). The facies is very similar to that of the Paleocene Clayton Formation we saw earlier this summer in Mississippi.

Could Rolland Snuffer, an 18-year-old corporal from Kansas, have imagined that 92 years later one of his grandsons would be collecting fossils in this war-ravaged place? I think he would have been very pleased. His experiences here must have been horrendous. He was the gunner/commander of a two-man FT-17 Renault tank in a unit which took heavy casualties during this action.

Corporal Rolland Snuffer was in Company C of the 345th Tank Battalion attached to the First Division. North is at the top. Map courtesy of Brad Posey.

The village of Fléville today (from N49.30578°, E4.96945°). The 345th Tank Battalion captured this town on October 4, 1918, but the infantry did not follow because of German fire from the west bank of the Aire River.

The village of Exermont then and now.

Corporal Rolland Snuffer in an undated family photograph.

There were over 117,000 American casualties, including 26,000 dead, in the Meuse-Argonne battle, with about the same number for the Germans and another 70,000 French dead and wounded. This was the most costly battle ever fought by Americans. Our losses were far less than those suffered by our European cousins, but we still shared with them the profound effects of this war on a generation. It is hard to imagine this peaceful French countryside convulsed by war, but then it happened again 22 years later. That must have been a bitter pill for the veteran Doughboys to swallow after they survived the War to End All Wars.

A book on the battle I highly recommend: To Conquer Hell by Edward G. Lengel (2008, Henry Holt and Company).

7 Responses to “Fossils on the Meuse-Argonne Battlefield”

  1. Steve Dornboson 16 Aug 2010 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for sharing this, Mark. Very interesting!

  2. sclaytonon 17 Aug 2010 at 6:15 am

    This could be separated into so many different stories — the battle itself; the grandson returning to where his grandfather fought; your journey across national and language barriers to get to this place; even the geological story that you hint at. And so, a good example of how all stories are interconnected, and how stories are arbitrary decisions about when to start, when to end, and what to look at.

  3. Greg Wileson 17 Aug 2010 at 9:09 am

    Well done – this brings together many thoughts – and provides a personal and geological context for this history that I have only known pieces of…

  4. Paul Ton 01 Oct 2010 at 6:09 pm

    Fantastic cousin Mark. Fantastic.

  5. […] had several posts in this blog on the geology of battlefields (Leningrad, the Meuse-Argonne, Vicksburg, Bear River, Brice’s Crossroads). These places are almost always beautiful: peaceful […]

  6. Steven Clayon 03 Jul 2013 at 10:32 am


    I hate to nitpick, but I beg to differ with your caption on the modern image of Fleville above. The 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, captured Fleville on 4 October 1918. I am not aware that there were any tanks near Fleville that day, though some were with the 18th Infantry in Exermont a few kilometers away. The 16th did not attack with, or in support of, tanks that day, nor at any other time during this phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. In fact, by capturing Fleville, the 16th Infantry was the only regiment in the entire First US Army to reach its final objective on 4 October, the first day of phase II of the Meuse-Argonne campaign. This is a well documented fact in various historical accounts.

    Steven E. Clay
    VP, 16th Infantry Regiment Association.

  7. Mark Wilsonon 03 Jul 2013 at 12:41 pm

    Hello Steven:

    Thank you so much for responding to this post. I always learn this way. I’m in the field right now and cannot check my sources, but clearly that caption needs to change. However, as for tanks at Fleville, what about this story I just copied from online?

    “In October 1918, the “Five of Hearts” was assigned to Company C, 344th Tank Battalion, supporting the 16th Infantry in the Fleville sector of the Meuse-Argonne. Overrunning the German lines, this tank was hit over 1300 times. One crew-man was killed and at least two others were injured. Due to the bravery of the crew, the tank broke through the German lines allowing members of the 16th Infantry to take advantage of the opening.”

    My caption must be fixed, but before I do I want to get the story correct. Maybe “Fleville sector” is too broad, but this account is at least connecting tanks and the 16th around Fleville. What do you think?

    You can email me, by the way, at if you’d rather communicate directly.

    Again, thanks for the information and the conversation.

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