Sergeant Alvin York: a complex character
The story of Alvin York has caused intrigue over many years. His fight in the Argonne forest on 8 October 1918 lasted for only a very short time, but his fighting ability and coolness under fire elevated him to a category that exceeded anything he could ever have contemplated.
Despite his decorations, his rapid rise to fame and the promise of great fortunes, York remained the backwoodsman. His longing for his homeland and return to the simple way of life frustrated all those who wanted to power him headlong into a super hero category.
Alvin York turned his back on fame and fortune and returned to his beloved Pall Mall, Tennessee where he married Gracie Williams and settled down to raise a family.
The next twenty years brought York some trials and tribulations. He had problems with mortgaging his farm, with his idea for schools, and he eventually capitulated to Jesse Lasky’s formidable prssure to allow his story to become the movie, starring Gary Cooper: ‘Sergeant York.’
The result was the only movie ever made on the York story. It was to create some criticism. The seven survivors of the patrol totally disagreed with the production of the movie, even suggesting that York was not a hero but in fact ‘Yellow.’(1)
Alvin C. York was a complex character. He was semi-literate himself but he wanted to improve the education of children in Tennessee. He spent an inordinate amount of time on this project with varying degrees of success. The proceeds of the film went into the building of the Bible School at Pall Mall, but this closed after only one year and, by 1961, York was not only an invalid due to a stroke, but was also being pursued by the IRS for unpaid back tax linked to the movie production. (2)
The Argonne Forest, France
Let us cast our minds back however, to the birthplace of York’s famous encounter. It is now an idyllic picture of color and calm in the heart of the French countryside, the Argonne forest is massive and mystical. When the Project team was there in November 2006 the trees, already a mass of autumnal color, were starting to shed their leaves in preparation for winter. Mists shrouded the vistas in some last ditch attempt to retain York’s secret from prying eyes.
The ground was boggy underfoot and to walk on the leaves amongst the trees gave one the impression of treading on a trembling sea of foam carpet. All was silent save the distant chatter of the woodsmen’s chain saws as they went about their forest husbandry duties.
It was difficult to imagine what the scene would have been like on that October morning back in 1918.
The stutter of machine-guns, the sounds of the inferno of war, the cries of the dead and dying. The Angel of Death had swept over this ground and I tried to imagine the last thoughts of those men who had witnessed the beating of his wings, giving their lives in the faithful discharge of their soldierly duties far away from their American homeland.
You can read more about the The Offensive in the Meuse Argonne here.
So to today, when our team of expert historians retraced York's steps in the Argonne Forest in France, in order to discover the truth.
Why were we here? What were we trying to achieve? These are the questions that you will doubtless be asking yourselves.
The members of the Sergeant York Project Team were some of the finest in their fields in the world. You can read more about the Sergeant York historians here.
All necessary landowner permissions for the team to operate and dig had been obtained from Yves Defossé, the French Archaeologist who accompanied us on many occasions.
The team objective was to locate the site where Alvin York killed 21 German soldiers and captured 132 on October 8, 1918.
The Project Team sought to answer the following questions:
1. How can Geographical Information Science (GIS) be used to integrate history and archaeology, to create an accurate picture of Alvin York’s activities on October 8, 1918?
2. Can GIS successfully resolve some of the controversies and contradictions in written accounts of the York fight?
3. Can GIS serve as the basis for preserving the spatial record of the York fight and creating interpretive materials for battlefield tourism?
After much painstaking research by Tom J. Nolan accompanied by an expert team of specialists, the eventual result was Dr. Tom Nolan's Dissertaion Battlefield Landscapes: Geographical Information Science as a Method of Integrating History and Archaeology for Battlefield Interpretation.
This laid to rest any inaccuracies in historical accounts and proved beyond all doubt the progression of troop movements, battles and encounters at Châtel-Chéhéry in France.
Read Tom Nolan’s paper (198 pages) to discover the methodology the team employed and the results they obtained.
(1) Celluloid Soldiers. Michael E. Birdwell p. 126
(2) Ibid p.176
Sergeant York Project EBook
© 2007 Worldwide Copyright Reserved Tom Nolan, M. Kelly