Touring WWI battlefields, the Michelin way

American troops in Michelin book, 1920

This photo appeared in Volume 1 of the Michelin Illustrated Guides to the Battlefields (1914-1918). The book title is “The Americans in the Great War: The Second Battle of the Marne.” The caption reads: “The French prime minister, M. Clemenceau, congratulating the American troops on the battlefield at Chateau-Thierry.” Clemenceau is second from the right. The photo is credited to the French illustrated weekly newspaper, L’Illustration, published in Paris.

The First World War was over but still an open wound in 1920 when the Michelin Tire Co. came out with a three-volume collection called The Americans in the Great War, with the header, Michelin Illustrated Guides to the Battlefields (1914-1918). Published by Michelin & Cie, Clermont-Ferrand, (France), it’s dedicated to “the Michelin workmen and employees who died gloriously for their country.” At the time, each volume cost $1.

The doughboys are heaped with praise in what is otherwise a dry recitation of the facts of the American engagement in France. “The Americans fought bravely,” it says. In the volume on the Meuse-Argonne battlefields, I read that the “splendid fighting spirit of the [U.S.] troops was remarked by all, and their fine comradeship, both on the firing line and at rest, won the widest possible admiration.”

I guess folks needed to hear that less than two years after the war ended, to help them come to terms with the sacrifices that had been made – the terrible losses of life, limb and sanity.

Touted as “A panoramic history and guide,” the books are sprinkled with photos that show generals, battlefields, towns and villages in ruin, but no graphic reminders of the staggering human carnage. There are maps showing the movement of armies and directions on how to tour the battlefields by car, as well as suggested itineraries.

The three volumes I have once belonged to Jack Davis of Easton, a World War II veteran whose account of his experience in the Battle of the Bulge is in my book War Stories: In Their Own Words. Jack died more than a year ago. His daughters gave his collection of several dozen military history books to the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, of which he’d been a member. At the last meeting, those books were divvied up by lottery. As an associate member, I was lucky to get the Michelin books.

Jack’s copies appear to have been owned at some point by a Michelin agent. The title page of Volume 1 is stamped “C. Everett Hesselgrave, agent, 109 White Bldg., Seattle. Phone Main 289.” Hesselgrave signed the copy.

One of the most interesting aspects is the advertising – full-page ads with spare line drawings of cars and maps.

Here’s the text for one:

You don’t know what a
Good Road Map
is, if you haven’t used the
Michelin Map.
The tourist finds his way about easily in a town, if he has a plan giving the names of the streets.
He gets about with the same ease and certainty on the road, if he has a Michelin Map, because it gives the numbers of all the roads.

And here’s another:

The Michelin Wheel
BEST of all detachable wheels because the least complicated
Elegant: It embellishes even the finest coachwork.
Simple: It is detachable at the hub and fixed by six bolts only.
Strong: the only wheel which held out on all fronts during the war.
Practical: Can be replaced in 3 minutes by anybody and cleaned still quicker.

So, the books don’t just tell you about the American battles of World War I. They tell you about 1920.



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