By Lieutenant Colonel Steve Lamb, U.S. AFRICOM Public Affairs Office
It was Veterans Day, cold (4 degrees C, 39 F), wet and windy at 4 a.m. when my mother and I boarded a bus to begin our USO tour to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. Five hours later the country and terrain had changed but the weather was still the same, not pleasant.
This trip was special for me; it was the first time in 20 years I would have a day with just me and my mom. She and my father are visiting for 7 weeks from El Paso, Texas. Unfortunately, Dad was ill and unable to make the tour. Regardless, we were on our way knowing that Mrs. Elizabeth Plotner, the USO Stuttgart Tours Manager, had a great day laid out that would surely “build memories for a lifetime,” to use my mom’s words.
I don’t know much about WW1; trench warfare, mustard gas and the beginnings of aerial combat about summed it up for me, so I did a bit of reading up before the tour so I was ready. As we left the autobahn just south of Clermont-en-Argonne and began the winding trek north through small villages and farmland I tried to imagine what it must have been like to be here, fighting, in this area nearly 100 years ago. It wasn’t really that difficult of a task because so many of the buildings haven’t changed much. This region has little industry, and according to Mrs. Plotner, most folks here are retired. Quiet villages, each with their own war memorial, are stretched out across the hills and valleys which once were aflame with battle.
We passed by the hilltop where once stood the village of Vouquios before the German Army mined beneath it and obliterated it from below with explosives that literally removed the hilltop. We also paused shortly at the Pennsylvania Memorial in Varennes. The monument was erected by the State of Pennsylvania “In honor of her troops who served in the Great War” in 1927. Varennes is the village where Louis the 16th and Marie-Antoinette were captured 21 June 1791 while fleeing Paris.
Soon after we had arrived at the American cemetery.
The Meuse-Argonne Cemetery is the largest American cemetery in Europe; the 130 ½ acres of manicured lawns and gardens is the final resting place for 14,249 fallen Warriors of World War 1 and also commemorates another 954 whose remains were never found. Nine Medal of Honor recipients are buried here including Corporal Freddie Stowers, who died valiantly in the battle for Hill 188 in the Champagne Marne Sector of France. He was the first African American to ever receive a Medal of Honor.
The ceremony, conducted outside the chapel which overlooks the gradually slopping hillside with thousands of white crosses and stars of David, was simple and yet profound. The highest ranking military members of the area were present as were the local Mayor and other civic leaders. French military reenactors, decked in WW1 wool uniforms, stood proudly in formation across from elderly French veterans each holding national and military flags. The American National Anthem was followed by the French National Anthem, each a recording of a bell choir. The American and French national flags on the poles above our head blew out in the wind as a message from President Barack Obama was read by Mrs. Plotner and then a lone trumpeter sounded Taps; not a sound was heard from the assembled audience. Following Taps there was another short trumpet call was played; we were told it was the sound of Cease Fire, the same call that was sounded not far from the Cemetery at 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918…. The Great War was over. Wreaths were laid and old memories resurfaced in the minds of the elderly while new memories were formed in the minds of the children.
Shortly after this ceremony we were treated to another special ceremony just down the road in the town of Romange where a different monument stands, this one dedicated to the French Resistance fighters who fought so valiantly to support France against the Germans. This ceremony was similar to the one we had just attended. To my great pleasure I observed French grade school children standing rigidly at attention as the American National Anthem was played. I thought to myself how sad that we in America are so quick to forget how to give respect to our Flag and Anthem when here, in a little French village French school children know better how to show respect than grownups in my own country.
The end of the ceremony was truly special. A young man stepped before the monument and stood at attention facing the crowd while an older man, carrying a worn French flag on a simple wooden staff stepped forward to face him. A few words said in French and the flag was passed from the old man to the young. The leadership of the French Resistance had just been passed from a father who was too old for battle to his son who now would take up the cause in protecting their lands.
The reception following this ceremony was all French Champagne and fresh breads, language barriers collapsed and there were smiles from all who attended. At one point one of the older French military reenactors approached me and took my hand to shake it but he didn’t let go. He told me he was honored to participate in these ceremonies because he was the son of a French fighter pilot that fought alongside our “boys” during WW2. He teared up with pride in sharing that his son was now with our “boys” in Afghanistan serving in the French Army. The brotherhood of arms, pride in our profession and the sacrifice of our families is the bond that links us all over time.
Lunch was simple sandwiches at the Romagne ’14-’18 Museum whose curator and owner, Jean-Paul de-Vries, proudly displays artifacts from the time. He has around 60,000 artifacts in his collection of which 98% he personally found over the last 35 years. His searches, which he limits to a 5 km radius of the museum, have unearthed war craft of all sorts from all the various units that fought in the area. This Dutchman with French citizenship used to search the densely foliaged woods of the area until at age 19 he came across a forgotten trench which still held the bodies of two fallen soldiers. This event changed his focus from the woods to the 100 plus hectares of farmlands in the area. Each year after the fields are plowed Jean-Paul walks the rows and literally finds a gold mine in war relics strewn across the uprooted earth.
Where we would only see dirt of one or two shades of brown he sees multiple shades and the most minute of variances assisting him in his collection efforts. He can only display 1/3 of his collection at a time and he rotates it yearly. When asked what his most prized possession was, he highlighted some children’s leather shoes. These shoes, crafted from old German boot leather, were made by a German soldier for French children. According to Jean-Paul, that means this soldier was likely a father or uncle back before the war. Focusing on children, Jean-Paul uses his relics to teach about peace. “You take off the helmet and what do you have underneath?” he asks, “a man, doing his job.” He prides himself in his ability to change visitor’s perspective on the battles and make the war real to them.
Later in the day we visited a German cemetery. This was truly a sad event. There was such hatred toward the Germans by the French that dishonoring the dead appeared to be a focus at the end of the war. The cemetery’s official record says that just over 1,400 fallen warriors were laid to rest here but Jean-Paul, among other experts, suspect that it is more like 10,000. This belief was validated 10 months ago when a large storm toppled several of the pine trees among the graves. Interwoven in the root systems was evidence of three layers of remains.
At the end of the war there were many small cemeteries across the region that held the bodies of fallen German soldiers. Traditionally when a solider dies in battle, they are buried in a cemetery on that battlefield or, under the best of circumstances, they are returned to their homeland. Instead of following this tradition ,the French moved these bodies to one centralized cemetery; or at least most of the bodies. Many of the smaller cemeteries were desecrated, the original square head stones were collected and when possible the bodies were moved but often they were just left behind. The region now could then boast a 6km road built with headstones; words facing down. “You don’t want to shame yourself in what you are doing,” says Jean-Paul.
The French employed four tactics to dishonor the Germans. Their graves lay under black crosses instead of traditional white. They buried them under tall pine trees in order to prevent the sun from ever shining on their graves. They moved them from their rightful burial sites but didn’t send them home and they planted ivy on the graves, a plant associated with death.
Jean-Paul is one of a few volunteers to come out once a year to light candles, one for each of the Soldiers in the official records of the cemetery. No other ceremonies occur here despite the fact that the German government actually owns the land.
By this time in the afternoon the light drizzle that had begun hours before was turning to freezing rain. The dark headstones of the cemetery, the images we had in our minds of the fallen and their subsequent disgrace took on a powerfully sad persona.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult this time was for the French and Germans alike. Thin undershirts, wool outer garments and maybe a wool blanket to curl up on under as steel rained down day after day while they were so very far from home. The cold, the wet, the horror.
Jean-Paul had a very sad look on his face, “Big storm coming in, we’ll probably lose another tree or two,” he says. “I will have to come back out here right afterward. Someone has to collect the remains if the trees fall.”
Hatred is a vile thing, in times of war and in the times of peace that follow.
The top of the Pennsylvania War Memorial has an inscription around the brass basin which reads, “The Right is More Precious than Peace.” War, it is about people and not the tools that we use to fight it. The Right must prevail even at the temporary expense of peace.
I am honored to be a veteran, the son of a veteran and a government service employee. I am proud to be affiliated with all those who came before me and those who serve today or in the future to include a few of my children who have already determined service is important to them. God Bless our Veterans, the Veterans of our foreign Allies and God Bless America.
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