Celebrating Memorial Day, ‘Over There’
At the marble cross, he kneels. Taking a wet sponge from the bucket, he passes it over the chiseled name of the fallen soldier like a mother washing her baby’s face. Then, he rubs fine sand into the indentations so the name pops for the photo, dusts off the excess with a soft cloth, and takes a beribboned wreath from the tractor bed piled high with Memorial Day flowers.
“I did my first Memorial Day in 1967, when I was six years old,” Nicolas Raffa tells me, in French, carefully adjusting the small French and American flags fluttering in the breeze before the cross. “The village school is just over there,” he says. He gestures past 14,246 white headstones–the largest American cemetery in Europe.
“Our teacher taught us a song, and we put flowers on the graves.” Inhaling the lilac-scented air, I’m finding it hard to reconcile that this emerald strip of France’s Lorraine region once roiled with battles along World War I’s infamous western front.
Today, Raffa is mayor of his village, Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, site of the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial. He knows well the stories of the young doughboys killed here during a major American-led offensive in the fall of 1918. Under two hours from Paris by high-speed train, this forested region of country villages stitched together by the placid Meuse River is one of the most deeply gaulois–or “French to the core”–areas I’ve discovered over the past quarter century of living and traveling in France.
Here at the cemetery, though, the headstones read like a recipe from the 19th-century American melting pot. There’s Cashmir Poposh, from Michigan; Vito Accardi, from New York; Freddie Stowers, from South Carolina, the only WWI African-American Medal of Honor recipient; and Frank Luke, Jr., the legendary ace pilot from Arizona.
“Frank Luke was crazy,” Raffa tells me, as though he’s talking about his brother. “He would do anything to bring down a German target.” Luke probably wasn’t the only hothead. I learn most American soldiers had never left their farm fields or hometowns before they were shipped off to Europe, bringing our nation’s adolescent energy to the effort to end the Great War sparked in 1914.
I thought my brother, Chris, was crazy, too, when he told me he’d enlisted in the Army. I was off to my junior year of college in Paris, where I would meet the Frenchman who would become my husband. A resolute pacifist with all the certainty of youth, I couldn’t figure out why my brother would join an organization whose mission ultimately was to fight. It was 1984. Who was there to fight against?
Unfortunately, Chris would find out 17 years later, in Afghanistan. It would take me longer, though, to learn this simple truth: that pacifist and patriot are not mutually exclusive, that you can hate war but respect and appreciate why we must fight in our imperfect world. Maybe as a peace offering to my “little” brother–now six feet four and a colonel–I’ve invited him to join me on a Memorial Day trip to this bucolic French borderland where Americans are welcomed warmly in honor of their soldiers’ remembered sacrifice.
Returning to his task, Raffa places the wreath in front of the cross, then takes a sheet of paper he’s prepared from a pile and leans it against the flowers. Stepping back, he snaps a digital photo of the tableau, which he’ll later email to the American back home who sponsors this grave every Memorial Day through an online program.
On the paper, the sponsor’s epithet for the soldier reads: “Edwin L. Moore. Duty to country but love of baseball.”
From the observation deck atop the towering Montfaucon American Monument, the plains look almost Tuscan. Fields of golden canola flowers gleam against patches of smoky green trees. The wind whips around us.
“I can’t believe that little stream stopped them,” Chris marvels, spotting the Meuse River valley in the distance. By “them” I know he means the German kaiser’s army. “Over there, you can almost see Verdun,” he says, pointing southeast.
Where I see gentle Tuscany-like fields, Chris sees the battles fought by the American Expeditionary Forces here almost a century ago.
After winding back down the 234 steps, I stop to peruse the visitors book, filled with words in French, English, German, and Dutch. One French writer pens: “Superb view. Thinking of those soldiers from the land of Uncle Sam, dead for this French countryside and for a special idea of liberty. Thank you.” And another, scrawled in a childlike script, also in French: “Cool! But please install an elevator.”
Though Chris and I are both fervent history buffs, and there’s a monument in almost every village, we’ve vowed not to get “warred out” (my brother’s words). The perfect antidote: the European Beer Museum, in nearby Stenay, a fortified burg along the Meuse River with an arcaded village square humming with pedestrians.
At the museum entrance, a sign reads: “known as the biggest beer museum in the world.” That sounds more like a brash American claim than a French one, but we’re willing to give it the benefit of the doubt–especially when we learn there once were more than 200 breweries and malting outfits in the Lorraine region. When you’re on the Belgian border, as we are here, wine takes a backseat.
The English-friendly museum artfully displays some 50,000 vintage bottles, glasses, posters, copper stills, and what have you. I try to take in the information about beer history and brewing techniques, but frankly my mind is already at the onsite tavern. That’s where Chris and I find ourselves in short order, tasting Lorraine craft beers with one of the museum’s founders, René Dupuit, an energetic retiree who emerged from behind the wooden bar when he heard my confusion over the 70 beers on the menu.
“First try the Charmoy,” Dupuit suggested, indicating the palest of the four local beers he’d selected for us, sparkling in chalice-like goblets. “It’s made by a young man who studied at the Orval Abbey Brewery in Belgium.”
Next we sip a triple-fermented, honey-hued brew from the Ardennes Forest. Finally, a ruddy “classic red” made in Pont-à-Mousson and the amber Stenay, brewed in town. We escape just in time for an afternoon nap.
One needs to be rested to face the battlefields outside Verdun, as we did the next day. Many French families, including my husband’s, were touched by the epic, 300-day battle of attrition over this narrow corridor of land in 1916, well before the Americans arrived. Humanity was completely erased, churned and plowed into a lunar landscape of enormous craters choked with tangles of barbed wire and metal pickets by some 60 million shells that rained down from German artillery hidden in the forest.
“People find things in the forest often, even now,” guide Ingrid Ferrand tells us, as we leave the battlefield visitors center and head up the slender road slicing through the dense woods around Fort Douaumont, the massive centerpiece of France’s Verdun defense line.
“Four hundred thousand French soldiers perished around here,” she said. “After the war, locals would scour the terrain after Sunday Mass and bring bones by the cartload to the ossuary up the way.”
We walk along a network of footpaths through a forest of oak, ash, and beech trees planted after the war. The fertile land undulates with water-filled bomb craters, like wading pools under glistening green leaves. Cement markers evoke the past: bakery, farm, Main Street.
My brother’s voice cuts through the trilling of birds. “Ceil, check this out!” Coming up beside him, I see it, too. A long, browned human bone carefully placed on a “farm” marker. “I wouldn’t want to be here alone at night,” Chris says, as we head for Fort Douaumont, at the crest of the ridge.
At the fort we pick our way up to the massive roof, keeping an eye out for metal spikes and rebar exposed by the shelling a century ago. “In the States, this would be all fenced off,” Chris comments, loping across the grass-covered craters on top of the fort, past turrets and observation posts. I watch as he disappears down the other side to explore “machine gun alley.”
I head for the main entrance where, before venturing down into the clammy passageways, I meet a group of American kids on a field trip from Faith Baptist School near Ramstein U.S. Air Base in Germany. Their teacher, Virginia Horak, remarks on the similarities between our Civil War soldiers and France’s in WWI. “Even the uniforms were the same colors, gray and blue,” she says. “In many ways, Verdun was France’s Gettysburg.”
Later, at the ossuary, Chris asks me to take a photo of him beside a helmeted marble bust commemorating the French infantrymen of Verdun. I translate the memorial inscription for him: Struggle, suffer, die.
“That about sums it up,” he says, somberly.
Once a hub of the region, Verdun is a sleepy town today, full of contrasts. We fold ourselves into a tiny tourist train that takes us into the belly of Verdun’s Citadel (two miles of underground passages, some brought to life with sound, light, holograms, and eerie wax statues), where Chris exclaims, “This is Disneyland for war freaks.”
An hour later we are buying sweet souvenirs at the family-owned candy company Braquier, founded in 1783, which supplies sugared almonds coated in 24-karat gold to the United Arab Emirates royal family and piñata-like chocolate “bombs” with real fuses for local weddings and special occasions.
At L’Estaminet–Verdun’s friendly town pub and microbrewery, with a dozen beers on tap and enough vintage memorabilia to rival the Stenay beer museum–we run into an exuberant group of former American marines. They tell us they’re “traveling fast, keeping ahead of the gendarmes,” on their own Memorial Day pilgrimage.
They’d all served in Vietnam and were a thoughtful, erudite bunch beneath their bravura, like most military officers I’ve met through Chris over the years.
Traveling the back roads of the pastor countryside southeast of Verdun the next day, searching for memorials, takes us to Hattonchâtel: a few narrow streets with ivy-draped walls and a hulking castle on a ridge. The village lay in ruins after the Great War until an American from Massachusetts, Belle Skinner, learned of Hattonchâtel’s fate.
“Meess Skinner,” as she’s still known in the village, purchased the medieval castle where the Germans’ commander had lived, restored it from 1923 to 1928, and, for good measure, founded a dispensary, raised money to rebuild the church steeple, and brought running water to the village. Today, the castle is a chic boutique hotel with cows grazing in the surrounding yard. Down Rue Miss Skinner, a whimsical café called L’Air du Moulin peeps out from behind the flowering vines.
The church bell (also sponsored by Skinner, to replace the one stolen by the Germans for its bronze) clangs noon as we look over the valley below. “Half a million Allied troops flowed through down there, with 220,000 Germans up here shooting at them,” Chris says. “They must’ve kicked up a lot of dust.”
From ruins to bounty: As we linger over lunch at Au Rendez Vous de Saint Benoit, a garden-to-table former truck stop at a countryside intersection outside Hattonchâtel, co-owner Elizabeth Gillet offers to show us her thriving gooseberry bushes. “This region inspires us,” Gillet says. “Almost anything is available nearby. You’ve got forests, lakes, and all that nature gives us. It’s a real land of milk and honey.”
Eating is the last thing on our minds the next day. We’re walking in the barbed-wired trenches near the Meuse Valley village of St.-Mihiel, 22 miles south of Verdun, muddy shoes slipping on decomposing leaves, when our guide, Florence Lamousse, turns to Chris.
“Excuse me for asking, but have you been to war?” she says.
“Yes,” Chris replies, “I’ve been in Iraq and in the trenches in Afghanistan, dug by the Soviets when they were fighting the mujahideen.”
“So you know,” Lamousse says. “Because so many people who come here say, ‘Thank heavens there is no more war!’ and I have to say, ‘We still have war!’ People just don’t realize it.” She shakes her head sadly.
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Memorial Day dawns, leaden and blustery. Woodsmoke hangs in the air as we leave our bed-and-breakfast, the Villa Nantrisé, a doily-free establishment in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon owned by a Dutch couple, where I would have happily nestled in for a week of pampering.
Simple homes with beige stucco facades and periwinkle, purple, and red window shutters line the main street of the American cemetery’s “hometown.” Stopping to warm up at Chez Jean-Paul, the village café and informal tourist headquarters next to the church, we browse the intricately worked trench art for sale–vases, ashtrays, and cups made from polished artillery shell remnants.
The sprightly owner, Jean-Paul de Vries, tells us he’s collected much more over the years in the nearby Ardennes Forest. He lets us peek inside his Romagne ’14-’18 Museum, an Ali Baba’s cavern of war memorabilia illustrating daily life in the trenches (camp beds, pistols, uniforms, journals), located off the café’s main room. But we can’t linger.
The ceremony begins promptly at 11 a.m., with a drumroll.
The crowd snaps to attention. If you have a uniform, it seems, you’re welcome. The French Army, in pale blue pillbox hats and khaki, marches beside their WWI reenactors: French poilus–or brave bearded ones–in vintage costume. The local fire department is here, in bright orange helmets. Members of the U.S. Air Force, from the base in Ramstein, Germany, look sharp in dark blue, while their Girl Scout daughters wearing their brown or green vests wave from the audience.
I place my hand over my heart as the first notes of the U.S. national anthem roll out. I’ve never felt prouder of my country–and closer to my brother–than here, in the rain, choking up to the strains of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played by a military band from an American Air Force base in Germany at a WWI cemetery in France.
There’s Mayor Nicholas Raffa in front of the marble chapel, surrounded by French and American dignitaries. Above them, inscribed on the doorframe: “In sacred sleep they rest.”
I glance at Chris. His profile is stony, his eyes riveted on the American flag slowly rising up the pole.
Later, he confesses that since 2001, when he saw his comrades die in Afghanistan, he’s dreaded Memorial Day. I had no idea he’d lost men in battle, and I’m ashamed that I never asked. But this commemoration, this pilgrimage, Chris tells me, has helped him face that tragic loss and fully honor the memory of his fellow soldiers, “those who gave all for our nation,” just as their forebears did here, a century ago.
Because this is France, every event, even the most solemn, is grounds for a champagne reception. After the speeches, the flag raising, and the wreath laying, we parade behind the French military band through the cemetery, into the village, and back along the main street, festooned with French and American flags. The rain has stopped. It seems the whole town has turned out. Pausing at the town hall, the band begins to play.
I notice a platinum-haired woman leaning out of her ground-floor window, nodding her head to the theme song from A Bridge Too Far. When the musicians move on toward the reception, I stop to chat with her. “We won’t forget!” Marianne Fisch tells me, after I introduce myself.
“I love this fanfare; it brings back memories,” she says. “And I’m happy the French and Americans are still friends at heart. Politics go up and down, you know, but our bond is eternal.”
This feature, written by Ceil Miller Bouchet, first appeared in the May 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine.