Sunday, May 9, 2010

Looking Back to a Distant War . . .

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In a magazine which came this week here in France I was reading an article about Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks' recent large scale production for television of a series of films about World War II in the Pacific islands. Towards the end of the article Mr. Spielberg was quoted as saying something to the effect that remembering these past battles in films could occupy him for the rest of his life. And also that the decision to make the films about the Pacific island battles was partly based on a large number of letters received from veterans, their families, or other sources asking for the stories to be told. I thought I might add a letter on another related topic.
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Dear Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Hanks,
There is only one American veteran alive from World War I (Frank Buckles, aged 109) who could write to you, and even the descendants of the departed from that war may be starting to disappear or forget what they might have known second-hand about the Great War. Of course the millions of men who died in that conflict took their stories to the grave with them. So there are few who might still wish to write to you to ask that their stories be remembered. But I am convinced that there are still some great and inspiring stories which should be rediscovered and told about American involvement in World War I.
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Who could ever forget the opening scene of "Saving Private Ryan", shot in the American Cemetery near the Normandy Beach D-Day landing area from World War II, where 9387 Americans are buried ? But how many people know that the largest American cemetery in Europe is in Romagne sous Montfaucon, or that it is from World War I and holds the graves of 14246 Americans, as well as the names of another 954 men whose bodies were never found ?
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I spent a few days this past fall wandering the area near Verdun looking for traces of World War I. One afternoon I stumbled on the American Cemetery near Romagne sous Montfaucon, and spent a couple of hours exploring the vast park that it is. Why had I never heard of this place ? Why weren't we taught about it in high school ? Walking the seemingly endless rows of white marble crosses I was short of breath, nearly gasping at the enormity of it, the tragedy of lives cut short in firestorms of flying steel and lead. The names of the dead cried out from each cross in silent pain, a name, a state, a military unit, a date of death. Who were these men who died between September 26th and November 11th, 1918, as they drove the Germans back northwards along a line to the west of Verdun ? What actually happened there ? What did the letters they wrote home say ? What did their families and the women they loved experience in those terrible years ?
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I'm hoping you can answer some of these questions in an epic film. If I can be of any service in such an endeavor here in France, it would be an honor.
Sincerely yours,
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The entrance to the cemetery is crowned by stone eagles . . .
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A tree lined alley runs the length of the site, lovely in autumn colors, even on a rainy day . . .
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A plaque near the memorial building lists the American cemeteries in Europe from WWI . . .
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The map of the 1918 Fall campaign between the Meuse River and the Argonne Forest shows that it took from September 26th to October 31st to push the German army back over a distance that I drove that afternoon in half an hour. I can barely begin to imagine the hell they went through over that month of October . . .
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May they rest in peace . . .
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A 2nd lieutenant from Pennsylvania . . .
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The names of the missing were chiselled in stone along the wings of the memorial building . . .
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I'm guessing these were emblems from artwork for various military unit's symbols ? Is it a squirrel ? Some other creature ?
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The crosses seemed to go on forever down the sloping fields . . .
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The inscription over the main door of the memorial says, "Dedicated to the memory of those who died for their country" . . .
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Fallen leaves in the reflecting pool, as numerous as fallen soldiers . . .
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The current Commander in Chief was visible . . .
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The view from the visitor's building and cemetery offices across to the main memorial . . .
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35 comments:

Virginia said...

Owen,
I am speechless. Your photos of this very special place move me to tears. I can't imagine that anyone has captured the spirit, yes the spirit, of this place any better. Thank you for these images my friend. Oh my.
V

Harriet said...

Thank you Virginia for giving me a link to Owen's blog.

Owen, this is a wonderful post. Thank you. We so often forget...

@eloh said...

The first time I drove over to France, I was headed for an antique fair in Nice.

I stopped just across the line into France and started taking pictures... I couldn't believe the difference. I took (poorly) some pictures of beautiful homes still showing the effects of WWII.

Then I spent the day at an American cemetery... I made it to Nice another day.

The Sagittarian said...

Fabulous photos and a wonderful post, Bro. "Lest we forget"

FishStikks said...

Amazing pictures!

I find that it's so darned easy to fogret that these monumental things happen in the world with the passing of time but my oh my have you brought it back to us in such spectacular glory and kindness.

Amazing pictures!

Nadege said...

Beautiful tribute Owen!

Stickup Artist said...

Wow... something to reflect upon and photos with reflections. I love the warm tones of the fall leaves against the green grass and the overcast skies you sure made work in your favor. I love the big tree reflected in the pool and the sentiment is so touching. Once again you have tackled a sobering meaningful issue with such thoughtfulness. Great post Owen!

gjthomson said...

Very moving and wonderful reflections.

English Rider said...

Worthwhile and beautiful post. Conclusion that some wars can go out of fashion?
The bas relief of the fallen soldier embraced by an olive branch is heart-stopping. So much meaning and message and hope in such simplicity. "Would that they did not die in vain"

Amy said...

I am too overwhelmed by the sheer numbers to have much to say. Wow.

Thank you Owen for bringing this place to our attention.

Clytie said...

I am holding back tears. Thank you so much for this post.

My grandfather fought in WWI. When he died (when I was a teenager), a color guard was at the burial. They presented my grandma with a US flag. Then they left.

I will probably never know much more than the fact that he served, and survived. He had alzheimers for years before his death, and had already lost those memories himself.

louciao said...

Compassion, empathy, insightfulness, clarity, beauty of vision, the eye of an artist, technical skill, a sensitive soul, a questioning mind, gorgeous colours/contrasts/light/focus, food for thought, a sharing of self, a provocation, a prayer--all bound up within this blog posting. Not typically subjects I would wish to contemplate, war-death-suffering-sacrifice, but sensitively presented here, Owen. The soul hidden beneath the clown suit, the tears behind the painted-on smile. I won't ever say anything like this to you again, okay?

louciao said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
louciao said...

About the deleted comment:
Ironically, my comment posted itself twice, making a lie of my statement that I'd never say such a thing again!

Jessie said...

Stunning photos Owen and so very, very sad.

Peter said...

You are so right, Owen, to remind us (and Steven and Tom) of this and the way you do it is outstanding, touching...! This must have been one of the worst war places and moments ever. Lucky us, who were born later ... and great thanks to those who were there, more especially to those who came from abroad!

the watercats said...

It's a sobering thing.. this post.. hard for anyone a generation or two or three to comprehend. It makes you wonder what the point was? but then, I suppose the fact that we can think that was the point!

@eloh said...

I didn't leave a very clear comment... I want to thank France for all it has done and all it continues to do for all the boys who died in the wars.

And thank you Owen for the wonderful pictures.

Owen said...

Virginia, you are very welcome. I don't want such places and what they commemorate to disappear into the fog of the forgotten past...

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Harriet, thank you very much, really appreciate your visit...

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@eloh,
I wonder if the American cemetery you visited would be this one in Southern France from WWII ?

http://www.abmc.gov/cemeteries/cemeteries/rh.php

In Draguignan, which is not too far from Nice ? These places really are beautifully maintained...

Owen said...

Sister Saj... thanks... We musn't forget. The world would be a very different place today if the Germans had won either of the World Wars. We are lucky I think there were men, brave men, willing to pay the final price to keep that from happening...

Lydia said...

Thank you for this deep post. Leaves me wordless, really.

Owen said...

Fishstikks, thank you... I was overwhelmed by this place, and wanted to share that feeling...

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Hi Nadege, many thanks...

and it seems to me you have a blog, but I can't get to via your profile, as profile is private...

Owen said...

Hey StickUp Artist, for readers like you, one is inspired to try to keep the energy flowing...
:-)

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GJT, many thanks for stopping in here and leaving a kind word... really appreciated.

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Hi ER,
Out of sight, out of mind perhaps, don't know if wars ever are in fashion. But it just amazes me that a place like this exists, and I never heard about it in a history class...

Owen said...

Amy, you are more than welcome. It was not only the numbers that overwhelmed me here, but the sense I had of discovering an enormous secret that I'd never had more than the barest inkling of. I wonder how many visitors this place gets annually. Although not all that far from Paris, I'm betting it is not on all that many tourists' itineraries as they plan their trips to France. Maybe in 2018 the place will get some press, for the 100 year anniversary of the death of these 15000 young men...

Owen said...

Hi Clytie,
Thank you for sharing your memory here, however brief... and let the tears fall, it's ok. Did you ever try to look into where he served, with what unit ? I hope you can find more of his story if you wish to. I know many veterans did not like to talk about their experiences, but sometimes traces can be found if one digs. My wife's father was in the French military in Indochina, and never told his children anything about it. Maybe someday I'll try to do some digging for her.

Owen said...

Ah Lynne Louciao,
You have seen behind the clown's makeup, you've spotted the running mascara, you've seen the sad look in his eyes as he ponders the evils of the world, the past wrongs which pile higher and deeper like windblown snow into cold, heartless drifts.

Your x-ray eyes see deeper, far deeper than most mere mortals, which is your gift, or one of them. And it's ok, you may say what you said again, and again, it is music to these ears and balm for the soul. But it is funny that Blogger liked it so much that it was posted twice...

Now, where's that Saj, it's time for a wee drink !

Owen said...

Jessie, infinitely sad...

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Peter,
We are indeed lucky to have missed that particular hell. This was really the first war fought predominantly with machine guns and artillery, it took butchery to new depths. They do deserve our thanks, looking back these 90 some years. I'm wondering what sorts of memorial services there will be when we get to 100 years ?

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Hey H2O Cats,
Whatever point there was long ago, the national prides and bruised egos seem so ridiculously small and petty today. What will it take to get the world out of these nationalist mindsets that send whole armies into pointless arenas, where blood runs in great rivers ? I wonder...

Owen said...

Hi @eloh, it seemed clear enough to me, your first message... indeed, France was and is very kind to have donated the lands these cemeteries occupy, and to allow the US government to staff and maintain them...

Owen said...

Lydia, you are very welcome. One feels rather helpless when confronted with the enormity of such a place, doig this post was the very least I could do...

ρομπερτ said...

A silent bow in respect of this entry of yours.

Owen said...

Tag Robert,
Thank you good sir...

Not sure if I ever mentionned I'm a big fan of Erich Maria Remarque, and honestly wish I could read his stories in the original German.

During the same days I visited this place last November, I also visited several of the many German cemeteries around Verdun. They are all very sobering places. There were no winners or losers. Only the human race lost...

Eleonora said...

Oh Owen.

This made me gasp with tears, that still sting in my throat well after reading the touching words and viewing (often lingering over) all your splendid photos.

Wonderful wonderful WONDERFUL post.
I don't have sufficient words to say how beautiful.

I could go on saying how perfect all the details are, how and why each photo moved me, but this would end up being a mile-long comment.

Please do send Hanks and Spielberg the photos too. And the whole post.

Owen said...

Lola,
I don't know how to thank you...

Tami said...

Thanks for posting these. I'm excited to share these w/my Grandfather.

He fought in WW2 (Marine 6th Division, 29th Regiment) While researching on the net for stories I came to realize that there are none about his Regiment. When I asked him about it...he said "of course not .... our historian was killed in the second day of fighting and he wasn't replaced. Shot right between the eyes."

I think it's sad to lose these mens stories as well. Last week was the first week that my Grandfather really opened up about his experiences. Hopefully at lunch this week he can be encouraged to share some more.

Roxana said...

compelling in so many ways... your historical researches (i think one can call them like this) always make one ponder about what 'history' (a most unsettling concept) means for every one of us...

amazing, the green field with the white crosses and the autumn forest in the background -