I have not written about many parts of this tour, partly because my sore throat developed into a full blown cold that has me wanting to go to sleep as soon as I get to my room. But mostly because we have been visiting sites of such sadness, destruction, and slaughter. We have been to almost all of the American cemetaries from World War I in France. They are massive—-just acres and acres of white crosses, all marked with both American and French flags this week for the 100th anniversary events. Each cemetary has a more massive chapel, monument, and memorial wall than the last. Each dominates the landscape for miles since they tend to be built on the top of the highest hill, which was the big battle objective in each case. The photos attached give a sense of the scale of these.
By and large, the American and British cemetaries and monuments were erected by their respective countries’ battle monuments commissions, by states whose divisions fought in specific places, and sometimes by foundations. In some locations, the American cemetary is larger than the nearby town and the monument is by far the dominant feature of the town. World War I monuments are still being built in France by Americans, especially because of the 1914-18 centennial.
The French did not memorialize their troops in the same way. There are big cemetaries but few huge monuments since the French instead provided money to each town after the war to memorialize its own sons. EVERY French town has a war monument, no matter how small the town. Here and there,there are French-built monuments to the British and Americans for helping to save France (including inside the Cathedral of Notre Dame).
Worse than the graveyards are the battlefields themselves. They are everywhere in northeastern France. Every high point still shows craters and trenches, some filling in due to erosion, some being preserved and excavated. Every farm field is still full of shrapnel, unexploded shells, and other things like canteens, buttons, gun barrels, rotting boots, etc. Every once in a while, someone finds human remains from World War I. Battlefield relic hunters always carry a can of orange spray paint to mark the unexploded shells they spot for the farmers, but they don’t remove them because they are still dangerous. The authorities won’t come out to pick up UXBs unless there are a lot of them. There are still too many of them, even after 100 years. Some say that more than half of the shells produced were defective. Their corrosion the fields makes them more and more dangerous as time goes by. The most recent internment in a World War I cemetary is that of a little girl who was blown up in 2003 by a WWI unexploded shell she found in a field. Standing at the edge of a freshly plowed field at the end of the harvest season, the battle geeks in our group had no trouble spotting shrapnel souvenirs. They gave me a couple (see photo).
The most striking of the French WWI cemetaries is that at Fort Douaumont, the mightiest of the forts surrounding Verdun, where the battle raged for nearly a year. Germany, never actually intending to capture Verdun, had the intention was to "bleed France white" there. A guy named Adolph Hitler actually fought at this battle. The fort itself was captured in a surprise attack four days after the beginning of the Battle of Verdun, and it was not recaptured by the French until 24 October 1916. We toured the huge underground fort (although I could not wait to get out since it is full of black mold). The Douaumont cemetary and ossuary, though, is a place where you could stay for many hours. The monument was designed to look like the handle and hilt of a sward, plunged into the earth. In front of the monument, and sloping downhill, lies the largest single French military cemetery of the First World War with 16,142 graves. The ossuary is a memorial containing the remains of both French and German soldiers who died on the Verdun battlefield. Through small outside windows, the skeletal remains of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants of both nations can be seen filling up alcoves at the lower edge of the building. On the inside of the ossuary building, the ceiling and walls are partly covered by plaques bearing names of French soldiers who died during the Battle of Verdun. The whole place is an absolute outrage.
To give you an idea of how the Great War still lives in minds and hearts, each year since 1918, at 11:00 on November 11, all of France and England come to a halt. Church bells ring, traffic pulls to the side of the road, and church services, schools, events and meetings all stop and remain quiet for 2 minutes. This has been going on for 100 years. The centennial ceremonies that happen this year on November 11 will not start until 2 minutes after 11:00. Every grave, no matter the nationality, will have a votive candle lit on top of its cross or star of David. That's how deeply the "War to end all wars" is still felt in France and England.
Strangely, there is still not a single World War I memorial in Washington, D.C., although one is finally being built near the White House at Pershing Park. We hardly learned anything about the Great War in school, perhaps because World War II was still so fresh in everyone's minds in the 1950s. We didn't learn that the humiliating and retributional way the WWI armistice was negotiated was directly responsible for Hitler's revenge in starting WWII.