In 2009, I visited the Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery in Belgium where many of the American casualities suffered in the Hürtgen Forest and Ardennes battles are buried. It was a Saturday near Veterans Day. As I arrived, a small group of civilians were just completing some unscheduled ceremony. After they stowed their flags and musical instruments into their cars, they moved onto the platform that overlooks the grave plots.
I approached one gentleman, asked if he spoke English (which, of course, he did), and asked about the ceremony we had just missed. It seems that his small group drove 90 miles to the American Cemetery to pay their respects to American war dead. At that point he took my hand firmly within his grasp and said “Thank you. We will never forget what you did to liberate us.” I shook his hand – but only on behalf of the men in the valley that spread out below us.
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One would think that First World War cemeteries were abandoned, long forgotten plots of ground. Not so. Even 94 years after the end of the war, these grassy spaces cut out of the cultivated fields of France see visitors. They come for many reasons; curiosity, historical interest or research, to seek the resting place of an ancestor, to commemorate an anniversary of a battle or great deed of heroism, and some come to bury the dead.
Such was the case on April 21, 2004 as we were touring Somme battlefield sites. Actually I had gotten lost – I was on the wrong road and I was searching for a route back to Albert. We passed Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Serre Cemetery #2. We recognized it as we had been here several times before. It is one of the largest on the Somme battlefield. Attacks in the area were frequent during the 1916 Battle of the Somme. In spring 1917, the German fell back to the Hindenburg Line leaving the area a great wasteland. A number of new cemeteries were then created to hold the dead from the previous year’s battles. After the war, Serre #2 became an accumulation cemetery for bodies originally buried in area churchyards. It now holds 7,127 Commonwealth burials from the First World War; of these 4,944 remain unidentified.
While this popular location is rarely completely empty, we noticed an unusually large number of vehicles parked along the road in front of it. Small groups of people milled about, including some in military uniform. We realized that some ceremony was about to take place, so we stopped to observe.
Unknown soldier burial; Serre Cemetery #2, 21 April 2004
It was spring 2004 almost one year after the American-led invasion of Iraq – a policy that was not well accepted in France. We had not sensed any hostility from the French people towards Americans, but many were clearly unhappy with the actions of the American government.
We had been touring battlefields near Chateau-Thierry and in particular Belleau Wood, the scene of the United States Marines’ month long struggle to capture that tough piece of terrain from entrenched German defenders. Our accommodations were to the east of Chateau-Thierry in a small B&B owned by two Americans who had spent their professional careers working in Paris. They retired to enjoy the rural French lifestyle and ran the B&B as a sideline. On the evening that we arrived, over a glass of white wine, they told us the following story.
The French are great for commemorations of the events of the two world wars. The First World War is remembered each year in every town and village on 11 November typically with a simple commemoration at the town’s war memorial followed by a vin d’honneur – a mini reception of Champagne and canapés held in the village hall. Cities frequently celebrate with elaborate parades and ceremonies, such as that at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. To a lesser extent, the Second World War is commemorated on 8 May. American contributions to both wars are recalled during ceremonies at the nineteen American military cemeteries in Europe on Memorial Day in late May. Continue reading
He was a carpenter suffering idleness following a severely disabling work accident and looking for some activity to occupy his idle hours. He had to keep his hands busy to keep his mind off on his constant pain. He could also not escape from where he lived. Ivan Sinnaeve lived in the heart of the Ypres battlefield of the First World War.
Ypres was a provincial town whose glory days were in the Middle Ages. It was seldom thought of outside the region until the opening months of the war. The initial German invasion of 1914 had carried across most of tiny Belgium before being stopped at the gates of the city by an Allied Army of French, Belgian and British soldiers. However, the action had left Ypres at the base of a protruding salient into enemy lines under continuous observation from enemy controlled high ground. For the next four years the German Army tried to eliminate the salient and the British Army defended it.
Ypres Menin Gate
Ypres was shelled, bombed, cursed, and died for thousands of times over. In military texts the battles around Ypres are given numerical titles; the 1st Battle of Ypres, the 2nd Battle of Ypres, the 3rd, the 4th. To the survivors, however, the battles have other names; the Gas Attack – the first use of poison gas in warfare in April 1915; Messines Ridge – the simultaneous explosion of nineteen mine shafts under German lines which obliterated 10,000 soldiers; and the ultimate obscenity – the Battle of Passchendaele. Continue reading
The fields and forests northwest of Verdun, bordered by the Meuse River on the east and the Forêt d’Argonne on the west, were the scene of the most intense fighting experienced by American forces during the First World War. The engagement raged from 26 September to 11 November 1918 and, because of the geography, became known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The combined French / American offensive was successful and contributed to the Germans seeking the Armistice which ended the war on 11 November.
Fighting northward through Varennes-en-Argonne, the Americans confronted a series of strong German defensive lines, or Stellung, given the names Hagen, Giselher, Kriemhilde, and Freya after characters in Wagnerian operas. The third of these was the most extensive and presented attackers with an almost continuous 10-mile belt of machine-gun positions and barbed wire. The terrain provided numerous opportunities for mutually supporting cross- and enfilade-fire and it exposed attackers to shelling from artillery hidden in the forests.
It was mid-spring 2005 and I had been in the area for several days reviewing the sites relating to the battle. On one particular afternoon, I drove the roadways near Brieulles-sur-Meuse to view the Kriemhilde Stellung terrain. Beside the road was a stone monument to the US 4th ‘Ivy’ Infantry Division, which had suffered 7,412 casualties in the brutal local fighting. I wanted a photograph and, contrary to my normal policy of finding a safe, public area to park, I instead turned onto muddy, farm track. After all, it was a quiet afternoon and nobody was about.
Struggling to get a perspective of the monument with the forests and hills of the stellung in the background, I climbed up a 7 foot verge and walked 300 feet or so along it. No sooner had I positioned myself, than I heard the rumble of heavy farm machinery. I knew immediately that it had to be coming down the farm track now blocked by my parked rental car. I hastened along the top of the verge and slipped down the steep incline in time to meet the tractor that had stopped just inches away from the car’s front bumper. I prepared myself for a tongue-lashing in French, or worse. The tractor’s driver stepped out of the cab and climbed down – presenting me with what I thought must be the largest farmer in northern France. Continue reading