Going to Another Country sometimes brings you Home
It seems only right that I write this on the 4th of July, swelling my chest and being proud to be an American. One of the most unexpected events in my life took place in an American Cemetery in Western France. I found myself in a cemetery amongst the graves of the fallen from World War I, just boys, some as young as the age of 16. For a full week my eyes were full of tears though I personally, didn’t know a single one.
I had gone to Aisne-Meuse region in search of another story, but what I found rocked me even more. I was told by my hosts that I was going to be surprised by the American cemeteries verses both the French and German and I didn’t understand at the time.
First I must admit, that I did not even know our government had established The American Battle Monuments Commission, in 1923, is an agency of the executive branch of the federal government that oversees the care, the maintenance, the monuments and welcoming centers for all 26 permanent American cemeteries in ten countries. These military memorials are given exquisite care. Eighty positions held by former military members, are charged with a mission to tell the stories of the soldiers that laid beneath the headstones for family members and all who asked. Also there are local guides on duty, as it turns out there are more Europeans that visit these cemeteries sadly, than Americans.
There are 124,000 American war dead interred in these cemeteries and eleven separate monuments. After the War the families were given the option of bringing their sons home or letting them remain buried in American cemeteries abroad. And if so, they could come and visit these grave sites. The United States Congress in 1929 passed legislation to fund travel for mothers of the fallen soldiers of World War I to visit their sons’ graves in France. Over three years, 6,693 Gold Star Mothers made the trip. This had to be so emotionally charged and altering each of their lives in indelible ways. These very different Gold Star Mothers from all different states and backgrounds traveled to the American Cemeteries to say final good-byes to their sons.
What I found was the difference was the fact as there is a guardian team that keeps these memorials in pristine condition with barely a leaf out of place. There are Welcome Centers, which are purposefully designed like a living room and each is in the care of an American superintendent who is there to assist. You are personally welcomed you can sit, relax to find the resting place of family member or read and see photos of others who rest here.
At Oise-Aisne Cemetery which contains the remains of 6,012 American who lost their lives while fighting in the vicinity in 1918, the headstones are divided into four plots with lovely rose beds sheltering the pure white marble markers. At the very end there is a curving colonnade with a chapel on one end that has a Wall of Remembrance to those 241 missing.
Though I did not know a single name on those rows of headstones, it was the way that Hubert Caloud touched them brought me to tears, it was a loving hand that caressed each as he told me a tale of who lay beneath. He made it his duty to pass along the history of that young lad, or nurse or child that didn’t survive. I was greatly touched by the photos and stories of the soldiers that lie in these meticulously groomed fields. Caloud was the Superintendent here who, in my mind went above and beyond his duty to study a name on a cross and find out something relevant, perhaps something that a mother would tell about her son to pass it along. I ended that day full of gratitude for people like him.
As it was near five pm and I think his perception of how amazed and proud I was, asked if I would like the honor of taking part in the Retreat flag ceremony. I don’t think I have folded the triangles of a flag since I was a Girl Scout. I was as nervous and proud as if I were doing this in a stadium full of people. What a wonderful experience!
I know that Normandy’s cemeteries seem to get all the attention and glory, but here on the Western front the baptism of fire, gas, and horrors laid the ground for another devastating war just twenty-one years later. Some in the same fields.
I truly feel that if we were taught our history of real people that walked before us we would not want to tear our current world apart.