Vingt-Quatre

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Near the end of a full day driving the Meuse Argonne battlefield I walked among some of the 14,000 graves in the largest American cemetary in France. I had been calling out the names of the dead and the dates of death on the headstones when I stopped one last time and asked Claudia to take my picture. After she honored my request she said, “that date is exactly 100 years ago today.”

That headstone is the first image in today’s photo collection. The second is the poppy she pointed out to me as we entered Fort Douaumont. Until our visit I didn’t fully understand the importance of Verdun. For the past five days we have been traveling through Germany (enemy territory) circa 1914. Despite mentioning Alsace’s changing hands so often I didn’t think of it being foreign until today. The French built a massive multi-fort complex right on their German border for protection. The Germans owned both banks of the Rhine and had no need to ford a wide river to invade France. Douaumont was a massive and heavily armed menace. When it fell to the Germans the French did what the Germans hoped they would do. They bled themselves white in an attempt to recover the fort. Retaking it cost France 400,000 soldiers. It took millions of tons of ordnance to win it back and left it with a new German nickname, “Sarge deckle” or “The coffin lid.”

All across the trenches the land still looks like ski hill moguls where it was made lumpy from heavy shells. Time has only softened them while water flowing in Duouamont’s ruins had for the last 103 years had left stalagtite straws hanging from the ceiling. As you can see, its not only humans who enter its chambers.

At the massive ossuary next door hundreds of thousand of German and French bones are commingled together. You can see them through small windows in the back. No cameras were allowed in the memorial hall above. We quietly walked its length and Claudia lit candles and placed them with others in memory of the fallen. Cameras were allowed in the tower where I took a picture of the place where the fort had once towered over the landscape.

We had time for one last objective, traveling the width of America’s sector in the Meuse Argonne, that cost 26,000 American lives, and paying our respects at the American cemetary at Romagne. 14,000 men and women are buried there including black American soldiers who in death were finally accorded equality.

On the way there we stopped at Montfaucon where Congress paid for a fitting memorial honoring our role in the war. There are others but this one towers over the heights where Germans rained death on the doughboys. A ruined church lies at its feet and the climb to the top takes some work. From the bottom the memorial’s staircase is hypnotic.

I was heartened at our last stop to see that African American soldiers were given their due in the visitor’s center. It was formerly built to accomodate the mothers and families of American soldiers who crossed the ocean at government expense to visit their son’s graves. A picture of Henry Johnson was prominent. He was a black soldier from my grandfather’s regiment. And a video history made it plain that black Americans were forced to find American soldiers remains long after the battles so that they coud be collected together in proper cemeteries. It was gruesome work.

To return to our hotel we traveled through the fabled Argonne Forest where more Americans lost their lives. I snapped a picture there too.

some of the pics: