The tools of war have changed. There were no IEDs, laser guided missiles or assault rifles a century ago. But the toll of war — the loss, pain and destruction — is constant. With the approach of Veterans Day, a time to remember the men and women who fought past wars, reporter Naomi Lewin and a friend made a personal pilgrimage to the French countryside, where Americans clashed with Germans in one of the last battles of the first World War.
World War I seems so distant today that most people don't feel a connection to it. But all my life, I've heard my mother say that both her father's brothers were killed fighting in World War I, and that their mother never got over it. "My grandmother was always dressed in black," she told me. "She stayed in mourning for her two lost sons."
Almost 10,000,000 solders lost their lives in the trench warfare so vividly described in Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque, himself a World War I veteran, wrote, "At the front there is no quietness… Even in the remote depots and rest-areas, the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears." If any of the soldiers who fought in France were alive today, they'd never believe the quietness.
In the village of Fey en Haye, all you hear are bells, birds, and distant highway traffic. Nothing in Fey en Haye is over 85 years old, including the church at the intersection of the only two streets. The reason is etched into the side of the church, right beneath a pair of stained glass windows featuring soldiers, rather than saints. It reads, Situated on the front line during all of the hostilities, under incessant bombardment, totally destroyed, this village, by its ruins, has gained the gratitude of the entire country.
For nearly four years, Fey en Haye was in a no man's land created by a bulge in the battle line known as the Salient of St. Mihiel. My friend Brad and I, along with René Mathern, a Frenchman from Strasbourg who offered to drive us, were following a new guide to the Salient created by Jean-Charles de Belly.
The 29-year-old historian, who works for the local municipal government, is a man on a mission. As he explains, "This is very important for us to explain to the new generation, and my generation, that the young American people come here in France, and died in France for the liberty of French people."
De Belly's office is in Thiaucourt, a town full of testaments to Franco-American friendship. In Thiaucourt's church — still standing, still pockmarked by gunfire — the steeple bells are dedicated to the memory of Oliver Baty Cunningham, a Chicago native who (according to the plaque) "gave his life for his country and for France." Next to the church, larger-than-life bronze statues of an American doughboy and a mustachioed French soldier clasp hands.
De Belly is passionate in his belief that no political squabbles will ever erase the bond forged on local battlefields. "This friendship is éternel," he says, slipping briefly into French, "because of the blood of young Americans in Thiaucourt in the American cemetery, 4,000 young Americans. We never forget."
Thiaucourt is home to two major World War I cemeteries: for the 4,000-plus young Americans and the more than 11,000 young Germans who died here. De Belly says each of the cemeteries has its own elegance. "The German cemetery is very sober, very simple. There's no fanfare. It's clearly the cemetery of the conquered. But you can see that the American cemetery is a cemetery of glory!"
Glory indeed: enormous, wrought-iron gates emblazoned with golden eagles; every blade of manicured grass the same brilliant green; rows and rows of marble crosses, and occasional Stars of David, each carved with a name, state, and date of death.
Brad and I walk down one row, past Albert Cook from Iowa, who died December 5, 1918; Carney Timmons from California, who was killed on February 14, 1919; and so many others who helped win the war, and then didn't make it back.
The German cemetery lies on the other side of Thiaucourt. Here, the waist-high gate is gunmetal grey, and the lawn is flecked with wildflowers. The sweet scent of linden trees wafts through the air, and we can hear the gentle clank of farm machinery from neighboring fields. German soldiers rest four to a plot, so each cast-aluminum cross is embossed with four names. Except the Jewish soldiers; their graves are each marked with a plain stone tablet.
It's one of those that I'm looking for, with my mother's story about her grandmother ringing in my ears. "She had three sons: the oldest one must have been brilliant, he was a lawyer; the second one was my father; and the third one was just a kid when he joined — just straight out of school when he joined up."
Even though he and his brothers fought for "the Fatherland" in World War I, two decades later, when Jewish men were rounded up in the months leading up to World War II, the Fatherland took my grandfather into custody. My mother says his mother's reaction was instantaneous. "She said, "Come, let's go to the Gestapo. I'll do the talking." And she went in! it was unheard of for a Jewish person to go the Gestapo voluntarily. And when she came out, she said, "It's all right, they promised me they'd let him go." And we said, "Well, what did you say?" and she said, "I gave two sons to Germany in the war, and you will give me my third one back!" Astoundingly enough, they did give him back.
Deep into the cemetery, I found it, the grave of my great-uncle Curt Gaertner, the brilliant lawyer. And then, the heavens opened. With rain streaming from the sky, and tears streaming down my cheeks, all I could think of was the gaping holes that war tears in the fabric of families.
Then, as the rain turned torrential, we ducked under the lindens, and René, our French driver, told me about his sister. "In the last World War, in '43, Strasbourg was bombed, and I lost my sister. It was bombed by the Americans, because we were under German occupation. She was 13, and I was born two years later, so I never knew her. It's weird to have a sister you never knew," he added.
War tears gaping holes in the fabric of families.
Following Jewish custom, we placed stones on my great-uncle's grave marker, and I recited "El malei rachamim," a prayer that's said at funerals, and in cemeteries.
Curt Gaertner died on February 25, 1915, before my mother's parents ever met. Was it in the five-month battle over the village of Fey en Haye that ended in March 1915? Or in one of the trenches, now overgrown with moss and ivy? Or in the town of St. Mihiel, which, with no hint of irony, now displays a sign for a German sister city? Leaving the cemetery, we discovered a visitor's book filled with entries from all over the world. Aurora, Indiana: "So many wasted lives." Spain: "Long live peace." A French school group: "war is horrible".
Jean-Charles de Belly had recommended one final stop along his guide to the St. Mihiel Salient: Rémenauville. Like Fey en Haye, this village was completely destroyed. But it was not rebuilt. Instead, a canopy of silent woods has grown up around pathways that once were streets.
Plaques in German, French, and English (the three languages of the combatants) poke out of the undergrowth, marking where buildings once stood. I found one for a farm, the school, where the wheelwright was, and the city hall. "The woods have taken over," Brad observed. "There is something incredibly peaceful about the way the woods come back to what was a pile of ruins."
All is now unbelievably quiet on the Western Front.