Friday, November 11, 2011

The War to End All Wars

Commemoration ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe
I’m too young to remember World War II.  So I’m obviously even more too-young to remember World War I. But if you’ve ever lived a while in France, you know that it’s still alive in many memories passed down from deceased grandfathers.
     Some years ago there was talk of eliminating November 11th - the day the Great War ended - as a French holiday. That raised such a tumult that the holiday was re-instated.
     As today is November 11st - and a special one at that, being 11/11/11 - I thought it would be only proper to... well, to commemorate a bit. So here are a few personal Grande Guerre memories.

It’s often said that France and America have a love-hate relationship. One reason for that animosity is that the United States waited so long to enter both World Wars... and only did so in the Great War when the Germans sank the Lusitania, recasting those hard-working Teutonic Protestants into cold-blooded murdering Krauts. Before then, the war didn’t "concern" Americans. What is now called our "national interests" don’t seem to have been an issue in those isolationist times. Meanwhile, from 1914 to 1917, the carnage was being played out on French soil, and at a very heavy price (see figures below). Every single village, town and city in France has a monument aux morts, a monument to the Fallen dating from the Great War, and it’s heart-breaking to see the same family name carved over and over again. An entire generation of young men was pretty much wiped out, to say nothing of the devastation to the French countryside, as the front line moved back and forth only a few yards during four long years. Forests were decimated, houses were razed by bombing, fields were annihilated.  If the civilian population wasn’t killed by bullets or bombs, they starved to death. Children never grew into normal-sized adults because they had so little to eat during those formative years... and also afterwards, until the fields could be cleared and replanted and coaxed to grow again.
American Embassy in Paris
     Most of France north of Paris was occupied during World War I. Which is why there are many monuments scattered across the countryside. My first months in Paris, I hung out at the American Embassy a lot, hoping to find some help in employment - in vain. What I did find were about two dozen Marines who guarded it, and they had barracks where they held a dance party every Friday night. It cost to get in, unless you were a girl. As my very first apartment was only a few blocks away, I went almost every Friday at first. The music blared - Aretha Franklin mainly - and some of the guys became friends (although I’ve lost track of all of them since). They were a rowdy lot but they adopted me like a little sister, being American and knowing how to dance pretty well.
     One of them, who was a Philippine immigrant and whose name was Mel, was interested in history. He and another Marine decided to visit the World War II battlegrounds, and they asked if I wanted to come along - probably to ask for directions if they got lost because they didn’t speak French. Being Marines, they wanted to see the Memorial overlooking Belleau Wood - the deadliest day in Marine history - and the U.S. cemetery in Chateau-Thierry, where graves marked only by a white cross rippled out in waves. Their number seemed overwhelming (until I saw the American Cemetery above Normandy’s D-Day beaches).
     It was a strange road trip, a mix of fun and melancholy far from home on doubly foreign terrain. And my first taste of what war must be like. I can’t imagine how it felt to these two Marines, fresh from the front lines in Viet Nam.

Three decades later my interpreting career took me back to the battlefields of the Great War, but this time farther north, to the Chemin des Dames near Laon. Dan Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer had an assignment to write about the stand-off in the trenches of World War I. It must have been for the 70th anniversary of the end of the war. We drove up and spent the day with a team of démineurs, the men who are still removing land mines and munitions unearthed in the French countryside. First they took us through one of the caves in the chalky bluffs that the Germans used during their three-year occupation. There were still a few metal bed frames from 1914 in the long galleries, wiring still hanging for the overhead lights, and some faded pin-ups painted on the walls. These caves had acted as barracks for both sides in the fight, depending on who held the terrain at that particular moment. We were told to be sure to step exactly where the démineurs stepped and not to slip because there were still munitions lying around - teenagers had found some and so a new sweep had to be made of the cave. They found enough to take outside and blow up, with us visiteurs américains taken off a safe distance to watch.
     Then we had to swing by in the van to pick up a huge shell found by a farmer plowing his field. He had simply hauled it to the side of the road, stood it up on its end, wrapped some red plastic tape around it to mark it and called the squad to come pick it up. Highly dangerous, but these farmers grew up finding such "treasures" again and again. When we talked to the farmer’s father, he said he was just a boy during la Grande Guerre but he remembered always being hungry.
     From there the démineurs took us back to the 17th century fort where they stock all the munitions they find. Some are partially corroded and they don’t know whether there’s dreaded mustard gas inside or just explosives, so special facilities were being built to dispose of these bombs. In the meantime, they just pile them up by category and hope for the best. The munitions from World War II were more clearly marked, much less old, and therefore less dangerous. Our guide even showed me one massive black cannonball left behind by Napoleon’s army in the early 1800s!
     And then we went to lunch, where these men all agreed that they wouldn’t want their sons or daughters to follow in their footsteps. It’s too dangerous a job, cleaning up after old wars.

But my first - and only - direct link with la Grande Guerre was Mademoiselle Morelle. This wisp of a women stood about 4'10" and I don’t know how the wind didn’t blow her away. Her blue eyes still sparkled, as did her mind, her hair was always neat and her clothes always fashionable..
     I met her at the neighborhood bookshop just down the street from my apartment in Montmartre. And even though she was in her eighties, she still did her own shopping, but had trouble carrying her groceries back up the hill. So she’d drop by and leave half her bananas and half her pack of yogurts in the bookseller’s fridge - half of everything, really - then pick them up the next day. She always had a kind word to say, and a little song to sing to my then-young children.
     One day I carried her things back up the hill to her apartment, which was like a time capsule. Because Mademoiselle Morelle was a fiancée de la Grande Guerre. That means she was engaged to someone who marched off to war and never came back. It was the fate of well over a million Frenchmen, and many fiancées made a vow never to marry... and never did. She must have been a real beauty in her day and, as I said, she had sparkly eyes, so I find it hard to believe no man ever asked her to marry him. But love was more unrequited then, and there were many, many of these women, these fiancées de la guerre.
     Mademoiselle Morelle was very proud of the Mademoiselle part. Once the bookshop was sold, I ran into her less. The last time I saw her, she was walking ever so slowly, on the arm of one of the aides that the city hall of Paris provides for the elderly. And she was still a Mademoiselle.
     By now she must have passed on, and I like to think she’s been reunited with her dashing young French soldier.


Monument aux Morts
France accounted for 25% of all military deaths among the Entente powers; America only 2%. Most civilian deaths were due to "war-related famine". France totaled 1,697,800 deaths out of an army of 8,410,000 soldiers. That means 4.29% of its population of 39 million. Add on another 4,266,000 severely wounded military and you get a better idea of the devastation. (Source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)
     Compare that to American losses as quoted by the U.S. Department of Defense: 116,516 (including 53,402 battle deaths and 63,114 non-combat deaths, mostly from the Spanish flu.) The Coast Guard lost an additional 192 dead.. Estimated American civilian losses include 128 killed on the RMS Lusitania, as well as 629 Merchant Marine personnel killed on merchant ships.

1 comment:

  1. Oh, Sandy, what a great piece ! You have helped me fall in love with Mlle. Morelle, and her sparkling eyes. I love old ladies, anyway, and it's always an honor to meet a refined and kind soul who has come through great hardship without the bitterness and resentment that corrupts the soul. Yeats noted "Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart" but Mlle. Morelle appears to have avoided this, happily for her, and for you and your kids. I'm glad they got to meet her.
    In Kissena Park, down in Flushing, there is a statue commemorating those who died in the Korean War. I find it touching, sobering, appropriate. Ambrose Bierce defined "Peace" as "A period of cheating between two periods of fighting." I wish he were not so accurate all the time.