Sunday, November 11, 2007

Education Before Verdun

Veterans Day -- Armistice Day.

From my UNC journal, part of a requirement for a summer class spent in Europe under the guidance of Jim Leutze and with my great friend, San Antonio Bill (I was twenty years old at the time):

May 28, 1981, Thursday

Another long, informative day. . . We gathered at the jardin de Tuilleres, where Tom lectured about wartime Paris, the occupation, and the liberation. He covered the French people’s decision to save the city and surrender, and Hitler’s later orders to blow it up. He also mentioned French resistance, especially from 1944 onwards. I had an unforgettable feeling sitting there in the middle of one of humankind’s great centers. The culture is still there for all to see, a remarkable city. The French were right to surrender it intact, for it has survived and the Third Reich passed out of existence.

We were given some free time, so several of us went to the Hôtel des Invalides and paid respects to Napoleon. I vividly recalled the picture of Hitler looking down upon the tomb with similar respect. Two of the great emperors of human history, nothing but dust and memories now.

We left Paris after lunchtime and motored to the U.S. monument at Chateau Thierry. It was raining again when we got out. Dr. Leutze chased away some French punks who were disturbing the memorial area, and then gave a brief lecture on U.S. entry into WWI.

Seeing the monument and the overthrow triggered something in my brain. I became so angry at our entry into that war to be almost fuming. We had no business in it, a stupid cause. The Germans in the Great War weren’t any worse than the British or the French. Our wartime propaganda was ludicrous (as it usually is) -- in this case, the Huns using the diabolically inhuman submarine -- the same goddamned weapon we used to destroy the Japanese merchant fleet 25 years later! Righteous hypocrisy.

Belleau Wood

The curator was surprisingly anti-war, stressing in detail war’s horrors. It was a perfect horror story, this articulate older man telling us of the grimmer side of the Great War in the front room, while outside the battlefield was covered with darkness and rain.

Having finished gruesome stories about rats and disease, he led us into a back room that housed hundreds of wartime artifacts. Some of the shells were still live. After this we plunged into the rain and Belleau Wood, where wild boars still roam. It was a dreadful, eerie place. Two guns sat back in the woods along with thousands of still missing bodies. Bits of rotted wood, black with iron from shell fragments littered the ground. Shell holes half full of blackened water were everywhere. And the caretaker continued about the battlefield horrors. It was a nightmare.

We swung around and looked at a bunch of artillery gathered at a car turnaround, then headed back down to the cemetery. I walked down the aisles, looking for a familiar last name or town, sickened by the present prospects for yet another horrible war. . .

May 29, 1981, Friday

After looking at the Reims Cathedral, we proceeded to the Little Red Schoolhouse, which wasn’t little at all! I became bored so left the group and drank a couple beers at the bar next door. Since I had a German guidebook to the Schoolhouse, the Frenchies seemed to think I was a German. It was pretty funny, but I escaped by hopping into a van right outside the door. . . .

May 30, 1981, Saturday

The past two days have kept us quite busy. Yesterday was an especially long day. We began in earnest at Fort Douaumont, where a guide gave us a very good tour. His convictions were uncannily similar to the guide at Belleau Wood; only near the end did we find that he was a German veteran of WWII. Here was a man sick of war and inhumanity, looking at the Verdun battle not as a German, but as a world citizen. His words were really felt -- war is horrible, and we must do everything to avoid another big one. Afterwards we went above ground, and Dr. Leutze lectured on Verdun. From atop the fort we could see most of the immediate battlefield. We could see later that it was indeed “as pockmarked as the moon.”

We drove next to Fort Vaux, scene of more vicious fighting (described in The Price of Glory). Cemented into the face of the fort is a poignant little memorial from a mother to her son, “a mons fils.” Since her son died, she could never rest without grieving.

We next drove to the Maginot Line and after lunch toured Fort Fermont. We spent hours underground in the dank complex. It was impressive engineering, reminding me of nothing so much as an ant colony. The soldiers moved about like automatons, little ant-men fighting an ant-war. Men are not ants, and underground fortifications like this are a horrible place to fight. Then again, anywhere is a horrible place to fight.

We returned to Verdun and rested momentarily. Then off we went again in the early evening, this time to the haunting Ossuary cemetery. This was a dreadful place -- the resting home for more than 300,000 soldiers killed at Verdun, thousands of them unidentified. I only wish we could have photographed the horrors in the bottom windows of the main structure -- huge piles of leg bones, arm bones, ribs, joints, knuckles, and most disconcerting of all, grinning skulls. This place more than any other really got to us.

Inside was a tear-jerking memorial to known French dead, including facilities to light candles in their honor. Many of the group did. Inside the little gift shop was a rare find: a postcard of Marshal Petain, the French hero of WWI but supposed villain in WWII. Poor old guy, at least he’s remembered in Ossuary.

Outside were thousands more soldiers of the French empire, victims of Verdun. One section was devoted to the French North Africans, with Muslim minaret grave stones instead of the usual Christian crosses or Stars of David. It was a sorrowful place, so similar to all the cemeteries we’ve seen.

That still wasn’t all. The final touch came at the Trench of the Bayonets where a squad of French soldiers were supposedly buried alive standing up so that only their rifles and bayonets protrude from the dirt. Whether true or not -- the rifles are there, sticking out of the dirt – doesn’t really matter. The myth is more real than reality, the way it brings home war’s banality. That’s what counts.

Today's Rune: Opening.


Charles Gramlich said...

Quite a few blog posts on this subject today. I used to have a great interest in WWII and read so much about it. I seem to have gotten away from that in the last fifteen years. It was an incredible war, though.

the walking man said...

Very well kept and ordered Journal Erik. But not all war is of no use and not every weapon is wrong to use.

Personally I would that the world knew peace if only for a month but that is a fallacy for fools. If one area of the globe is not busy killing the "ants" upon it then another is, such it has been since the dawn of oral and written histories.

Nothing will stop it, ever, there is too much money to be made from the production of disposable machinery of war, men included, for there would be no profit if there were none to wield the arms of war.

Yet I think those liberated from the Nazi camps, Jews, Gypsies, Gays and intellectuals did not care about what weapons were used if it meant the over throw of the Reich, which may never had come about but for the treaty of Versailles.

In those two wars which are rapidly fading into history had the first been resolved as well as the second (at least for the west) maybe the second would not have been necessary.

I also think that when the North Koreans came rushing down the peninsula in the name of their politic and the Chinese sending hundreds of thousands more across the Ya Lu that the south was grateful for the UN forces that fought to at least regain a truce between the communists and the democracy leaning south and great restraint was used in that war which could have gone nuclear at the push of a button.

But you are right wars are fought on battlefields by men and the dead never leave those places as they were before the battle began.

Too old for Vietnam drafting but a righteous protester of that war you fought your battles as well. You may not get a medal but you too get honor as a veteran, because you personally stood up for what you believed in, in the face of a hostile force.



Pythia3 said...

Wow, incredible post. You have always had a great talent for writing and expressing your thoughts. I agree with what Mark said; very well kept and ordered journal.
Your passion is so apparent when you write about political issues, especially wars.
That running cost of the war at the bottom of your page is scary and unbelievable.
Well, I don't have internet right now, but occasionally I tap into a wireless network - that is why I have not been around in a while.
Take care and enjoy this beautiful day!