The Old Front Line

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It is early fall in France, anf the forest is silent and peaceful. A man, dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying a metal detector and a sawed-off pickax, disappears into the misty underbrush. Here and there holes in the ground are half-filled with deads leaves; strands of rusty barbed wire hang from corkscrew-shaped metal posts. The forest, about forty miles from Paris, is officially called the Bois de la Brigade Marine. The French government has given this land to the United States; Americans know it as Belleau Wood. It was here that men of a U.S. Marine Corps brigade, attached to the 2d Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Forces, fought a desperate battle to keep the German army from reaching Paris in the summer of 1918. Most visitors to the site look at the cemetery and its ornate chapel, the hunting lodge, the captured German 77-mm guns whose wheels have long since rotted away, and the marble monument. Then they drive off to visit the imposing Aisne-Marne monument above Château-Thierry. Meanwhile, the man in camouflage is back, smiling. He has found what he was looking for: uniform buttons and a U.S.M.C. cap badge. Since his activity is now illegal, he vanishes with his treasure, adding to the collection of Marine relics he has been amassing for several years.

 
 

Today, seventy-five years after the armistice went into effect at 11:00 A.M. on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, buses take thousands of people to visit the battlefields along a five-hundred-mile line stretching from the seacoast of Belgian Flanders to the French-Swiss border in Alsace. The tourists are mostly shown cemeteries, monuments, an occasional fort, towns mentioned in books, rebuilt in the twenties and showing few traces of war. Indeed, the French and the Belgians, faced with the utter devastation of lands where countless villages literally sank into the earth, wanted only to forget the disaster that had befallen them. Once the armistice was signed, the farmers, helped by immigrant workers and German prisoners of war, began to fill in the trenches and the millions of craters. They loaded entire trains with dud shells, tons of barbed wire and steel pickets, wagonfuls of the skulls and bones of thousands of men who never had a proper burial. In heavily contested areas like Verdun the land resisted all attempts at cultivation. It was only in the mid-thirties that someone discovered that Austrian black pines would grow in the lunar soil. Eventually the trees matured and are now being harvested, the stumps are bulldozed, the ground leveled, and hardwoods like beeches are planted. In another sixty-odd years these too will be cut, and the land may at last be returned to farming, as it was before 1914.

As a child growing up in France, I would spend hours looking at magazines illustrated with sepia-colored photographs of trenches filled with machine-gunned bodies and of French soldiers going into the attack, bayonets glinting in the sun. The “poilus” looked old and strange with their mustaches, ridged helmets, and nightmarish gas masks.

People lowered their voices when they mentioned Verdun or the Chemin des Dames. The message, even to a child, was clear: These were places marked by Death. Years later I learned that about six hundred thousand men had died in Verdun in a tenmonth struggle that ended, like most other First World War battles, in stalemate. I also read about Loos, Ypres, and the Battle of the Somme, where the British Expeditionary Force suffered almost sixty thousand casualties in a single day . Once in a while I would wonder if these events, which took place before I was born, could truly have happened. It seemed incredible that a million and a half Frenchmen could have died in only four years and that another million had been maimed or gassed. Such a cataclysm must have left traces. If one hundred thousand shells exploded every day on the Verdun battleground, wouldn’t a few be left? I finally decided to go and look.

It was December 1984 when I arrived in Verdun, two weeks before Christmas. The tragic city of my 1916 magazines seemed prosperous enough: blue-jeaned teen-agers hung around, and people shopped for presents and bought daintily wrapped pastries or the famous local product, sugared-almond drag»es. The next morning I drove up into the barren hills surrounding the city, where half-frozen soldiers, standing up to 210- and 420-mm shells, flamethrowers, and poison gas, had denied the German army access to the city at their backs. The well-maintained road wound through dense pine forests; there was a monument here and there, a museum, the ruins of a fort. Disappointed, I parked on the shoulder and walked straight into the woodland. Then I froze as if I had been about to step on a coiled rattlesnake. Jutting out of the earth were the fuzes of a dozen live artillery rounds. Beyond them I could see French canteens with their twin spigots, mess kits, a rusty metal bowl that had been a German helmet, a mosscovered hobnailed boot, more duds. There were shell holes everywhere of all sizes, some fifteen feet deep; vague ruts that had been trenches, holes in the soil that had been dugouts. The war might have ended the previous year. I returned to Verdun several times over the course of five years and never ceased to be moved by the aura of the place.