- Historic Sites
The Old Front Line
THREE-QUARTERS OF A CENTURY HAS NOT BEEN TIME ENOUGH TO EFFACE THE REMNANTS OF VIOLENCE ALONG A FOUR-HUNDRED-MILE FRONT
November 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 7
At no point in the project did we intend to record every single site. For one thing, we limited ourselves to photographing only those vestiges that were visible and identifiable as of World War I origin. Anything built after November 1918 was, with very rare exceptions, left unrecorded. As a rule, we discovered that the more level or fertile an area was, the fewer the remaining vestiges. Picardy and the Somme in particular have very few sites still intact. Agribusiness on an American scale (France is the secondlargest food exporter in the world) ensures that practically every square meter of land will be put to good use. But in the Vosges, hills and mountains remain pristine, and barbed-wire entanglements and bunkers are allowed to remain—until forest clearcutting takes over.
In the hard-to-reach places the relics of war can be especially immediate and affecting: in the pitch-dark mazes of abandoned quarries we found graffiti left by New England doughboys, German grenadiers, French chasseurs, and Welsh tommies. A barn used as a French troop theater still bears the cartoons drawn by an audience of poilus. The remains of a 150-mm howitzer lie in a ravine near Verdun; in th» Aisne large bolts set around a concrete pit mark the position of a giant cannon that fired on Paris, about seventy-five miles away. On an Alsatian mountainside stands an elaborate swimming pool; built in 1915 for a Bavarian regiment, it even had a boiler to keep the water at a comfortable temperature. Everywhere are monuments large and small, erected by units to honor their dead. Many of these are German, often carefully maintained by the local French municipalité in spite of the old enmity between the two nations. Each year the earth regurgitates tons of shells, grenades, and other lethal hardware. The French and Belgian governments collect this iron harvest and dispose of it, but each year accidents still occur. An enthusiastic tinkerer decides to saw a rusted-out shell in half and blows up with it; a child plays with a grenade and is maimed. Survivors may be awarded compensation as a “Civilian Victim of the War of 1914-1918.”
With the passing away of the last veterans, the War to End All Wars fades from human memory into the realm of history. A warship named Belleau Wood still cruises under the Stars and Stripes; reserve and active units still bear their old World War I names of Rainbow Division, or Harlem Hellfighters; in town squares stand monuments engraved with strange, forgotten names. But soon nobody will remember Cantigny and Ch‚teau Thierry, Langemarck and the Hartmannsweilerkopf. It is all the more important, then, that we never forget what this vanished generation did there.