- Historic Sites
Still Quiet On The Western Front
Half a century ago the glitter of the prewar world was extinguished forever in a 400-mile-long quagmire of barbed wire and mud, dead men and dying hopes. Recently AMERICAN HERITAGE sent a perceptive journalist-historian to revisit the scenes of that longest of all battles. Here is the peaceful present at such places as Verdun and Belleau Wood: the lawns are neat and green, but scaring memories remain.
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
Past the seven is the road up to the right bank of the Meuse and the heights where for ten bitter months Crown Prince Wilhelm’s army sought the city. The Meuse itself is a dreamy stream where old men equipped with immensely long fishing poles— they must be twenty-five feet in length—troll in the afternoons. The charmless and dull villages up on the heights are composed of but a few score houses each, and the narrow roads are never free of the droppings of the cows. Signs say: “This ground has been the Calvary of soldiers. Every square foot bears the marks of its bloody progress. Complete silence is requested out of respect for the thousands buried here.” One comes to a village signpost which says “Fleury.” The town is on all maps. But there is no town. It is gone, along with the other lost towns whose only physical reminders are that now and again, struggling through the thick undergrowth off the roads, someone will turn over a piece of red tile with his foot. Immediately after the war, when all this was wasteland and the returning refugees smoked constantly to dull the odor of the rotting boys, the government published notices saying that those who had lived here must not return. It took a lot of convincing before those who had lived in Fleury finally gave up and settled down elsewhere. Each year for decades they returned on one day, prayed at the little chapel erected in the woods, and elected a new mayor. They put up a sign where once their main street had been: “Here Was Fleury.”
Past the terrible sign is a great cemetery. On a hill facing the graves is the ossuaire . In the rear are a score of windows at waist level. One must bend and shade the eyes to see what is there. Bones are there—the bones of 150,000 unidentified men of both sides. Here is a window: See the neat piles of leg bones. Another: arms. Another: skulls. Another: skulls. Look at the hole in this one. See the spider weaving his web between the eye sockets. Through other windows in the ossuary one sees bones piled in unsorted confusion. This collection is ever-growing; often a wild boar rooting in the earth will show where more bones lie. Or during a forest fire a 75-mm. shell will blow up, fifty years late, and uncover more Unknown Soldiers.
Beyond the ossuary is the Trench of Bayonets. A shell buried alive a squad of French soldiers here. Only their bayonets protruded above the ground. The soldiers are still there, and their rusting bayonets and rifles also. Imagination looks down and unearths the lower part of the rifle and the hands and body of him who last touched this weapon. One sees his helmet and decayed rags of blue, perhaps, and metal buckles and the boots. Down there will be ammunition attached to the rotted leather belt, some coins, perhaps a pipe. Above is a concrete roof, erected by an American benefactor, and the visitors. Here is Grandmother, or perhaps it is Great-aunt, coming from the car where she sits behind with the children while the parents have the honored seats in front. By now they are all thoroughly bored with her stories.
A horn blows commandingly from a bus with German license plates; it signals that its passengers must climb aboard so that they may ride to Fort Douaumont. The fort today is a giant formless ruin with a few scarred gun turrets on its top. Near it is the little ravine through which the Germans came in 1916 to capture it and stun a France that believed Douaumont to be the strongest land fortification in the world. (A generation of German schoolboys grew up playing “The Capture of Douaumont.”) The ravine was called Strawberry Ravine, and the fruit still grows there and is sweet. At the top of the fort one looks out over much of the battlefield; standing on it as nobody safely could for years, one listens for the terrible guns lined up wheel to wheel that made this the most shelled part of the world’s surface and left this endless ugly collection of pockmarks. Across these wet fields under these dripping skies the trench lines wind off between the barbed-wire entanglements; in the muddy bottoms of those trenches and over the top strands of that wire France died as a world power. Ever after they haunted France, those dead adolescents and young men of this area little larger than New York’s Central Park. (In 1940 the Germans crossed in a quarter of an hour the fields their fathers could never cross.)