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.
The First World War began on this road. There is a monument on the exact spot. It celebrates Jules André Peugeot, corporal of the 44th Regiment of Infantry. On August 2, 1914, some thirty hours before the declaration of war between Germany and France, Peugeot and four soldiers with him gave letters home to the local mail carrier, who took them and went oft. There was a house then where now there is the monument. The daughter of the house went across this road to the spring from which the family and the soldiers got their water. At the edge of a field she saw horsemen. They wore spiked helmets. The girl ran, screaming “The Prussians!” Corporal Peugeot came out of the house carrying a rifle. He stood on the slight rise where his monument is now and saw, coming toward him at a gallop, a German officer on a horse. He raised his rifle and shouted, “Stop there!” The German, who was Lieutenant Camille Mayer, held a revolver. On it was written in Latin, “For the War.” He fired three times past his horse’s head. Peugeot fired back.
Mayer swayed in the saddle. His horse passed the house and kept going. Peugeot turned and reeled. Four shots.
It had been a very hot summer, and the roads and fields of this wet region would have been drier than usual. So when Peugeot fell across the threshold of the house, and Mayer slid out of his saddle, each would have found dust rather than mud. The site of their encounter was never to be important again. The nearest big battlefield is a few miles north, on a high peak whose actual name is Hartmannsweilerkopf but which the French soldiery of fifty years ago termed “Old Armand.” It is part of the eastern face of the Vosges Mountains, which looks down across the flat plains of Alsace leading the few miles to Switzerland.
On Old Armand the trench lines wind off in all directions, resembling choked medieval moats. Moss grows from the top of dugouts and there are great piles of rusting barbed wire. It is difficult to walk over the area; the barbed wire hidden in the undergrowth tears at the shoes, and one falls into shell holes. Parents warn their children to be careful of the rusted sheet metal dangling from the dugout ceilings, and scold them when they scrape themselves on the barbed-wire spiurs, which, perhaps dulled by the long years, are no longer really very sharp. Through the holes cut in the thick steel of the machine-gun emplacements—the little doors to cover the holes still swing gratingly shut —the children bend and squint to see Switzerland’s mountains in the haze. There is a cemetery and a crypt on Old Armand. In front of each grave, with its insignia MORT POUR LA FRANCE, a rosebush is growing, and before some, relatives have long ago placed little memorials: a crucified Christ, a few stone flowers. In front of one of the graves there is a small plaque perhaps eight inches square. On one half of it, protected by glass, there is a picture of a young man with a military mustache. Under the picture is written: “To the memory of Jules Pierre, Sergeant of the 152nd Regiment of Infantry. Fallen on the 26th of March, 1916.” On the other half of the plaque is a picture of a roundfaced and serious little boy. Under the child’s picture is: “To our little Jules. Darling.”
People pose their children in front of the high flagpole with the tricolor waving in the wind over the graves of those who, had it all been different, would have been grandfathers to children like these. In this high, stony place there is a notice that visitors are in the presence of tens of thousands of soldiers who fought for France, and down in the crypt are flowers given by The Blinded of France and The Colonies in Honor of Their Valiant Comrades, and a simple cross, really just two pieces of wood, placed by the Boy Scouts of France and Germany before a pedestal topped with a corroding helmet. There is a Jewish star upon one stone wall and under it: “From the four winds come O Spirit and breathe upon these slain …” and, on another wall, the words: “I am the Resurrection.” In the middle, waist-high, is a drum-shaped bronze memorial as large as a living room. Upon its top is: LA PATRIE.
In Joncherey there is but the little monument. Only a slight exercise of imagination is needed, however, to project one’s mind back to the summer of 1914, that beautiful time ever after remembered as the sweetest months of men’s lives, to where Corporal Peugeot is lying dead across the threshold of the house and Lieutenant Mayer is dead upon the road. After Mayer’s patrol scatters into the woods, the two dead soldiers are picked up and put on a bed of straw in the local grange. They lie side by side for several hours. Then they are buried. Peugeot in civilian life was a schoolteacher. His mother was a schoolteacher, too. He was twenty-one years old. Mayer, the official French report said, was twenty to twenty-two years old “at the most.” His horse was taken by the French military authorities and given a new name: “Joncherey.”
Today the curé of the town, Father Marcel Holder, does not speak of the Boche and the Frenchman, or even the German and the Frenchman. Only of two bovs who killed each other.
Captain Japy’s widow lived until a few years ago. All through Poincaré and Clemenceau, through Léon Blum and the Popular Front, through Pétain and the Resistance, through Liberation and Indochina and Algeria, she lived on, coming Sunday after Sunday, birthday after birthday, Armistice Day after Armistice Day, to visit the place where her husband died for France. She never remarried. Lieutenant Bolle recovered from the loss of his arm and became a teacher and head of the boys’ school in Beaucourt, a few miles away. He lived until very recently. His wife remained friendly with Madame Japy, and each Armistice Day they went together with all the other people to hear Professor Bolle, for so he was called, deliver a speech at the little monument by the Moulin de la Caille. The one-armed professor’s war had lasted less than one hour, but for forty-five years he gave a talk each November 11. The newspaper of the town always reported that he was eloquent as he described the fight as “glorious” and said that France was proud of her “beautiful soldiers” who fell there. Girls sold, and sell, little decorations made by the Friends of the 235th Regiment of Infantry, which, as it says on the monument, “valiantly fought to forbid elements of the 29th and 30th Divisions of Germany access to the soil of France.” There was and is fired a salvo of one hundred shots from an artillery piece at dawn. There was a parade, the marchers fewer each year, even though the veterans of the Second War also go to the ceremony in a body. (They have few monuments of their own and never go to the places where they fought in 1940.) Children get up early and collect flowers from the farmers. And the wind blows across the empty fields and parts itself at the little monument with the names of the dead men, and stirs the shrubs and moves the bouquets placed in the wire holders attached to the monument when it was erected, and stings the eyes of those looking at the raised lettering: “Time removes everything but the memory”; “But these are in peace.” When the day is finished there is a dinner and the distribution of prizes from the little lottery that has raised money for the Friends of the 235th Regiment of Infantry, which fought and lost 164 soldiers of France at this skirmish, this one of a million tiny encounters, this unimportant affair which France and the world have long forgotten but which in this little area near the town of Montreux-Jeune is called the big battle, the great fight.
Today it is strangely silent, however much one strains to hear the sound of motors and sloshing boots and the mumbled throbbing of the distant places where for months on end the guns were never quiet. But the visible signs of battle are still present. Here are the long trenches, twelve feet deep then, six feet now that nature has half filled them up; here are the craters with cows scrambling up their sides; here is the metal plate used for protection against the shells and now used to roof sheds and support garden walls. In these fields it is impossible to walk for long without seeing rusted metal protruding up through the wet moss; here if you leave the road and go past the signs warning of Danger de Mort —“Danger of Death”—you will soon lose yourself in the scrub pine planted in the thirties when experts finally decided the soil was too gas- and shell-corrupted to reclaim for agriculture. Under trees or in stream beds are rusted grenades and shells, as terrifying as coiled snakes. Dig and you will find bullets, shell fragments, broken rifles, sardine tins, decayed canteens, unidentifiable bits of metal. It requires but a few minutes of work to hold in your hand what was last seen two generations ago by a boy in field gray or horizon blue. Now he is an old man in Leipzig or Nancy or, more likely, he is known as the grandfather or great-uncle who perished at Verdun.
The name on the signpost, seen from a moving car, catches the eye and holds it as the car sweeps past. Verdun. In the city itself, in one of the long, deep galleries of the citadel where the French troops found rest during their infrequent respites from the ever-wet trenches (it always rains here), there is a one-eyed veteran. His glass eye never moves. He gives foreigners a piece of paper typed in their language which asks that they not forget to tip him. Inside the gallery there are eight coffins covered with oilcloth flags. (No cotton or silk would last long in this dank wet place.) On the wall there is a great sign, “They Shall Not Pass.” By the third coffin from the rear a mannequin stands. It wears the uniform of the 132nd Regiment of Infantry, complete with helmet and cartridge cases. The hand holds a bouquet of plastic flowers resting on the coffin. All is as it was when, on November 10, 1920, a young soldier from the regiment’s honor guard selected for France her Unknown Soldier from among eight Unknowns. When he had placed his flowers on the third coffin from the rear, it was taken out and with the great and the mighty looking on, carried to Paris, and buried beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The other seven were taken to a cemetery just outside the city, where they lie in a semicircle with the information on a plaque above them that among these could be your father, your son, brother, husband, friend.
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.)
The neatly paved roads—for the convenience of the numerous tourists—are the only flat surface in this area. Everywhere else the tortured land rises and dips unevenly. The topsoil has in many places simply vanished, and it is said that any man who lived through Verdun must never have stood still. For every square inch was hit, not once but dozens of times. But alone in the deserted scrub pines of Le Mort Homme or in the silent, ever-wet ruins of Poivre it requires the most intense effort to realize that this dead place was the scene of a great turning point of history. Joncherey is different; the name is not famous, nor the event that took place there. One does not expect too much. Joncherey is not in our blood and in our memories; it was not at Joncherey that perished the legendary officers of the Great War who went into battle carrying their canes and saying to their men, “My dear friends, I will ask you to join me singing ‘La Marseillaise’ as we go over the top.” That was reserved for Verdun, that and the disappearance forever of all represented by France’s glorious uniform of red pantaloons, and Germany’s wonderfully martial spiked helmets. Madelon and Germania flocked to the stations to kiss the warriors— “À Berlin!” “Nach Paris!” —and in the end the trains stopped at Verdun. After terrible Verdun, after the mules drowning in this shell hole here, after the disemboweled boys screaming in this fallen-in dug-out, the nineteenth century was over and history was back on the track for what the twentieth was meant to be.
All this happened at Verdun. And yet no drums beat and there are no bugles. You must do it all yourself. Concentrating and looking back past the France and Germany that followed Verdun, past sick France sliding downhill and sick Germany with its monocled politicians in high stiff collars and their leather-booted prostitutes, you must say to yourself, Here under my feet and within the space I see, hundreds of thousands of men died, here the entire world turned over. Nobly wooded for at least a hundred miles, the heights of the Meuse are covered here with this scrawny pine. This dreary landscape where I stand listening and waiting was the focal point of all the civilizations of the world. Here came the Negroes of France’s colonial empire; here came the Bavarians asking, “Are there any Africans opposite?” Here came the young boy friends of the grey and obsequious old maids who make the beds in your Cannes or Paris hotel but who once wrote inspiring letters and knitted mufflers.
There is a guide who lives in the city of Verdun. His name is Charles Dreyfus. He is vaguely related to the Captain Dreyfus of The Affair. He fought in the war and afterward worked to clear the heights of the live shells, dead animals, human bodies. Now he takes tourists around. For the Americans he explains in his accented English just how it was. With the Germans he is completely correct and precise. The French say, “My grandfather——my uncle——my father——O Verdun!” and there is very little that he has to explain.
The emphasis of the war shifted north and west to where the British were. The Chemin des Dames became known as a quiet sector, and after a time British troops were sent there to rest up after their battles. But in 1918, in Ludendorff’s last great offensive, the Germans suddenly came pouring south, scattering the French and the few British and heading toward Paris.
In their rush the Germans rolled over the road which is just east of the Chemin des Dames. A section of that road, now N 44, was held by a few British troops, and most of the British along the road that day are still there. At the entrance to the cemetery is a large stone upon which is written THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE. The same kind of stone with the same words is in every British western-front cemetery save for the very tiny ones. It is called the Stone of Remembrance. In every cemetery, regardless of size, there is a stone cross—the Cross of Sacrifice. In this cemetery, as in all the others, there is a book kept in a metal container built into a little sheltered place by the entrance; the one here explains that this cemetery was created after the Armistice by collecting bodies from the immediate area. Nine hundred and fifty-five men are buried in La Ville-aux-Bois—Pontavert Cemetery. There are also eighteen stones commemorating men buried elsewhere.
There is another book; the Visitors’ Book. Ever since this cemetery was set up, there has been a Visitors’ Book in which one is requested to sign his name and add any comment he likes. Every few years a book is filled up with several hundred names and comments, and is taken away and put in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission files. And a new one is substituted. There are more than a thousand British cemeteries; there are tens of thousands of filled-up books dating from the nineteen twenties.
In the Visitors’ Book of La Ville-aux-Bois—Pontavert Cemetery in summer, 1964, W. C. Balfour, who served with the 2nd Middlesex in 1918, wrote, “Thanks my pals are here.” A Frenchman wrote, “Remembrances of a poilu of 1914-18.” Also in French was: “Respects of a little girl nine years old.” A group of Germans from Munich visited the cemetery together and wrote, “Brave dead soldiers.” “Brave soldiers.” “Rest in peace soldiers.” Mostly the people were from England; they wrote, “Very well kept. Thank you.” “Thank you.” “Beautifully kept—thank you.” Frederick Ronald Ransome wrote, “I have been so moved to visit my father’s grave.” His father is among the Knowns: SECOND LIEUTENANT F. R. RANSOME, 1ST BN. ROYAL DUBLIN FUSILIERS ATTACHED 2ND BN. WEST YORKSHIRE REGT. DIED OF WOUNDS 26 MAY 1918. Two people with the same last name as an Oxford boy: “I shall always remember.” “I shall always remember.” In a quavering handwriting: “On behalf of your brother Bert and family may you rest in peace, dear Ned. From your old friend Jim, still going at near 71.” From a London woman: “A little corner of a foreign field that is forever England.”
Down the road perhaps the distance of a city block stands a memorial erected to the 2nd Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, which, the lettering on the stone says, repulsed successive attacks on this spot, thus permitting the defenses in the south to be reorganized and reinforced. WITHOUT HOPE OF ASSISTANCE THEY... FOUGHT TO THE LAST WITH AN UNHESITATING OBEDIENCE TO ORDERS. THUS THE WHOLE BATTALION, COLONEL, TWENTY-EIGHT OFFICERS, AND FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-SIX NON-COMMISSIONED OFFICERS AND MEN RESPONDED WITH ONE ACCORD AND OFFERED THEIR LIVES IN UNGRUDGING SACRIFICE TO THE SACRED CAUSE OF THR ALLIES. The battalion was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm. By the monument is a little roadside inn and across the road a winding lane lined with whitepainted shell casings from the big guns. All about are flat, empty fields and dripping skies; here and there are concrete floors once enclosed with walls punctured with holes for the machine guns. In some spots a bit of wall is still standing. Everything is very quiet—the shell craters, fields, low skies, the monument, the inn, and Tommy Atkins dead nine hundred and seventy-three times.
Most of the survivors of this war now in U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals suffer from one of two ailments. One group is composed of those who were gassed and have been out in civilian life during the intervals when the coughing and gasping abate somewhat. (Now, when they are no longer young, the good intervals grow shorter and shorter, and so the wards paradoxically are growing more crowded as the war recedes into the past.) The other group is made up of men who went as boys to France in 1917-18 and through the quiet sectors up to the front. At the front (and sometimes even before it was reached) something happened to this group. One by one those slated to spend young manhood and middle and old age in hospitals manifested the first signs of illness. They began to talk too much. Or they fell silent. Whiz-bangs came over or machine guns rattled, and the men were medically beyond reach—shell shock. They were taken back to the United States and today in the VA hospitals they watch television or play Volleyball and work in the gardens. Relatives come now and then, and sometimes people who want to do something for them put on musical shows or take them in buses for a picnic. The broken men once boys rush for the hot dogs and anxiously ask, “Buddy, will there be enough?”
The boys crossing the fields up to the woods were not the U.S. Marines and prewar soldiers of legend; there had been no drinking in tough bars for them, no street brawls under tropical moons. On the contrary, they were for the greater part college boys enlisted from their campuses to make the world safe for democracy. They came to these insignificant towns and this little meaningless road hardly more than a paved country lane, and did their fighting and went to their graves at home or in the great cemetery beyond the wood, or to their madhouses, or to civilian life and, within a very few years, to a terrible feeling that it was all a bunch of foolishness, and then, with the decades, to white hair and pot-bellies and increased incomes and grandchildren and winters in Florida.
They came and went. Belleau Wood remained.
Today Belleau Wood is the property of the United States government, a gift of France. It has a new name, given to it after the fighting: Bois de la Brigade Marine. During the twenties and thirties it was a place every American tourist visited. Parisian cab drivers had a fixed price to take ex-soldiers there. Then came another war and today the tourists go to Normandy.
You can stay for two hours in Belleau Wood, where once the Yanks held the way to Paris, and see no one. Perhaps in the cemetery one or two gardeners are working, but the woods themselves are empty. It is as if unseen workers appear when the sun goes down and pluck the weeds and cut the grass between the endless straight lines of trees. In a clearing are old guns, painted black against the elements, rearing their noiseless mouths to the sky. They stand there silent and dark, waiting—and no one comes. Can there ever have been here what is called a great and glorious moment in history? Under the stones in the great cemetery are there really splintered and gashed bones, are there really the young buddies of the fat and bald old men laying off the calories and watching the cholesterol? Is it all true what Grandfather says, that here in this disciplined quiet place Major John Hughes sent word to headquarters that “I have every man, except a few odd ones, in line now. We have not broken contact and have held”? Where was it—was it here by this silent black mortar?—that twenty-three-year-old Laurence Stallings, who would live to lose a leg and write What Price Glory, lay cowering but remembering that his General told him he must “pick up a rifle and lead with steel”? Is it in this quiet path with these carefully heaped-up leaves that the dead men lay piled one on the other as a barricade, and the bayoneted ones gasped out their last and, finally, Colonel Wendell Neville sent word: WOODS NOW U.S. MARINE CORPS ENTIRELY? Or was it all a dream of long ago, an episode invented by the history professors to fill a paragraph saying that the American action and demeanor were bracing to the faltering Allies? Was it all in nevernever land, far from this America with its superhighways and television? Did America really produce in these fat old men and mental cripples the wonderful soldiery of what began as the last gentlemen’s war, the last gallant war, the last splurge of romanticism and legends and plumes? Did it all really happen?
Rolling Picardy is all flat with nothing high, with neat stone houses and long haunting roads going up to the horizon between the tall, swaying poplar trees under which the British troops marched. In Amiens, the base for the entire British effort along the western front, there remains one thing utterly unchanged from the time of the war (until 1939, The War). It is Godbert’s Restaurant. In those days the rear-line officers always made for Godbert’s when they had a few hours free, appreciating the tasteful, quiet paved yard where the staff cars could be left in safety, and the attractive entrance. Today the yard is still quiet and the entrance is the same as it was. There was, and is, a lobby and two rooms. At the desk where the cheerful little fat patronne sat , the patronne ’s daughter sits now. The food was excellent then, and still is—Michelin gives it a high rating. At the beginning of the war Godbert’s was unknown to the great of this world, but since then, praised in all the clubs along Pall Mall, it has played host to many famous names. “The Prince of Wales was here,” says the patronne ’s daughter in frightful English, “when he came to dedicate the memorial at Thiepval. And the King of England was here. He sat right there. And during the war and after, Doolis Hay was here many times.” Douglas Haig? “Yes, he was here when I was a child and I saw him.”
Out along the roads east from Amiens and Godbert’s, where “Doolis Hay” ate, thin-metal canisters of unexploded mustard gas lie under the soil and corrupt the growth of trees whose roots burrow down and break through. It is impossible to plant a straight row of trees along the Somme. The gardeners of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have long since given up hope of ever seeing a straight row. Too much stuff is down there. “Stuff” is the canisters and boots and shells used to fill up the holes made by other shells. And the bodies of those who answered Lord Kitchener’s call: Your Country Needs You. Along the Somme the best, finest, sweetest of England’s youth perished. They were all volunteers. In their long lines. they rose from their trenches on the first of July, 1916, and strode forward dress-right-dress and died that way—in long, perfect ranks, bayonets fixed, each man just so, with leather polished and metal gleaming. British pluck. That first of July was the worst day in the history of British arms.
English people come past the Somme on holiday these days, heading back from their vacations on the Continent. Knowing vaguely that Uncle Will died somewhere around here, they halt their cars and go out and wander among the graves (A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR. WORCESTERSHIRE REGIMENT. KNOWN UNTO GOD. A SERGEANT OF THE GREAT WAR. ROYAL IRISH RIFLES. KNOWN UNTO GOD) and look for Uncle Will’s resting place. They don’t find it, of course, and eventually they end up in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission office in Albert, where they learn that in this tiny area of northern France there are not tens, but hundreds of thousands of graves. They have grown up knowing that all Mum’s boy friends save Dad died along the Somme, and all Auntie’s, but they have never stopped to think of just how many graves there must be.
The C.W.G.C. officials and gardeners try to help them, and proudly detail the fact that every man who died for Great Britain and the Empire has his name, without a doubt, written somewhere on a memorial. Through the twenties and thirties the mothers and fathers and older relatives of people like these came out to France seeking, if not Uncle Will, then Father, or My Son, or Brother. Imagine—the high wing-collars and dress-for-dinner vanished, and the open touring cars disappeared, Ramsay MacDonald did too, and Stanley Baldwin, Geneva and Locarno, all the catch-words of Europe-between-the-wars, and through all this, the cloche hats and changing hem lines, people kept coming. During the Second War the untended roses ran riot, and the lists of the buried and the Visitors’ Books disappeared, but now it is all as it was meant to be. Forty years and more have gone by since the Armistice, and the veterans have their “ticket,” their pension, and they’ve got time free, what with the kids grown up and on their own, and so they come out from Canada and Aussieland and Blighty. Sometimes on the roads they pass automobiles with “D” for Deutschland above the license plates, and these people also are looking for cemeteries. Their cemeteries, severe and cold, are maintained by the French at the expense of the present German government. There are no flowers in them and very few individual graves. Most of Germany’s dead are Unknown. Their Symbol is the piece of sculpture done by Käthe Kollwitz, whose son died in this war. Her work shows the mothers and fathers of Germany with heads bowed and eyes on the ground where their sons lie beneath the words: “Germany Must Live Though We Must Die.”
Along the road up from Amiens to Albert, past where the vast artillery parks and railheads were, the Golden Virgin of Albert stands high above the horizon, glittering, gleaming. Once that Virgin sagged over the shell-ripped streets from atop the church the British called the Cathedral, and the soldiers said that when she fell, England would lose the war. (A French engineer crept up and fastened the statue with thick steel wire. No sense taking chances.) The Britishers go through little Albert, where once there were thousands of gun limbers, ammunition lorries, artillery emplacements, forward transport parks—all the immense end product of a mighty world empire carried to the tiny cutting edge of the gigantic sword—and pass over roads where the hundreds of thousands marched and the great guns rolled and the poor silly cavalry horses galloped, on to where Peel Trench was, and Centre Way, and Dead Mule Corner.
The Stump Road cemetery, one of the hundreds, very small, lies along a road so slim that only one vehicle can pass. An Englishman wrote in the Visitors’ Book one summer ago: ” ‘I consider the machine gun to be a greatly over-rated weapon.’ Douglas Haig, Field Marshal.”
In the years just after the war all of the salient was mud. The roads had vanished and rotting horse carcasses lay everywhere, providing limitless food for the giant rats. Overturned gun carriages lay half in and half out of the stagnant pools of water in the shell craters. It was difficult to cut down the few remaining trees; saw blades broke when they bit into the bullets and pieces of metal in the trunks. Machine guns rusted in the collapsed tunnels and dugouts, and Chinese laborers brought over for military construction work lived, forgotten by the departed British, in the cellars of the ruined houses. In the midst of all this were the peasants coming back to reclaim their land. Belgium in those days had a kind of prosperity, for there was work for all. Laborers blew up the thick bunkers with shell powder and used the concrete for new roads. Gangs of men made a living by flattening out fields made as rough as the surface of the ocean during a storm. They did not charge the farmers for their work; their profits came from selling the metal under the mud. That metal filled thousands of trains pulling out of Ypres for twenty years.
By the time of the Depression, the Salient was functioning as a farming area. But during the early thirties, Belgium had thousands of unemployed. And so they came back to the fields and dug down further than the earlier workers had gone. They used the long bars made for cleaning machine guns, shoving them down four or five feet and then examining the tip. Yellow meant copper was underneath; rust equalled iron. Vast ammunition dumps were found, with thousands of live shells, and a great home industry grew up. Its workers were men who knocked the detonation tips off the shells and poured out the powder and sold the metal. (Sometimes the trick did not work; scores of men died one by one in accidents.) Some of the shells were too dangerous to disassemble, and for these there were special fields where each day just before lunch and just before dinner red flags were flown to warn people away as Belgian Army experts detonated the shells and sent new blasts over the fields with the terrible names: Passchendaele, Wytschaete, Polygon Wood.
Throughout the twenties and thirties the armaments industry took most of the metal whose cost had all but broken the Bank of England. Then came the Second War and the business of collecting the old metal ended. But suddenly in 1950 the price of scrap in Europe doubled overnight: the Korean war meant cannons would be firing. Suez drove the price up also in 1956, but then it sagged and it is not high now. Still, however, men on the dole head out to the fields in the slow winter months. During rainy periods the metal seems to rise to the surface, cleansed of its clinging soil and shining dully. Traditionally in Belgium the proceeds from its sale go for drinking money.
There is something else the Belgians find: men. In the winter of 1964, seven bodies turned up during the construction of foundations for a new foundry. Four bodies were found in February and three in March. The group of four were sitting on their heels with pistols in their hands and grenades strapped on. The uniforms were still identifiable—good British material. You could read just what was in their minds: They were about to go on a raid and were waiting crouched in their trench. A shell came over and killed them by concussion and covered them with earth. So the four sat for fifty years waiting for the foundry to be built so they might come to light. Their identification tags lasted, although the cords holding them around their necks were gone. There were no letters in the pockets, so the Graves Commission people did not have the problem of deciding what to do with them. (Years ago the rule was set up that letters addressed to family would be sent; those to girl friends would be destroyed.)
Ypres has always been the focal point for British coming over to the Continent to tour the battlefields. During the period between the wars pilgrimages were arranged at cut-rate prices, and people bringing their sandwiches with them came over on the boat trains. They spent the day and went back that same night. Of course the motor coaches touring the more than 150 cemeteries could not stop at each one, so it was a common thing to see poorly dressed English people stopping citizens of Ypres on the street and pushing forward a few shillings to exact a promise that the Belgian would take a camera and go to a stipulated cemetery and take a picture of a certain grave and send the picture on. The well to do came in cars and sought the place where their sons died. One aged Englishman came each year to see a tiny wood. He said he derived comfort from being at the place where his only son died. He would sit for hours by himself; towards the end two men came with him in his big car and carried him out in a wheelchair and took a long walk while he sat.
During the summer of 1964, commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the war, Ypres received a record number of visitors. For men who served in the Salient the city offered a handsome certificate with the ex-soldier’s name on it. The city also held a little reception for those coming in organized groups. There were hundreds of such receptions. The men were taken to a large room in the city hall where an official handed out the certificates and made a short speech saying that Ypres paid tribute to all the dead of whichever side. “And now we will have a little drink and a smoke.” Waiters moved forward with sherry and cigars. Then the men went to their waiting buses for the ride to the monuments and cemeteries. Some of the British wore their old uniforms and some wore gilded British Legion outfits complete to clanking spurs and swords and silver braid down the sides of tapering breeches. In the silence of the great graveyards and memorial temples they moved, medals clanking, to seek the graves of friends, and then adjourned to little roadside taverns where they were expected and welcomed. (For haven’t they kept those taverns going for fifty years?) Inside they got slightly potted, and their voices rose, and they took out their old paybooks and pictures of their companies and showed them around. There was always a refrain repeated endlessly as they pointed to the pictures of their pals: “He’s dead … he’s dead … he’s dead.” At the end of the long day and the many taverns, the singing in the buses rushing along the salient’s roads grew somewhat raucous, and men got out harmonicas and danced in the aisles. Some shouted in their Tommy French at passing women, and grew maudlin: “I live in England but my heart is out here.” Others cursed the “bloody Germans,” or the “wife of my bloody Colonel”: “I was his batman, and she said she’d take care of me if I took care of him, and I did till he got his, but she went away to the South of France and I never heard from her again. …”
One man who came back to Ypres seemed quieter than most of the others. He was A. J. Arpal, who wore in his lapel the insignia of the Old Contemptibles Association, and who had seen it through from the very beginning. He had never been back since the war, but now with his grandchildren in school and his wife dead, he joined a tour which went all over the British zone, transportation, hotels, and meals provided for a week, at a price of only eighteen quid. Arpal was a cavalryman.
For Arpal the symbol of that war has always been Kenney. Years and decades have passed since Kenney died, but Arpal has never forgotten him. Kenney was a laughing boy, twenty-two or three, and always wore his cap to one side. A happy kid. Arpal has thought of him a lot in these forty years while he has turned old and grey and quiet and a grandfather and Kenney has remained young in his lost grave in Belgium. Kenney represented the spirit they had in those days. Arpal was right there when this kid died. They were moving up in file early in the war and there was a volley of shots from beside the road. Kenney was knocked out of his saddle and Arpal thought to himself, Thank God he wasn’t dragged by his horse. Arpal and the others leaped into a ditch and opened fire. By next morning the Germans were gone and Kenney was still lying in the road. Arpal saw at once that it wouldn’t have mattered a damn if his horse had dragged him or not, for he must have been dead before he hit the ground. When they opened his coat to get his letters and things, they saw that sewn into his collar where it buttoned next to his throat there was a union jack. They buried him but his grave soon disappeared in shellfire. It was for Kenney’s name that Arpal looked when he came back to Ypres and saw the giant memorial where the names of the Missing are inscribed in stone. Arpal read through the tens of thousands of names and saw all the ranks of all the familiar British regiments, and those of the strange ones like the gth Bhopal Infantry with its ranks of Subadar, Jermadar, Havildar, Sepoy. Finally he found Kenney’s name, and all the noise and traffic faded away. He had found Kenney. That was at the Menin Gate.
The road goes eastward, through the dreary little red-brick Belgian towns so like the industrial slums of England, and finally ends at the French border. At the road’s beginning in Ypres is the Gate. They dedicated it in 1927. On the outside facing the road is inscribed, TO THE ARMIES OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE WHO STOOD HERE FROM 1914 TO 1918 . Inside: HERE ARE RECORDED THE NAMES OF OFFICERS AND MEN WHO FELL IN THE YPRES SALIENT BUT TO WHOM THE FORTUNES OF WAR DENIED THE KNOWN AND HONOURED BURIAL GIVEN TO THEIR COMRADES IN DEATH . Kipling wrote the words. Underneath them are the names of the Missing.
The featured speaker on July 24, 1927, was Field Marshal Lord Plumer. Bandy-legged, with a pufly face, not looking like a soldier, he stood with the King of the Belgians before the giant audience come from England. The reporters that day wrote that most of the people were aged women, shabbily dressed. The Southern Railways ran special free trains to the coast for them—first-class carriages only. The women bore rambler roses, snap-dragons, lilies from their English gardens. They sat in the hot sun facing the Gate with their backs to the Menin Road leading out to the Salient, and six pipers of the Scots Guards standing on the shell-shattered medieval ramparts by the Gate played “The Flowers of the Fields.” Buglers of the Somerset Light Infantry sounded the Last Post, and to the reporters it seemed as if in the throbbing silence when the calls faded away there must come some sound, some sign, from the Salient up the road. Lord Plumer cried, “They are not Missing; they are here,” and the Mums in their funny hats and long black stockings put their hands over their faces.
After that, every night at eight in the winter and nine in the summer, Belgian buglers sounded the Last Post. In 1940 the Germans came down the Menin Road and took Ypres. For four years the buglers were silenced. But fifteen minutes after the last German was rounded up in 1944 the long slow notes of the Last Post quivered out from under the Gate. On some of the nights since then, particularly when the weather is bad, there is no one to hear the buglers except the policeman who halts traffic. At other times there will be a score or even a hundred people. Delegations come out from England, elderly men marching out of step and carrying old regimental flags. Age has shrunken most of them and made them puny, and for all that they are combat veterans of the Great War. They look somewhat foolish as they line up in ragged files. Cars and trucks rattle under the Gate as they stand waiting for the police to halt the traffic. When this is done the flag-bearers go out and stand in the road. In this silence the sound of shuffling feet mixes with the dull rumble of idling motors. Someone shouts, “Attentionl” and the skinny old men square-bash to something approaching the posture they were able to attain when all, the living and Missing, were young. Belgians—sometimes soldiers, sometimes members of the Ypres Fire Department—come marching out into the street to face the flags. There are often as many as four buglers. They raise silver bugles given by the British Legion. Some of the old men salute in the British palms-out way. Others take off their hats. The beautiful trilling brings to mind hazy pictures of Indian garrisons and Sandhurst and Salisbury Plain; all the calls are sounded: Reveille, Mess Call, Defaulters’ Call, the Last Post. When the final note dies the Belgians lower the bugles smartly, stand for a moment, and then wheel to the right and march to the curb. The traffic is already rolling under the Gate as the old men start to furl their flags. Some of them walk back to look at the names on the walls yet again—Arpal for one last moment lets his eye rest on KENNEY—and then the buses pull up to the curb.