- 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
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?”