- 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
Once they had formed up with those who went on to life and the postwar world and who would wait expectantly for the American Legion conventions so they could use their electric canes on girls who were infants at the time of the Armistice. Those who would never drop paper bags filled with water from hotel rooms marched with those who would; they wore choker collars and wide campaign hats with bright-colored cords; they sang, “Good-bye Broadway, Hello France”; they sang, “There’s a long, long trail a-winding into the land of my dreams.” Many of them arrived, with the others who would live and be well, and with those who would die, at the long fields to the south of the Bois de Belleau. In that wood were machine guns with cross-fields of fire, and mortars, and riflemen shooting from bunkers and behind rock emplacements. The doughboys and leathernecks—mostly the latter—came walking through the fields with their heads bent down against the steel flying at them, and made for the shattered trees. In the ruined towns of Lucy-le-Bocage and Bouresches they froze when the big shells thundered over like express trains rushing through an endless tunnel to land with explosions lighting up a landscape that looked so like the surface of the moon. Their ration parties lumbered up Gob Gully past broken trees from which dangled horribly wet legs trailing undone puttees to the ground. Rifle grenades came down and lifted the horses up and left them as great hulks of meat grinning in death with the lips drawn back in the last act of life: a scream very like that of a woman in agony.
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?