- 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
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.”