As we bid adieu to 2014, Town Square Delaware has made it an annual tradition to share some of the previous year’s best features with our readers. Cheers to both a new year and new contributions in 2015!
As we reflect on D-Day on this 70th anniversary of the great invasion, many Americans think about the iconic image presented by the cemetery at Normandy that sits atop the cliff above Omaha Beach. I suspect that some however are not aware that this cemetery, holding the remains of 9,387 US soldiers is one of many such military burial grounds across the globe. According to the “American Battle Monuments Commission,” some 124,904 war dead are interred, primarily from the world wars at 24 cemeteries in countries such as France, Belgium, England, Italy, Tunisia (site of ancient Carthage), and the Philippines.
This past month my wife Sharon and I took our daughters Amy and Carie on a trip to Paris. We were joined later in the week by my sister Phyllis. While mostly focused on enjoying the beauty, culture and culinary delights of the City of Lights, I was able to insert a few history detours focused on the unique relationship that binds the US and France together – so much of it in the blood of the American Revolution, World War I and World War II. With 2014 being the first year of the 100th anniversary of WWI, I was especially interested in connecting with this tragic event. While booking a side tour to the City of Reims and the champagne region, I noticed that we would be at the center of much of the carnage from the “war to end all wars.” Some of the first action of the American Expeditionary Force under General Pershing took place in the Marne Valley at Chateau Thierry and Belleau Wood in 1918. Here today sits the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.
After sipping champagne and visiting the beautiful, haunting and battle damaged Cathedral of Reims, we arrived at Aisne Marne on a picture perfect afternoon shortly before retreat would be sounded. Spread across 42.5 acres at the foot of the Belleau Woods, a name steeped in the history and lore of the Marine Corps were 2289 white crosses (Star of David for Jewish war dead) standing in silent vigil.
As our driver turned into the front of the cemetery you quickly realized you had entered a special place. Columns on either side reached towards the sky with the American eagle carved near the top. Perfectly placed trees formed a corridor stretching hundreds of yards until they reached two towering flagpoles followed by a chapel rising from the base of the hill that begins the Belleau Wood. Everywhere the flowers were in bloom and the grass perfectly manicured. You couldn’t help but feel some pride in how our country continued to honor those who died here 96 years ago.
It was incredibly quiet with perhaps 10 visitors spread across the grounds. As we walked along we were approached by a gentleman who introduced himself as the superintendent. He rather humorously confirmed that as taxpayers we deserved his full attention and he proceeded to give us a short history of the battles and of the cemetery. He then asked if I was a veteran and if I would like to assist in lowering and folding the flags – a small ceremony that has been taking place since the cemetery opened in 1937.
Trying to recall my military flag protocol from days as officer of the guard I nervously awaited the flag as it fluttered towards the earth – my mission was to ensure that it did not touch the ground. After properly folding we carried the flag up the hill to the chapel where we placed it on the altar.
Etched in stone on the walls of the chapel were the 1030 names of the “unknowns” from Belleau Wood and Chateau Thierry. Sprinkled here and there you could see an occasional marker which confirmed that in the years since 1937, using our modern technology, various remains have been identified and in some cases repatriated to the United States. I have to say that at that moment all the pleasures of Paris seemed incredibly trivial and we felt some added purpose in our visit to France.
Back in Paris
Next to George Washington perhaps the most renowned military figure of the War for Independence was the Marquis de Lafayette. And Lafayette is especially well remembered in our area due to the fact that his first engagement on behalf of our freedom from England took place at the Battle of Brandywine where he was wounded. Many Americans don’t know about Lafayette’s extraordinary career back in France where he led a precarious existence as a member of the aristocracy during the French Revolution. Fortunately he did not lose his head while other members of his family were literally losing theirs and went on to be an often controversial leader who turned down an opportunity in 1830 to become the virtual dictator of France.
Through the American Revolution Lafayette had become like a son to Washington (naming his own son, “Georges Washington”) and in 1824-25 he made a much celebrated visit to the US where he met with Thomas Jefferson and visited all 24 states including Delaware twice. On his return trip to Paris he took with him a trunk full of dirt from Bunker Hill in which he asked to be buried. Lafayette, who would be named an honorary US citizen in 2002, continued his love affair with America into his grave.
Only recently becoming aware of this part of our history I was determined to find Lafayette’s grave while in Paris and pay my respects to the “Hero of the Two Worlds.” Some of what I found on the internet indicated his gravesite at the Picpus Cemetery was difficult to find – one story I read said that during the German occupation of Paris in WWII the Nazi’s never found it or they would have disposed of the American flag. Another story said the German commander of Paris actually dispatched Wehrmacht soldiers every day to raise and lower the flag – is that possible?
To find Lafayette I set out alone by metro from the station near where we were staying, close to the Eiffel Tower. First I had to navigate the metro maps – logical, but not as easy as ordering wine in a restaurant! Proceeding on my way and after transferring at the right spot, I ultimately got off on Picpus Blvd (turned out the cemetery was on Rue de Picpus – not unusual to find large and small streets in Paris with the same name) and started up the street where I could see the cemetery marked on the Paris tourist map. Unfortunately there was no cemetery there. I decided to call upon Google Maps navigation on my phone, which helped me understand I was on the wrong Picpus. But when I reached the “destination,” I only saw retail stores on a commercial street. Looking around I noticed a small plaque on a wall next to a green gate… Voila, it said Picpus Cemetery!
Opening the gate I saw a small courtyard covered in gravel – nothing that looked like a cemetery here. I then noticed an open door and looked in – there was woman with a German Shepherd (seemed a bit ironic). I looked at her with my most inquisitive expression and said, “Lafayette”? She responded, “Oui, deux Euro s’il vous plait.”
The only visitor in the quiet courtyard, I wondered around the grounds passing a small chapel into a garden area where swarms of honey bees were in the air above a half dozen boxes or man-made hives. I passed through another gate and finally saw a small cluster of grave markers and what appeared to be above ground tombs. All information was in French, but at the far end of this section I could see an American flag – I had found Lafayette.
I paid my respects to Lafayette, snapped a couple photos with my phone and noticed some interesting markers on the crypts and the courtyard walls. A couple were tributes to fallen French resistance fighters, but one noted the mass grave of more than one thousand victims of the guillotine from the Revolution in 1794 – no doubt some of Lafayette’s relatives. As I was leaving I found all those victim’s names listed on the wall of the chapel. They had been beheaded only three blocks from the cemetery at the Place de la Nation because Parisians had grown disgusted with the smell of blood during the killings at the Place de la Concorde and asked that the execution site be relocated.
While the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Lafayette’s grave were the history highlights of our trip, we did also spend an afternoon with a Dutch guide learning about the French Resistance and the liberation, concluding with American troops marching down the Champs Elysees. It was all interesting, but a little too much Charles de Gaulle – something that would have Ike and Churchill rolling over in their respective graves.
From street musicians on the Paris metro, to the church bells at Reims, the charm of a tiny champagne house and the flag ceremony at Aisne Marne, the best moments on the trip seemed to be those spontaneous events that took us by surprise. And that was true of the people as well, from French waiters to Americans running around with their “Rick Steves” book in hand. Our guide for the champagne tour, Trong Nguyen, a native of Vietnam settled in France 20 years ago. Trong knew his champagne and he was quite knowledgeable about WWI, clearly doing some homework in preparation for our day. A former French soldier himself, he spoke with pride about how his ancestors fought alongside the French and Americans in the trenches (30,000 Vietnamese died, some as infantry, many as laborers). And you could somehow sense that the hour we spent at Aisne-Marne was as special to him as it was to us.