It was late afternoon in mid-February when my younger son Benjamin and I visited the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. The sky was filled with bruised clouds that threatened rain, but there was enough sunshine to keep the air warm.
We climbed the steps that lead to the cemetery and stopped. Stretched out before us were 14,000 white marble tombstones aligned in perfect and silent rows, each one of them representing an American soldier who had lost his life in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in World War I.
Fought over a period of 47 days from Sept. 26, 1918, until the Armistice on Nov. 11, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the biggest battle in U.S. history — and the bloodiest. The United States committed 1.2 million soldiers to the battle, 26,000 were killed. And yet most Americans know nothing about it.
Ask the average American to name the biggest U.S. war cemetery in Europe, and undoubtedly someone will point to the cemetery at Normandy. They’d be wrong. That distinction goes to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Sadly, the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery is almost forgotten, receiving few American visitors. Sadder still, no standing American president has ever visited the cemetery.
Benjamin and I walked slowly row by row among the crosses and stars of David, reading off the names of the slain and the states they’d come from. New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Illinois. There was one from Colorado. I found myself with a lump in my throat, wanting to touch each headstone, to let them know that their sacrifice wasn’t forgotten, that someone from the United States was paying them a visit.
These men died amid shouts, the deafening blast of artillery barrages, the staccato buzz of weapons fire, and the cries of dying men. But now they were surrounded by a deep silence, a stillness. And yet despite the peace that prevailed there, I couldn’t help but wonder whether they would rather have come home for burial in the U.S., where their families might have been able to visit them.
Remember that during World War I, a trip to Europe wasn’t something most families could afford. It was a 12-day-plus journey by boat just to cross the water. If you lived in North Dakota, you had to get to New York first. Most of these men have probably never had kin stand at their grave sides, their mourning parents, wives, brothers, sisters, and children left with only memories and personal belongings.
Many never knew where their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers were laid to rest because their remains were never identified. Among those with names were more than 4,000 that did not have a name inscribed. They read, “Here rests in honored glory AN AMERICAN SOLDIER known only to God.”
As we passed one after another after another of these stones, the lump in my throat turned to tears. No, I didn’t know any of these men. None of them are related to me — except that they were all Americans, men who went to war and died far, far from home.
Memorial Day in the United States has become a day to shop till you drop and then hang out with the family next to the barbecue grill or at the beach. That’s not what it was intended to be. It was set aside to honor Americans who died fighting for their country, and it ought to be a day of remembrance.
In Australia, ANZAC Day, their version of Memorial Day, starts with sunrise ceremonies honoring those who died for their country. The ceremonies are so moving that you don’t have to be Australian or a New Zealander to be moved to tears. I wish Americans would observe Memorial Day with a similar reverence.
I also hope with all my heart that an American president will one day travel to the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and pay his (or maybe her?) respects to these forgotten soldiers, whose sacrifice helped end what was arguably the most brutal military conflict in human history.
Benjamin and I visited the memorial and the chapel, both of us silent, caught up in our own thoughts. We signed the visitor log. We read the more than 4,000 names of the American soldiers whose final resting place is still unknown that are inscribed on the memorial’s walls. We read about the battle itself and how it helped bring the war to a close.
As we were leaving, a school bus arrived, and a group of French pre-teens climbed out. They ran through the rows of headstones, called to one another, shouting and laughing. One pretended to be an airplane, making propeller noises with his lips, his arms stretched out at his sides as he ran. I wanted to call to them to stop running and to show more respect for these men, who had been killed in a war that was not of their making. But seeing those kids having a good time during a history field trip made me remember why our soldiers had given their lives in the first place — so that France could be free.
May all our military men and women killed in the service of their country, whether buried in foreign soil or buried here at home, rest in peace.
Photos (c) copyright 2014 by Pamela Clare