Yesterday afternoon we marked All Soul’s Day by taking the children to the Aisne-Marne American cemetery of the First World War, set at the foot of Belleau Wood.
(Catholic aside: On All Soul’s Day, we remember and pray for the souls of the dead to reach heaven. So visiting a cemetery seems an appropriate way to mark the day, particularly this war cemetery that represents such great, selfless sacrifice.
Although it’s not the point of All Soul’s Day, it also seems a good time to reflect on the fact that death will come to all of us. St Therese of Lisieux said: “The world’s thy ship and not thy home”. As I tell the children when they complain about going to mass: “Hey, life is actually about a lot more than the present moment, so whatever you decide that you believe, you’d better think about these serious questions at some point…” )
The Aisne-Marne American cemetery is set amidst farm fields, with a tall white chapel flanked on both sides by rows and rows of white crosses, interspersed with Stars of David. It was a grey day, and so calm that the two American flags were barely lifted by the breeze.
Beneath the grave markers lie 2,289 American soldiers. Most of the stones are engraved with the man’s name and home state, but 250 of them state simply: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God”.
(Conrad was disappointed that the graves had not been decorated with flowers: every French village cemetery we passed today was abundantly covered with flowers to mark All Soul’s Day…see the bottom of this post for a photograph).
Inside the chapel are the names of 1,060 more soldiers who are still missing. How horrendous and bloody must the fighting have been, that the remains of so many people were never found?
The Battle of Belleau Wood was fought through the month of June 2018, and victory for the Allies halted the German advance towards Paris. It consisted of repeated ferocious attacks and counter-attacks, with countless demonstrations of incredible courage.
The US Marine Corps suffered more casualties than in its entire history up to that point, and Belleau Wood became part of its proud lore of bravery and tenacity. A Marine First Sergeant is said to have rallied his men before a charge, shouting: “Come on you sons of b******! Do you want to live forever?” One German private reportedly wrote: “We have Americans opposite us who are terribly reckless fellows.”
We said a family prayer in front of the altar, and then walked up the slope behind the chapel into the woods, a peaceful canvas of autumnal yellows and oranges. Back in 1918 the trees were left splintered and uprooted: now, the carnage of almost 100 years ago was hard to imagine.
We carried on to the Marine Memorial, set farther back in the woods. After the battle, the French officially renamed Belleau Wood the “Bois de la Brigade de Marine”, the Wood of the Marine Brigade.
Visiting the nearby German cemetery was a striking experience in a different way.
It’s an unobtrusive, rectangular plot beside the road, a grim contrast to the proud, serene American counterpart. A simple metal cross stands at its center, and a short pillar states matter-of-factly that 8,625 fallen German soldiers rest here. There are no inscriptions invoking grateful remembrance. The stones are dull grey, and every cross is inscribed with four names, typically two on the front and two on the back. More than 4,000 of the soldiers were placed in a common grave, and most of them were not identified.
It was utterly somber, unfairly so, and terribly sad.
Standing there, I saw that at the base of one of the grey crosses someone had left a small wreath and a sheet of paper, laminated to protect it from the weather. The page included a photograph of one of the German soldiers, a man who’d died at Belleau in 1918, aged 32 years.
It had been left by his great-grandchild, and the words he’d written were brief but deeply touching:
“You were so young and have so pointlessly died. You left your wife Magdalena (31), your son Paul (7 years) and your daughter Martha (4 years). However, you live on in your descendant. It would have been an honor to get to know you, my great-grandfather. Unfortunately, I also wasn’t able to get to know your son, my grandfather. He did not survive the Second World War.
“Your woman lost her dear man and also her beloved son during the wars. I have experienced them through her, an affectionate, gentle woman. Still today your carpenter’s tools are used by your great-great-grandchildren. A great-great-grandchild carries your name Matthew. Even 100 years after your death you are in our memory. Your death should be a reminder to all people.”
The carnage of the First World War feels very distant now, almost impersonal, but the slaughter was truly unbelievable. Sixty five million soldiers were mobilized to fight, and 8.5 million lost their lives, many of those cut down by deadly artillery fire.
Perhaps this visit to the war cemetery felt especially poignant because of a family connection to the First World War.
Before my English grandparents were married, my grandmother had been engaged to a young man named Jack who was killed in the fighting in France in 1916 (just under a year before America entered the war).
My grandmother had previously considered entering a convent: separately, her future fiancé had begun taking Holy Orders. After war broke out this young man volunteered to join the army. Along with his men he was sent to Maidenhead, west of London, where he fell in love with my grandmother after they met at the local church. He was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a little under 100 miles to the north of where we’re staying in France. (At the Somme, Britain lost more than 57,000 men in a single day).
My grandmother kept his letter, and my parents found it a few years ago amongst her belongings. Now it is with the Maidenhead historical society, and a copy is with a distant relative of Jack’s in the USA. It’s still one of the most beautiful, moving letters I’ve read, and I’m ending by including the text below:
“To be forwarded only in event of my decease:
June 28, 1916
I am going into action tonight. The 10th leads the assault. God grant that it may be successful and will be the beginning of the end. It will be my privilege to have died in the cause. My quartermaster sergeant has undertaken to send you this letter.
Do not grieve my dearest. Though I die, my love will not. And GOD being reconciled to me for JESUS’ sake. I shall wait for you in that Great Beyond – on the yon side as they say in Lincolnshire. Meet me in the Communion of Saints in our Blessed Lord. If the departed are permitted to visit the places they loved on earth, I shall be with you at the altar at All Saints and St Paul, and with you in your sweet home.
We both sought to serve our Master in the single life, but God led us together and we proposed to serve Him in the equal sincerity and holiness of purpose in married life. Now we are sundered. We must not reason why. Perhaps it was that we should learn what love is before we enter into that Greater Love to come. I have learned and I thank God for having experienced. God never allows the faithful children what is not to their souls’ welfare, and He does all in love and goodness.
You will never forget me, I know. As to what you will do in the future, make no sudden and stern resolve. Pray for Divine guidance and be sure that JESUS will lead you to do his will. Your happiness will always be my wish, and if I am permitted to intercede with the Saints, I will remember you continually before the throne.
Love the Church of your land. She has been hardly used and has many blemishes. Pray that they may be removed. Of the Churches in Christendom, She, nevertheless is most true to the Catholic faith, and hers is the mission to heal the sores and rebuild the walls of the City of God.
Give my love to your Mother and Father, and also to dear Babs. We shall all meet again, thanks be to God!
And so Farewell: Goodbye and God bless you always.
For ever and ever
Your most loving