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Sunday, June 9, 2013

18 Days+ in AEF's footsteps: DAY 3: Musee de la Grande Guerre in Meaux, France

Front entrance of musee, Copyright J. Power
     Boarding a train from Gare De L'est in Paris, riding for half an hour or so, then boarding a local bus at the Meaux train station is a journey you must take to visit Musee de la Grande Guerre.

     This new museum, opened last year in this charming tiny town northeast of Paris, is comprehensive in its multi-media exhibits and heart-rending to visit.
     What struck me?
     What comes to mind immediately as I write this, almost a month since I was there?

The entrance.
     Stark in its simplicity, the entrance is an opening in this long barricade. Yes, it is a cement barrier. If this is intentional and I suspect it is, this marks your departure from the "normal world" you know to this hell you are about to experience. And your welcome is the abrupt and shocking sound of cannon fire and shells exploding, an air raid siren and wails of others. Then as you move along the path, you hear men marching and a few songs of the period.

The trenches.
     Inside, the curators have built life-size trenches. Standing in the side-views or cut-aways enables you to see the dynamics of the soldiers' challenge.
     Climbing out of them, frightening enough to know you will be exposed and vulnerable, must have required enormous fortitude of mind. Or enormous dedication to the training you received.
     As a woman whose husband is a Vietnam War veteran, I have constantly asked him, over the decades, "What makes you climb over the wall? Or march forward? Or run out beyond cover?" His answer has always been, "Your response is drilled into you. They say, go, and you do. No questions asked."
     Now, long a student of World War One tactics and battlefield conditions, I stood before these trenches and felt my throat close and my heart race. Could I live here? Fight here? Die here?
     The French trenches are a mess. All dirt and barbed wire, these are holes in the ground. The British trench looks, dare I say, tidier. Is this my imagination? No, I examine the replica. It isn't. This has duckboard floors and hard-apacked earth walls. Then I look at the German trench. It is a fortification. Sided by brick-work and steel plates, this trench shows you readily why and how the Germans were able to hold their advance lines for four long years. They fortified their trenches, even dug under them, building some of the most sophisticated underground bunkers many of which still exist today especially in the Meuse area.

Secondly, the men of all the armies and all the countries who fought parade beside you.
Photo from, Copyright held by Musee.

     Hundreds of life-size men "walk" beside you as you enter the main arena. Eerie, this sensation of striding in the footsteps of ghosts sets your mind to the task of understanding that these millions of men and women fought and died, believing their own cause just and attainable. The uniforms on the figurines seem real. If they are replicas, I did not note. No matter. The impression is that you are among them and you, like they, go to war.

The small items that tell you how these men lived, suffered and died made a mighty impression on me and my husband.
     As an author of fiction, I have known for decades that the way to craft a story is to create what we call in the profession, verisimilitude. A similarity to real life is a necessity to suspend the reader's suspension of disbelief and let him enjoy the story as it should be told from that period of time, that place, that culture.
     Here in Musee, a wealth of items brings that daily existence of these men home to you. What is there here?
     Utensils, broken and battered, to eat with.
     Small tins bowls for soup or stew.
     Chamber pots. Or at worst, wooden boxes with porcelain rims and removable pots beneath.
     A small sewing kit to repair torn uniforms or replace a button.
     Letters to and from men to those at home. Torn, worn, brown with dirt.
    A panorama of scenes depicting French medical care for soldiers:
French stretcher bearers removing wounded soldier from field
Recreation of French surgical team in operation on wounded
USA A.E.F. Surgical kit with Diagnostic Tag booklet

    Pictures of men abound with explanations of care for those with amputations, prosthetic devices (a new art of mechanical invention), and those who suffered wounds to the face and the care of them.
Prosthetics, a new medical specialty developed for those who survived amputations
Variety of prosthetic devices designed during war
Wounds to the head, face and neck could now be treated, but many men needed extensive reconstruction
and others required masks to return to their normal routines after service. This is the beginning of
what we now call plastic surgery.

    Since this is the first war in which medical advances had progressed to the point where many more men could be saved than in previous conflicts, we know there were a large number of men who survived amputation of limbs. Others who incurred facial wounds also survived. For these men, facial reconstruction was a primitive art. Skin grafting was rare and time-consuming, often failing. Masks were the answer for some so that they could resume a life after the war. (I will write of this again in later posts as this is a particular interest of mine.)

The small section of raw motion picture footage was superb.
I will put in a plug and tell you to seek this one out and wait until others have gone so that you may view these clips in their entirety. These clips are rare and I have never seen anything like them anywhere. They are of many different subjects. The ones I recommend are about stretcher bearers, burial teams and the animals in the war, dogs and horses especially.

Meaux is an appropriate setting for this Musee. Meaux was the town to which the Germans advanced farthest toward Paris in their September 1914 drive that we now call The First Battle of the Marne. (Do read my previous post about The Taxis of the Marne for more on this.)

Return for more as we go to Cantigny and begin travel along the A.E.F's front lines and the first Doughboys' victory alongside the British in April 1918.

Do visit the website  and the Museum.