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Saturday, June 29, 2013

18+ Days in AEF's Footsteps, Day 6: Belleau Wood battleground, Retreat? Hell, we just got here!

Memorial Plaque in center of Belleau Wood display of captured German armaments
"Retreat? Hell, we just got here!"

This famous American  response to an order to fall back was offered up at Belleau Wood by a Marine leading his men through this dense forest. Defended by combat-hardened Germans armed with machine guns, the terrain rolls and pitches.

While it is never my intent to recount military battles as I leave that to the experts on strategy, I will tell you that to go to Belleau Wood is to once again see landscape that clarifies a battle's necessity and to understand why so many soldiers...or in this case, Marines and Germans died in this particular battle.

We entered the woods through the entrance to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, often called Belleau Wood Cemetery. (The Aisne-Marne Campaign, so named for the rivers the AEF sought to capture control of, comprises a number of battles including that for Chateau-Thierry, a town a few miles away.)

Captured armaments
Here in this clearing with this memorial are a number of armaments, all German, all captured by the Americans, Marines and Army soldiers. The array of cannon and more is impressive. Other elements of the woods explain much of the battle.

The woods, I will tell you, are very dense. Even on the sunny and humid spring day that we were there, we could not see through the foliage. To fight here must have been an enormously difficult task for both armies.

We walked the pathways into the forest and at every step, you see foxholes, machine gun dugouts and trenches. One hundred years later it is and you marvel that men fought in these conditions.

Bullets remain in the trees.

Today, flowers bloom in the forest. They did before the battle, too. Many men note that in their memoirs. So do nurses. All contrast the beauty of the flowers with the devastation that occurred among the blossoms.

Along this hillside beneath the blue wild lilies, you see the remains of a trench.
At the edge of the forest, you come to a large wheat field. Here, in knee-high growth, the Marines and the Army soldiers advanced with only barrage for cover. The enormous courage a man must have summoned to to charge this field is much beyond my ability to imagine.
Looking toward Lucy Bocage from where the Americans advanced into the wood where this picture was taken.
Do return for the next post, a look at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery in Belleau Wood.

Finally, for those of you who prefer a video with solid historical synopsis and terrific original film footage, I recommend you go here to the Military Channel: There are quite a few short films here, but one on the Battle for Belleau Wood.

(I will say one element of this monologue I did take issue with: The moderator claims this is the first battle of which the Germans remarked on Americans' tenacity. Hence the German name for the Marines who captured this wood: Teufel Hunden. Devil Dogs. Actually, it was the battle of Cantigny in which the First Division took that village where the Germans realized that the Americans might truly have the right stuff to wage significant warfare.)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

18+ Days in AEF's footsteps, DAY 5: OISE-AISNE American Cemetery, France

     I had girded myself for months before this first venture into an American cemetery where Americans who served in the First World War are buried. I feared the worst: I feared I would sob.

     I knew I would clutch. But I told myself I would be fine. Just fine. After all, over the decades, I had visited Arlington National Cemetery, watched the Vietnam War Unknown Parade and Dedication in Washington. I had gone to sites like Gettysburg, Antietam, Valley Forge, Yorktown, Concord and Lexington and more. I had taken my children, too, and frankly the only other time I ever cried was the day I saw a re-enactment of General Pickett's ill-fated charge at the 130th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. 
     No, I was not related to anyone buried in France. I knew no one who knew anyone who had served and was laid to rest here. Furthermore, the topic of nurses who served in France in 1917-1919 had originally been simply a unique bit of American history I liked investigating. As a child I loved to hear my mother tell tales of her childhood and my father tell very salty tales of his. I predicted that walking the cemetaries of those who repose in France would not affect me.
     But the closer the day came to our departure, and the closer the hour arrived when my husband and I would walk into those grounds came sooner than we anticipated. Quite by accident, we drove a different route than planned from Compiegne to Chateau Thierry where we had reservations for a few nights at a B&B. As we sailed down one rolling hill in the Champagne, admiring the miles of forests with pink and white cherry blossoms and yellow flowers and well-tended fields of flax, suddenly there stood a sign, American Cemetery.
     We were stunned. 
     That was not on our map, we told each other. 
     Why and how did I miss that one, I asked myself, in all my detailed planning for this trip?
     My husband, chauffeur extraodinaire and kind fellow, said we'd better go back.
    We did.
     Here far off the main road where we saw that sign is the stunningly peaceful sight of Oise-Aisne Cemetery. With 6,012 of our men and women buried here in Fere-en-Tardenois, this cemetery is the third largest of those serving those who fought and died in The Great War. Named for the rivers the campaigns fought to retain for the Entente, this cemetery was originally a temporary one for the 42nd Division, or the Rainbow Division. While most resting here fought in that Division, many others lie here also, including nurses who served in hospitals and mobile facilities along the front lines.
     The grounds strike you for their pristine beauty. Carefully manicured and lovingly tended, each grave is marked by white marble cut to the exact measurements of every other. The linden trees are an exact square so that they grow in unison and provide a canopy and protection from the summer sun.
     When you go, do enter the reception area and introduce yourself to the director. Here at Oise-Aisne as at all the other  cemeteries we visited, each of the personnel was warm and welcoming. They are, too, a font of knowledge about those whose graves they care for. Do ask them. They love to share their insights and they recommend reading for you, too!
     None of my pictures can possibly portray the grandeur or the solemnity of this site. The vast number of graves shocks your breath from you. The peace, the birds chirping in the trees and the chimes on the hour and quarter hour belie what happened here nearly a century ago. I will simply tell you that you must go when next you go to France. You will feel confident and fulfilled to have paid these men and women your homage. 

     To walk among the graves is heart-wrenching. To read their names, their rank and their duties, reminds you of the variety and the breadth of what is required to prosecute a war. Their ages, their youth startles you, you who have lived so long and so well and they, who died so young to ensure you might endure longer than they.
Here are two of the nurses buried here. Both are Army Nursing Corps volunteers.
Gertrude O'Connor, Army Nurse Corps, Base Hospital 7
Massachusetts, February 8, 1919
Alice A. Ireland
Army Nurse Corps, Base Hospital 34
Pennsylvania, February 3, 1919

     Here are a few of their compatriots who aided them in their duties. Note the variety of duties—and the fact that working in medical services could be as hazardous as combat.
William F. Lacey, Private, Field Hospital 44
Rhode Island, March 1, 1919
Paul Farnum, Private, 101 Sanitary Train, 26 Div.
Massachusetts, March 18, 1918
William Carstensen, Wagoner, Camp Hospital
Iowa, July 3, 1919
Thomas E. Wilcox, Private 1st Class, 18 Evacuation Ambulance Company,
Pennsylvania, October 18, 1918