(Originally posted June 18, 2018) “Time dims everything, pal”, said an older Brit reading these words, spoken by General Pershing at the dedication of the Chateau-Thierry Memorial in 1937 and then carved in stone below what can only be described as a squatting eagle (poised to spring, one assumes). I think the old Brit is largely right. Time has a way of plowing the fields over and over until there is no trace of a shell hole or a shin-bone. Family members die, other events, wars, disasters eclipse even the most remarkable heroism. Most of the battles memorialized on that hilltop mausoleum are now largely forgotten. Croix-Rouge Farm, Berzy le-Sec, Grimpettes Woods, and so many more are unfamiliar even to a World War I nerd like me.
Long before our visit to the monument, the day began with strong coffee and incredible bread, courtesy of our Air B&B host, a policeman from Chateau-Thierry, and his partner who commutes to Paris every day. We are currently happily ensconced in their attic with three black calico cats. One jumped on my belly last night as I slept, in order to launch itself out of the skylight and silence a dove who took squeaking, offended flight. We were lucky to have been given breakfast, as the rest of the day would prove to be such a flurry of activity that we did not eat again until ten hours later.
Cynthia’s project in this shared mission is to take portraits of the people who care for the American servicemen buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. To that end, we imposed on the good graces of Shane Williams, the Superintendent, Simon the Breton Embassy Guard, Laurent the Cannon-Duster (I’m sure that’s not his title but that’s what we found him doing), and, of course, my wonderful friend from my last visit, Constant Lebastard. I will share these images as they are ready, and someday soon they will be part of an exhibition somewhere in Newburyport – stay tuned – but I spent the morning watching Cynthia do her amazing, gentle, joyful thing.
We released the patient employees of the cemetery to enjoy their lunch, and went down the road to visit the German casualties of the area’s battles. The leafy, shaded cemetery is very different from the Aisne-Marne. It is much smaller, but holds more than four times as many dead, consolidated into two mass graves and with four to a stone when buried individually. These German soldiers were killed in the first and last offensives in the war, and their death dates are separated by four years. In a stark reminder of how little they knew of what was to come, the field is also dotted with a dozen Jewish stars.
The inscription at the Cimetière Militaire Allemand de Belleau has no mention of glorious deeds, undimmed or otherwise. It reads simply, “The dead in this cemetery are an exhortation to peace.”
Just past this stop, the winding farm lane turns left into an almost impossibly narrow track, flanked by wheat fields that are blue, then green, then gold depending on how much sun they get – all just beginning to bow their heavy heads. It was like this when he died, I kept saying to myself. This light, the wheat fields ripening, the gnarled trees ahead. Of course, by June 8, Eben had been fighting for two days, had lived through the worst day in marine corps history, and had seen many of his friends, and all of his company officers killed or wounded. The woods were mercilessly shelled, and every copse of ancient trees hid a deadly machine gun nest. During our morning visit with Shane Williams, he helped us chart the course of Eben’s last day, using the letter that was sent to his father from the man who had last seen him alive, and company maps and records. Cynthia and I parked in the woods between two rows of field artillery pieces pointing aggressively at one another, and set off down a muddy trail through a tangled, sun-dappled forest. Shell holes yawned on either side, choked with ivy and half-filled with water. Trenches and hastily-dug scrapes undulated across the forest floor. We walked for a long time in silence, concentrating on our footing in the slick mud until, looking up, we both froze. The place was just ahead – a small clearing with a wood pile to one side, and a gentle rise behind. Through the tangled undergrowth, the wheat field stretches out before you. We saw Eben’s death from the perspective of the German machine gunner who killed him, saw the field where waves and waves of marines threw themselves at the woods, scrambling and desperate to stop the guns that were cutting down their friends and companions.
The last man to see Eben Bradbury alive was a friend of Sargent Karl McCune, who shared what he knew with Eben’s father in 1919. McCune said “I was talking to your son just before going over the top, and that is the last time I seen him. A friend of mine seen him about two hours later he was killed by a machine bullet just before reaching the woods.”
I wish I could convey to you how beautiful these woods are, but there is no way now to remove the image of our boy, falling and dying in that sunlit field, “just before reaching the woods”. On the long walk back to the car I thought of what it must have felt like to walk toward your death, stumbling over your friends who have been struck down before you. Does it feel glorious? It certainly is brave. Knowing what I do of the terrible price paid by his family, I believe Eben would incline to the inscription on the German cemetery. May his death, and so many others like him, be an exhortation to peace.
The gorgeous photographs here were taken by Cynthia August, www.cynthiaaugust.com.
The silly selfies and blurry bits were taken by me.