Remembering The Fallen

[ Posted Thursday, June 5th, 2014 – 16:05 UTC ]

Tomorrow, President Obama and other world leaders will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France. There are still living survivors of that "longest day," but they are getting fewer and fewer with each year's anniversary. Even the youngest of those on the beaches that day are now in their 80s, and they won't be with us much longer.

To a historian, the battle is on the cusp of passing from "living memory" to something only read about in history books. Which is why, today, I'm going off on a tangent to the D-Day commemoration. I wrote the following article for Memorial Day, back in 2008. It tells the story of people who are committed to remembering all soldiers' graves in the region, from an earlier war. These battles have passed from living memory, and a few people have dedicated themselves to keeping that memory if not alive then at least still respected.

The link at the end to the organization seems to be a rather bare-bones website these days, but I will admit I didn't register (which I assume you have to do to see the rest of the website). I included it again for anyone wishing to contact this worthy organization. It is quite likely that D-Day will never fade as much as the Meuse-Argonne battle has from people's memory, but if it ever does it is good to know there are people who will never forget the sacrifices made in Europe.


Originally published under the title "Memorial Day Thoughts" on May 26, 2008

There is an American flag flying in front of my house today. I am not right-wing, I am not pro-war, I am not making a political statement of any kind by flying Old Glory. I was brought up to respect and honor the flag, but not to treat it as a sacred object. "Sacred" is in the realm of religion. The flag is not a religious item, therefore "sacred" is a word which just cannot apply. But while I do honor the flag, and the soldiers who fought under it for our country, I am appalled that it has become a politicized object, as if it belonged to only one political party. It does not. It belongs to all of us. It belongs to soldiers and pacifists. It belongs to those for whom America can do no wrong, and it belongs to those who only see the bad in what America does in the world. It belongs to an 18-year old leftist, voting in his first election ever, and it belongs to a cranky old right-winger who has voted since the Great Depression. It belongs to Democrats, and yes, to Republicans.

Never forget that -- the flag belongs to all of us, and many display it for many reasons, so don't just automatically make an assumption about anyone who chooses to fly it in front of their house, or for that matter, someone who doesn't always wear a flag pin on his lapel. Patriotism is an intensely personal thing, and it manifests itself differently in different people.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I'm going to cut this column short today, because while the true meaning of this holiday does not escape me, the barbecue still beckons. Ahem.

And after such a rousing, red-white-and-blue intro, I'm going to spend my time here in praise of the French (whose flag, it should be noted, is also red-white-and-blue). If anyone's got a problem with that, I suggest you stop reading now.

George Will has a great profile in his column today of the last surviving American veteran from World War I. While I don't usually link to Will's stories here, today it is entirely appropriate to read about the last living American soldier from what was called at the time "The Great War."

A companion piece, also from the Washington Post today, entitled "Why Didn't We Listen To Their War Stories" raises an interesting point which I've never heard expressed before -- we don't treat World War I the same way we do other wars (World War II, the Civil War) in our popular culture. While literally dozens of movies spring to mind about World War II, the Civil War, or even Vietnam, there are almost none which detail World War I.

This article is a great read, and one part of it leapt out at me:

As we observe Memorial Day, a hard truth remains: Americans haven't forgotten about the doughboys. We just didn't want to hear about them in the first place. The war's last and greatest battle involving U.S. soldiers, fought in the Meuse-Argonne region of eastern France during the autumn of 1918, sucked in more than 1 million U.S. troops and hundreds of airplanes and tanks. Artillery batteries commanded by men such as the young Harry S. Truman fired more than 4 million shells -- more than the Union Army fired during the entire Civil War. More than 26,000 doughboys were killed and almost 100,000 wounded, making the clash probably the bloodiest single battle in U.S. history. But as far as the American public was concerned, it might as well never have taken place. "Veterans said to me in their speeches and in private that the American people did not know anything about the Meuse-Argonne battle," Brig. Gen. Dennis Nolan wrote years later. "I have never understood why."

. . .

Nowhere is our neglect of the doughboys more noticeable than on the battlefields themselves. Although memorials to the Revolutionary War, the Civil War and World War II are often swamped with visitors, the battlefields of the Meuse-Argonne remain unvisited and largely unmarked. They have changed little since 1918. The French churches and houses are pocked with bullet holes, and bunkers, trenches and rifle pits surrounded by rusty barbed wire, old equipment, shell fragments and unexploded ordnance are visible almost everywhere you look. During a recent visit to the wooded ridge in the Argonne Forest where the "Lost Battalion" fought German troops in October 1918, I kicked aside some leaves and discovered a spent rifle cartridge and a piece of a flare gun -- not something one would expect to happen at Gettysburg or Antietam.

Memorials erected in the 1920s by veterans' organizations are scattered around the battlefield, but many have fallen into decay. Others are carefully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission but receive few visitors. Romagne, the largest U.S. military cemetery in Europe, contains the graves of more than 14,000 doughboys. Located on the site of an old German stronghold in the Meuse-Argonne, it centers around a Romanesque chapel, overlooking rows of crosses and Stars of David on a gently sloping hillside. No U.S. military memorial is more welcoming to visitors; the site enfolds you with a feeling of reverence and peace. The superintendent, Joseph P. Rivers, gladly takes visitors -- he says he gets about 25,000 every year -- on a tour of the cemetery, pointing out individual graves and telling stories of the soldiers buried there.

But on a typical summer day, when the gravestones at World War II's Omaha Beach echo with the squeals of busloads of teenagers shipped in from Paris, Romagne remains deserted. For the most part, the only visitors are British, French, Belgian and German; and it is they, not Americans, who lay flowers on the graves. (So much for French ingratitude.) Gordon Morse, a freelance journalist from Virginia visited the cemetery on Armistice Day in 2006 and was asked to read the presidential proclamation. "I got the job by default," he said. "There were no other American visitors available."

I'm ashamed to say, the author is right -- I have never even heard of the Meuse-Argonne battle. The French still remember, but there's something about a war happening on your own soil that tends to make such memories a bit more long-lasting.

But the story that really made me applaud the French (having never served in the military; while I would like to, I have no right to say what I really want here -- "that really made me salute the French") today comes from National Public Radio.

NPR reports on a French organization called "Les Fleurs de la Mémoire" (Flowers of Remembrance). French people in Normandy volunteer to "adopt" an American soldier's grave. They put flowers on the grave and send photos to American families of the fallen who are unable to make the trip to visit it themselves. So far, they have adopted 8,648 graves.

One of the founders of this organization put it thusly: "When we joined, we promised to visit the grave once a year and to lay flowers on the grave. Sometimes people take flowers from their own gardens. And they say it is like a son, like a cousin, like a brother. It is a member of the family."

French people in Normandy remember D-Day. They love Americans. If you want to see what "American troops being greeted with flowers" truly looks like, check out some newsreels of the liberation of Normandy. And they still remember. And they still love Americans for what they did.

So, this Memorial Day, I would like to thank the French people who keep the spirit of the American Memorial Day alive in their own country.

[I have a general rule against shilling for organizations in my writing. I am breaking that rule today to post the URL of this fine organization, who has a web page up in both French and English (look on the right side of their page), because I believe they are truly worthy of America's support. Les citoyens des Etats-Unis d'Amérique remercions "Les Fleurs de la Mémoire."]

Contact Les Fleurs de la Mémoire at:

-- Chris Weigant


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


2 Comments on “Remembering The Fallen”

  1. [1] 
    YoYoTheAssyrian wrote:

    All the more important to think back on world war I, it'll be a hundred years ago this August.

    For a nice personal focus on the american experience I would recommend this book.

    Check it out, It's a diary of a radio operator with the rainbow division. Which was the premier american formation in France.

  2. [2] 
    DisabledDoc wrote:

    My grandfather used to tell stories about his experiences in WWI -- he was in a transport battalion & he says when they finished training they lined them up & half got mules and wagons, half got trucks -- the state of mechanization of the US Army in 1917! 'I got a truck', he said, and since he didn't see any point in driving it back empty (after taking ammo and other supplies to the front) he would fill it with wounded to take back. Probably deserved a medal but he would never boast about such things. He lived to the age of 102, so even my children got to hear his stories.

    I think our neglect of WWI is part of our overall neglect of history. We're very poor at history, especially anything that doesn't involve us. A lot of Americans don't realize that either war started before the Americans got involved. Why does WWI get even more neglect than most? It got overshadowed by II, I guess.

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