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  • Cynthia August is a Portrait Photographer in Boston.

Continued from Part Four

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

The German advance marker then and now

On the 12th, Eben’s sad anniversary and another rainy day, we spent a few morning hours alone in the Yankee Division Memorial church. It is located just outside the cemetery gates next to a marker showing the furthest advance of the Germans and a few yards from the German cemetery. Ruined (by the Allies) in WWI, the church was rebuilt by the Yankee Division and rededicated in 1923, and is truly lovely in its simplicity and scale. It was odd to sit among this little piece of New England in the middle of Northern France. The state flags of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Connecticut, and Rhode Island line up above the  church’s center aisle. The city of Boston’s flag is front and center, reminding us that the 26th Division was formed there in 1917.  The stained glass windows bear American and British war heroes and state crests.

Yankee Division Church window

As strange as it was to see this piece of home, it was a fitting setting for the day. Preparing to visit Eben one last time, we couldn’t help but be reminded of the places at home the three of us have in common, and how we all love them so.

Reading Eben his letters

Later, sitting at his grave, not long after the noon bells died away in the tower, Bethany read him those letters he never received, and we all listened to Eben’s dad talk about car-rides and baseball scores and how late the garden was compared to the year before. Funny how a letter from home brings home with it, how sitting on that beautiful French grass and hearing about school and work and weather in Newburyport made the miles short and the heart near. That closing of distance makes you reluctant to open it again, and it was hard to go, to leave a son of our own soil so many miles away in a foreign land.

The cemetery in 1919. The graves were moved once after this image was taken, to the area where they now lie.

I think that the powers that brought Bethany to Eben’s story, and her to France, and me with her, took that moment to remind us that “Our Boy” was in good hands. As we rose to leave, Constant Lebastard entered the gravesites a few rows away from where we were packing up, armed with a tin, a sponge, an armful of flowers and a camera. We followed him to the grave he found expertly, and I realized that he must know every spot of the 2,288 like the back of his hand. He opened the tin to reveal moist sand from the beaches of Normandy, which he proceeded to wipe across the front of the white marble cross with his fingers, pushing gently so the fine red-orange grains filled the engraving of the soldier’s name, rank, division and home state.  The stark white of the cross and the deep color of the sand caused the words to stand out in high contrast, and after wiping off the excess with his sponge, M. Lebastard arranged the flowers, added an American and a French flag, and bent down a moment to consider the serviceman in his grave. “I noticed he shares a birthday with my sister,” he said softly, and then took a picture to send back to the United States, to the family that remembered their soldier 100 years later.

Constant Lebastard

Who remembers best? I asked myself as I packed up my gear on that last day. Is it those who still feel the loss, like the families of the dead? Those who are taught to remember, like the visiting school children, or like me, standing shakily on the edge of an artillery hole, wondering whose pain and suffering it holds? Is it the men who spend every day tending this place and others like it, walking among the marble headstones with infinite care? Or the historians like Bethany, who faithfully record what is known, seek to retrieve stories lost and share them with all who will listen? I don’t think there is an answer.

Mr. Williams

But I do think great power lies in the act of remembrance. Looking to the past – no matter how you manage to do it – has the potential to affect on a visceral, empathic level. In that place of deep emotion lies the keys to a fountain of strength, understanding, compassion, forgiveness and positive action. It is a life-giving force and the perspective it offers can help preserve the very thing the men who died at Belleau Wood fought to defend – the right to live freely, without oppression, and with peace.

Raking.

 

It is more than the keeping of grounds and the perpetual care of graves, the work that is done at Aisne-Marne and the other ABMC Cemeteries in the 16 countries around the world. It is a solemn acknowledgment of brutality of war and the beauty of sacrifice – and an ongoing act of respect for those who gave all. By compassionately welcoming those who come to grieve, keeping the graves of our soldiers beautiful and remembering their stories, the cemetery staff set an example that will live on to teach and guide those who are wise enough to understand.

 

 

Continued from Part Three

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

In the midst of death, and remembrance, life still must go on – it is the precious thing fought for and won by our servicemen and women. And even though the keeping of such a reverent place as a cemetery is, by nature, a solemn job, the outdoors, the natural beauty of the wood and farmland surrounding make it a pleasant job. The groundskeepers are kind and gentle-humored, and completely amused by our dreadful attempts to speak French via a written English-to-French app on my IPhone.

 

It is not in the nature of a Frenchman to share personal information, and so, of course, over-sharing doesn’t even translate, which makes getting any story out of them near to impossible, and so I abandon the idea of interviews on day one. I rely, instead, on observing them from afar as they go about their day. In all weather, rain or shine, with crowds milling about the chapel stairs or not, on foot or in one of the seemingly endless golf carts that they use to putt from one end of the place to the other, they are always there, always busy. Bethany and I laugh that it is like a safari, stalking the wild and wily gardener, who manages to finish up, pack his rake and zoom away in the time it takes me to remove my lens cap.

By day 4 I’m a bit bolder, stopping them as they whizz by with my well-practiced “Bonjour Monsieur!” followed by a dramatic reading of something I’ve labored for fifteen minutes to translate into a note on my phone. Most relent and allow me to photograph them, but I’m pretty sure they (still) have no idea what the heck I’ve taken their picture for, and I feel bad about that. Even though they hesitate to bare their soul, I would have at least liked them to understand my gratitude for the effort and care I see in their daily work.

 

I fare better at expressing this sentiment to the strongly bilingual Mr. Williams and Monsieur Lebastard, and so I do – enough times to cover every groundskeeper who might have missed the memo, and probably to an extent that drives both gents a bit crazy. But it is just so heartening to watch the way they welcome and attend to visitors of all ages.

Tours are in the woods and at the gravesites

A particularly rainy day found us at the Cemetery just as M. Lebastard was beginning a tour for a group of wiry French 12 year-olds and their teachers.

Talking about the Battle of Belleau Wood

The children behaved with a level of reserve that was admirable, but you couldn’t miss the barely contained exuberance as they headed out to the graves to listen to an interesting story about one of the soldiers buried there.

 I stood some distance away and photographed the little group standing in a huddle just outside the wide curve of marble crosses. It was strangely beautiful, this storytelling moment, and I choked up a bit, hoping that the words of Constant Lebastard would awaken their young minds not only to the cost of war but the paths to preventing it, and the value of enduring safety and peace.

To be continued…

Continued from Part Two

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

Raking.

It didn’t take long to discover who was keeping such perfect gardens, and why. Not five minutes after we parked and got out of our car, another rental Citroen pulled up next to us in the empty parking lot and two rock-solid, clean-cut young guys climbed out with purpose. One spoke to the other in an unmistakable accent.  Bethany and I exchanged glances. These were Boston kids for sure! It was too much of a coincidence to ignore, and so, of course, we spoke up. Soon we were tagging along with our new friends, a Marine from Swampscott, MA and his cousin, as they headed off to drink water from the Devil Dog fountain, which is located near the cemetery.

Drinking from the Devil Dog Fountain in Belleau

A special ritual for a Marine, the town is reputed to be where the Marines got their nickname and their mascot. Our friend was, understandably, a bit misty after getting the golden key to the fountain yard from the superintendent, Mr. Shane Williams.

Mr. Williams

Mr. Williams, another rock-solid, clean cut American guy, summed up the essence of the Marine’s visit – and the cemetery staff’s mission as we gathered in his office the next morning. Sitting at his table amidst burial records, letters and WWI reference books, the Superintendent read some of the letters Bethany had brought from home and spoke with us about his work greeting people who visit the cemetery daily.

Mr. Williams shows us the place in the wood where Eben fell

Mr. Williams finds Eben’s burial card in the cemetery catalogue

“We never know what it has taken for someone to get here as we watch them come up the drive to the visitor center.” he says, opening a drawer and pulling out a stack of burial cards from 1918. “For some, this is just a tourist stop en route to other places on their vacation. For others, it is a pilgrimage they’ve spent an entire lifetime planning for. And most will never get here again. Many have family here, or family of someone they know. When we receive a visit from family, we take the time to escort them to the grave. We show our support, care and respect for their loved ones, their final resting places, and their sacrifice.” Hearing the superintendent’s words, I think of the young Marine from the evening before, reverently approaching the ancient fountain with the giant bronze bulldog spout, in order to take the drink that will supposedly add ten years to his life. I suddenly see why every rose bush is perfect, and every marble headstone glows white against the deep green grass. It’s about respect, and gratitude, and perhaps most importantly, remembrance.

Simon LeCloërec

The beautiful and well-kept gravesites and the chapel on the hillside are a marked contrast to the just as well-kept but considerably more wild woods that lie beyond them on the top of the hill. It is this place where I began my story, standing at the edge of the wood, looking out at the spot where Bethany and Mr. Williams determined Eben fell a final time, the victim of either a rifle or more likely fire from a machine gun nest dug into the trees and boulders behind me. My viewing angle is that of the Germans, not the Allies, but it makes no difference to me in this place carpeted with the traces of unbiased suffering and death. All who were killed here were men and mortal, and imperfect, and loved by someone.

In Belleau Wood

Hiking here in the sun dappled forest under trees that have only been growing for one hundred years – the battle of 1918 destroyed nearly every living thing in the wood – we stumble over the half filled in remains of artillery shell holes, machine gun nests, and zigzag trenches. Here too, I feel the care and upkeep of the men that watch this place, but there is a different type of effort – the monuments are cleaned and roads cleared, but the deep battle scars remain and are easy to find, as if removing them would represent some sort of whitewashing of the bitter truth – that thousands of men just like Eben met horrible, grisly deaths where we stand. I am moved by the worker’s careful care and struck by the profoundly deep emotional silence. There has been nothing on this land for a hundred years, and I can’t help but wonder if another hundred will be even remotely enough time to shed the weight of the blood in this soil.

To be continued…

Continued from Part One

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site.

The tabac shop in Belleau after the war and now

The central point of our trip was the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery, and we spent nearly every day of our trip there, for a least an hour or two. Located in Belleau Wood, on the site of the battle bearing the same name, Aisne-Marne is one of the sites carefully and respectfully maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission, whose permission I needed, in order to take professional photographs, while accompanying Bethany. The ABMC administers, operates, and maintains 26 permanent American military cemeteries and 29 federal memorials, monuments, and markers, which are located in 16 foreign countries.

The WWI monument at Chateau Thierry

After World War I, President Harding, in response to a need for federal control over the commemoration of American armed forces overseas, established the ABMC and made the agency responsible for constructing monuments honoring American Expeditionary Forces. Next, the ABMC constructed memorial chapels in the eight permanent military cemeteries in Europe, which were maintained by the War Department. President Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the Executive Order that gave the responsibility for managing and maintenance of these solemn grounds to the ABMC.

Normandy Cemetery, beautifully maintained by the ABMC

Once an option for American families who lost a soldier in the war, the military no longer buries soldiers abroad – that ended during the Korean War. Now, the military tries to bring those who die in service back home. But during WWI, 30% of grieving American families chose to let their loved ones be buried in the place where they sacrificed their lives for freedom – not just American freedom, and not even American freedom first. Here, they fought for Frenchmen, to protect Paris, and turn the tide of the war in Europe. Belleau Wood and the Aisne-Marne Cemetery is land that has been given to the United States by France for burial and commemoration.

It is here, in this beautifully maintained cemetery set up against the wood, that Eben rests rather poignantly. His family did not instruct the military to bury him there. In fact, by the time Eben was in his permanent resting place (the clerical and logistical nightmare of locating, identifying and preparing the scattered chaos of dead bodies from the month-long battle took years and multiple temporary burial sites), his family, so heartbroken, frustrated and beaten, could barely bring themselves to think  of the Newburyport boulder with his name on it, much less the far-off wheat field that held his gunshot riddled body. He was interred there because nobody said otherwise. All the more reason for Bethany and I to be fully present, both spiritually and physically, on the important day.

Bethany at one of the temporary gravesites hastily created after the battle

I was absolutely honored and thrilled to be going along to see Eben and take pictures, but my job description still wasn’t entirely clear. During our planning, a delicate question had hung tactfully in the air – as a commercial portrait photographer, I generally take pictures of the living – what was there for me to photograph in the peaceful, but largely unchanging, fields of the dead?

Looking towards Lucy Le Bocage

One thing I can always count on Bethany for is a solution, and this moment was no exception. “You know,” she said thoughtfully, “the men that take care of the cemetery are an interesting bunch. I wonder if you could take some portraits of them?” Visions of cigarette-smoking, weather beaten, salt-of-the-earth Frenchmen in full gardening gear taking care of American WWI graves hit my photographer buttons, and in an instant we had the makings of a proposal. After a few emails were exchanged with Constant Lebastard, Bethany’s contact at the cemetery, and a well-written pitch of mine was approved by the ABMC stateside, I had an additional project for France that supported Bethany’s book and kept me within my own bailiwick. I now got to packing my gear with a real sense of purpose and plan.

Assistant Superintendant Constant Lebastard

All of that assurance stuck with me through the first leg of my trip in Paris, got me to the rental car and through picking up Bethany at the airport, rocketed us East on the A4 (Bethany soon discovered my lead foot speaks French pretty well), and promptly left me as we slowly drove through the iron gates and up the perfectly manicured entryway to the cemetery. It was one of the most beautiful and calm places I’ve ever seen – full of roses and tall sycamores, boxwood hedges and lush grass.  My grizzled and gritty vision of caretakers vanished in an instant and was replaced with complete curiosity over who could possibly keep such intensely perfect grounds.

To be continued…

In June 2018, I traveled to Northern France with author Bethany Groff Dorau to document her visit to the Belleau Wood Battlefield and Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Her trip was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Belleau Wood and the death of US Marine Eben Bradbury, the subject of Dorau’s most recent book. While there, I met and photographed the French and American staff that cares for the graves and the site. This is part one of a four part series.

I step to the edge of the woods, my heart thumping, and look cautiously out onto the field of ripening wheat. The breeze rustles everything green, and the resulting sound is almost deafening compared to the heavy silence of noontime sun in the summer. The events of this day, in this place, one hundred years ago, still reside in the soil and in the air;  if you pause, you can feel it. At least, I can as I stand here, knees a bit wobbly, my soul vibrating and aching all at once, camera useless by my side, staring. Ghosts of young men are whispering to me, asking me to listen.

Nearly one year before this moment in the woods Bethany had floated the idea to me over a sneaky workday lunch at our favorite Mexican restaurant. “Come with me to France”, she said, “and take pictures when I visit Eben again.” It struck me like most fanciful and far off ideas do, interesting in its spontaneous shape, but unlikely to ever become anything more than a thought. Then suddenly, something in the moment whispered, like it did in the field, telling me to simply say yes and sort the details out later. So I did.

A few more weeks and working lunches later, we had flights and rooms and a car in Aisne and seven unscheduled June days, with the exception of one – June 12th. On that day, the 100th anniversary of his death, Bethany would be visiting with Eben Bradbury, a WWI Newburyport Massachusetts Marine buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau Wood. She would sit at his grave and read him letters from his father, the ones Eben never got to read himself, as they were sent back from France unopened with ‘Killed in Action’ scrawled in red above his name.

Bethany, a historian and author, and also a Newburyport native, knows a lot about Eben. A lot. Enough to fill the terrific book she’s written about him. She knows the house where he grew up, and the schools he attended. She knows his favorite sport (baseball) and what he liked to do in his spare time (walks with Dad). She knows his nickname, and a bit about his temperament, and much about his relationship with his parents and older sister. She can tell you details about his family’s business and the interesting people he was related to. She also knows about his eventual choice to be a Marine, his training and service in Europe during WWI, how he ended up at Belleau, and how he died there.

The whisper that I heard has been in Bethany’s ear all along, bringing with it an astounding series of fortuitous events, well-timed connections and providences that have helped her understand this nearly-forgotten young man with astounding depth. (You should read the book!) Bethany wrote in 2015: “I had recently completed some research on the Battle of Belleau Wood in France, a 1918 battle famous in the Marine Corps for its terrible death toll and the bravery of its soldiers. Later that day I drove by a memorial stone on Pond Street and really looked at it for the first time. It honors Eben Bradbury, who died on June 12, 1918, at the Battle of Belleau Wood. It was an eerie coincidence, but one that convinced me to find out more about how the war touched Newburyport, and about this young man in particular.”

That was three years ago. Here we were now, in 2018, days before the 100th anniversary, in Northern France on the edge of the Marne River, walking through villages and the driving down the dirt roads where that dreadful battle was fought. We drank every detail in great gulps, minds full of the past and the present all at once separate and then intertwined. The roll of the hills the soldiers marched, the length of the fields they waded through. Bright June days, where a late sunset meant less time under cover of darkness for rest and recon. The feel of the soil underfoot, the height of the wheat, the blood red brightness of poppies and the green of trees. Church bells tolling in the present, reminding us of their use in the past as alarms or calls to action. The farmers using harmless air cannons to drive off crows – and how they sounded like rifles as we stood in the battlefield listening. Thunderstorms that seemed, for all the world, like artillery as they shook the ground. Doves calling incessantly to their mates, as if they feared losing each other in the thick of the wood. Rain. Mud. And bones in the ground…

To be continued…