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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.