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  • Cynthia August is a Portrait Photographer in Boston.

Photographing the Past on a WWI Battlefield Part Four – Gratitude

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…

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