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  • Cynthia August is a Portrait Photographer in Boston.

Photographing the Past on a WWI Battlefield Part Two- Reflection

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…

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