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.
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.
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, 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.
“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.
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.
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.