I’m going to tell you a story that starts with a pair of new shoes, continues with a cemetery, and ends at the top of the world.
It started when I realized I needed a new pair of shoes if I were going to trek all over the World War I battlefields of France with Benjamin. I have no feeling in my feet and lower legs thanks to a spinal cord injury, and more than once I’ve walked huge, bleeding blisters onto my feet. While covering the Democratic National Convention in 2008, I walked off my pinkie toenail on my left foot, removing the shoe to find blood and no toenail. (Yes, you my cringe now, but I didn’t feel it.) I couldn’t very well expect to go all-terrain without a sturdy pair of shoes that wouldn’t hurt me.
I paid a visit to Boulder Running Company. They cater to serious runners and athletes, the sort of person endemic to Boulder County. I used to be both and now am neither. However, the people there are experts at fitting shoes to feet. I spent about an hour there one night talking with a man who found the perfect pair of shoes for me, a pair of Keen hikers that look like ordinary shoes. But I digress...
While I was talking with him, I explained where I was going and why. I explained Benjamin’s lifelong interest in the French role in World War I. Then the shoe guy said, “If you’re going to Verdun, you should visit the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. My brother is the superintendent and lives there. It’s the biggest American cemetery in Europe.”
“Bigger than the cemetery at Normandy?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Some 14,000 American soldiers are buried there, mostly those killed in the Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918.”
Fast forward several weeks, and Benjamin and I found ourselves with an expert tour guide who didn’t want to take us where we had planned to go — Fort Douaument — but who had better plans of his own. I had shared with Benjamin my story about the shoe salesman, but he said he thought the cemetery was too far north for us. Mr. Radet, our tour guide, apparently didn’t think so.
And so we found ourselves on American soil — in France.
It’s hard to describe the impact of seeing 14,000 marble crosses and stars of David lined up in neat rows. It puts an immediate lump in the throat. It is impossible as an American not to want to go to these men, and so we found ourselves walking among the headstones, reading the names and the states of those who gave their lives in an effort to help the French push the Germans out of France.
So many of those buried here lie beneath marble markers that say only, “American Soldier.” The nature of warfare during World War I — big shell bombardments, flame throwers, trenches that collapsed — means that remains were often very hard to identify. I found myself touching every headstone I passed where no name was written. But on the marble monument beyond the cemetery is a list of every slain soldier whose remains were not found. If only the grave markers could be matched to those names...
We saw so many men from Illinois, New York, Wisconsin, and Ohio. Only one of the stones we found read, “Colorado.” Benjy and I both said a quiet hello to our fellow Coloradan and moved on.
As a rule, visiting cemeteries doesn’t make me cry. I find it interesting to read headstones in historical cemeteries. But war cemeteries are different. These men did not die natural deaths; instead, they died in fear and terror in the midst of a horrific conflict the likes of which I pray the world never sees again. They left home, their parents and siblings and wives and children waving farewell, and they never made it home again.
I found myself wishing I had 14,000 roses or 14,000 paper poppies. But instead, I walked by these silent markers to the dead, touching as many as I could.
M. Radet took a photo of Benjamin and I in front of the chapel and monument for the cemetery. We went inside and signed the guestbook, both Benjamin and I wishing we had time to stay and pray but not knowing the other was thinking the same thing. Instead, we both said silent prayers.
Now, in the back of my mind I remembered the shoe salesman and his superintendent brother. The superintendent’s house and office stood across a gently sloping hillside from the chapel. But what exactly would I say to the man?
“Hi! My name is Pamela. I write books. Your brother sold me these shoes.”
Then I learned from M. Radet that he had a friend who worked at the superintendent’s office, and so across we went and up the hill — only to discover that neither the superintendent nor M. Radet’s friend were there. The superintendent’s assistant, a friendly Frenchman, gave me a copy of the superintendent’s card and took down a note from me when he heard I was from Boulder. Then M. Radet, the assistant and Benjamin proceeded to discuss World War I at length while I stood there nodding. And the assistant came to understand what I mean when I say I understand French but don’t speak it.
From there, we continued on to the site of Montfaucon. Montfaucon was a town once upon a time. Unfortunately for its residents, it was built on a hilltop. The invading Germans attacked the town early in the war, bombing and pillaging it. Montfaucon was utterly destroyed, including its very old cathedral.
Today, Montfaucon stands in ruins, the bombed out cathedral surrounded by German bunkers and the sites of former homes. Amid the crumbling columns of the church stands what’s left of a German lookout. Deliberately built among the ruins to disguise its presence, it gave them a view of the valley below, offering them a strategic advantage.
The war raged on. The Battle of Verdun started in 1916 across the valley. It ground to a near standstill as the British and French tried to punch a hole in German lines at The Somme. The war continued into 1917 and 1918. And then the Americans came.
Fighting side by side with the French, American soldiers drove the Germans out of the Meuse-Argonne area that they had occupied since the beginning of the war, but at a very high cost. Flame throwers, mustard gas, shells, machine gun fire — American and French soldiers faced it together and died together on French soil.
When the battle was over and the war was won, the French gave a piece of the land American boys had died for to the United States. That land is now the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.
They also allowed the U.S. government to erect a monument at the site of Montfaucon, a town that will never be rebuilt, in honor of the shared victory.
We strolled through the ruins of the church and the town, looked at the German bunkers, and then went to see the monument. It towers over the landscape giving visitors willing to climb the stairs a view the German attackers would literally have killed for.
Mr. Radet and I chose not to climb the stairs. I didn’t want to fall. But Benjamin climbed to the top in under three minutes, impressing Mr. Radet. While Benjamin snapped up some amazing photos of the countryside, including one that includes the Ossuary at Douaumont if magnified, I discovered another fabulous use for a monument like this: acoustics.
I started singing some Loreena McKennitt tunes, which made Benjamin believe some kind of sound system was playing church music. Wish I had recorded that!
And so in a single afternoon we saw the ruins of Montfaucon and the land for which the French and Americans (and the British) fought — and the resting places of those who died for this landscape.
May they rest forever in peace!