A gentle breeze slipped past the gravestones near me, rustling the slim folds of the American flag overhead, tapping the fasteners against the pole in a metallic rhythm.
Aside from our low voices, the soft sounds of insects and birds, and the occasional passing car, it was the only sound to be heard. We were the only souls present. The only living souls, that is. 2,281 voices that would never be heard again lay beneath the well-trimmed grass as two tall U.S. flags stood guard over them. As they died under it, so it stands watch as they sleep.
When Americans come to Europe, they want to see “the sights.” They go to Paris, London, Rome. Some – many – will go to Normandy and stand in awe on the beaches, looking across the wide expanse of water as if trying actually to spot the Allied fleet approaching. Few will venture the few hours outside Paris to where the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery stands off to the side of the D-9 highway. Because few remember the two million Americans who surged into Europe between 1917 and 1919, and who just as rapidly vanished.
But not all came home. 53,402 fell in combat or died shortly thereafter of their wounds. Upwards of 20,000 more died of disease in Europe, leaving the U.S. wondering what to do with the over 70,000 American graves in war-torn Europe. Ultimately, the government left it up to the families: did they want their service member buried overseas, or at home in a government plot, or in a private cemetery. Through the early 1920s, thousands of young men came back to their homeland. But 30,973 remained in eight World War I American cemeteries in France, Belgium, and the United Kingdom. France, in its kindness, bought the land where Americans were buried and gave it to the United States.
These cemeteries are run by the American Battle Monuments Commission, which oversees all U.S. military cemeteries and monuments outside the Continental U.S. It is an imposing responsibility. But it is one that the Commission does not bear lightly. Each cemetery is run by a superintendent who oversees the maintenance, upkeep, and operations of the cemetery. This includes ensuring that all the grass is neatly mowed, the flowers are pruned, the gravestones clear of moss or any dirt. And all this even if there are no visitors.
Which brings me back to that first day I visited the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery. Myself and my guide being the only people present. The long sweeping walls of gravestones surrounded us and wrapped us up, enshrining us in sacred memory. “We are the dead; Short days ago, we lived, felt dawn, so sunset’s glow,” John McCrae’s famous poem reads. “Loved. And were loved.” Truer words.
These men – boys, really, as they were and shall ever be – received some last visitors after they were finally laid to rest in these hallowed grounds. It was the women who had carried them, raised them, and then watched as they marched off to war.
The trips were called the Gold Star Mothers’ pilgrimages – although widows were also authorized to attend – and they were paid for by the U.S. government. From 1930 to 1933, over 7,000 American women from all walks of life made the journey across the Atlantic, through the French ports, shook hands with dignitaries, were wined and dined, and then finally led to their son or husband’s grave. They were heart-rending visits. One woman noted that one mother could not bring herself to rise from her son’s grave, physically overcome with grief, and died shortly thereafter.
After 1933, the cemeteries were still visited. By curious Americans, by grateful French, by some veterans. Michelin put out a guide to American cemeteries and battlefields in Europe. But then the world plunged into war again and when it came out, it had changed. It was no longer the nation of the Great War, which had rejected the mantle of the Great Powers. Now the U.S. would go forth clad in the armor of freedom and righteousness. It would leave behind its innocence. That, too, would be buried in France and forgotten.
Soldiers and Marines lay buried side by side at the Aisne-Marne. Regulars and National Guard. Black and white. All distinctions erased in death – save that of service and sacrifice. And so on this 100th anniversary of that war, we remember those who died in that conflict – those brave and happy boys who left our quiet shores to “make the world safe for democracy” – those spirited and courageous girls who wanted to do their part and did more than that in the canteens and hospitals and headquarters of the American Expeditionary Force. Whether they were felled by bullet or shell or virus, their sacrifices should still never be forgotten. To them, the world is forever young.
Let us live for them.
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About the Author: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.
Cover photo: Aisne-Marne American Cemetery (author photo)