In Chateau Thierry after the war, a house of perpetual memory and service

This pamphlet from 1925, onto which are pressed poppies from the surrounding wheatfields, tells the story of what might be described as “a house of perpetual memory and service” built and maintained by American Methodists in Chateau Thierry in the first years after the war.  It is difficult in a phrase or two to describe what such a house was, so the full description contained in the pamphlet is included here, together with attendent photographs. 

Unlike the work toward healing and recovery performed by medical institutions, about which a great deal has been written over the years, comparable work by smaller, charitable organizations devoted to repairing damage to the social fabric of war-torn France, is much less known. 

The idea behind such houses was to put into place local centers that would persist for years afterwards, serving not only practical physical needs, but working to restore psychological and spiritual deficits as well.  Such houses as this were both a refuge and a place of healing from the lingering corrosion of war, and training ground of preparation for the trials that were to come.

BJ Omanson

The Vision is now a beautiful reality.  It came first to Dr. Bysshe, soon after the Germans had left their fearful trail of death in the Valley of the Marne in 1914.  He was standing in the pitiful little American graveyard at Belleau Woods.  It was all so soon after the terrible battle and the hasty burial of those brave boys, that in itself it was like a newly-made grave, with nothing as yet to mark the spot.

“Those American Soldiers who gave their lives in France should have one of the finest monuments in the world” was the thought of this Superintendant of France Mission.

Already the French Government had asked the Methodists to aid with relief for the refugees who were returning to the devastated homes.  Thirty-two villages were assigned to them.

It was while thinking of the aid which the Board of Foreign Missions in New York had offered for the devastated areas of France that the thought came of enlarging this temporary material assistance and making a more enduring monument which would a Memorial worthy of the soldiers whose graves are in France.  The gift of the Methodist Episcopal Church to Chateau-Thierry should be more than a passing gift of material relief.  It should be an enduring monument of happiness, built out of the desolation of war.  It must be a loving service for those who are still living in the war-scarred villages of the Valley of the Marne.

The first year after the war gave abundant opportunity for relieving need in the thirty-two villages.  It was decided after the first year that the emergency need for material help was no longer so great, and that our energy should be turned toward the development of a service in Chateau-Thierry which would be permanent, which would not only hold the affection of the villages but which could continue to minister to the needs of the growing youth of Chateau-Thierry and be an abiding Memorial to the American Soldier dead.  The old Hotel de l’Elephant was purchased.  It is within a stone’s throw of the famous Stone Bridge, which was destroyed, to prevent the Germans getting over the Marne, on the day after the arrival of the American Army.  The building was a ruin at the time of its purchase.  It had been used as a hotel since 1789, witnessing the scenes of the French Revolution.  One of Napoleon’s cannon balls is still lodged in a building nearby, bearing the date “1814”.  It witnessed the evacuation of the place in 1870, and suffered terribly from the two bombardments in 1914 and 1918.

Its ruin was such that it seemed hopeless to think of ever making it an attractive place for children’s work.  Wit broken roof, rain-soaked walls, without a pane of glass, and the accumulation of the filth of years, it was impossible to occupy the building for months.  Two German bodies were in the cellar when the Americans took over the building.  Forty-six sticks of dynamite were found in it after we had lived in it five months.

From the shell-torn carcass of the “Elephant” was resurrected the beautiful “Methodist Memorial”.  A local Physician, Dr. Prieur, said, “If the Methodists will render the best service to Chateau-Thierry, let them help children to take the places of those who were killed in the War.  France lost one million five hundred thousand of her men, beside seven hundred thousand others who were wounded.  The places of these must be filled”.

The program was definitely made to include the following activities:

1.  A Trained Nurse for visiting in the homes of expectant mothers.  A weekly clinic to be held in the building, under the supervision of local physicians for the babies and mothers.

2.  A Creche (Day Nursery) for the daily care of babies, three months to two years of age, from destitute and devasted homes.  The mothers of these must work to support their families.  Already the babies show the effects of the daily bath, regular habits of sleep, with good nourishment.  Every sanitary precaution is taken for the health of these precious future citizens of France.

3.  Educational Classes.  Popular classes in English are held four evenings in the week.  Instruction is given in Shorthand, Typewriting, Millinery, Sewing, Drawing, Modeling, Domestic science and Gymnastics.  A Casse de garde is held each afternoon after school hours.  During the summer vacation months more than seventy children from three to twelve years of age attend the morning and afternoon classes.  Material is furnished to the sewing classes with instruction for making the trousseaux of the future mothers of France.

4.  An Installation of Wireless Telegraphy and Radio-Telephone, affords instruction for the youth and entertainment for the inhabitants of the Community.

5.  A Free Circulating Library and Reading Room.  Owing to the destruction of books during the war there is a keen appreciation of the magazines and journals.  Nearly one thousand carefully selected and catalogued volumes are in circulation.  Gifts from Dana Hall, Wellesley, have aided in founding a Children’s Library which is becoming more and more popular, and is especially attractive at the Story-telling Hour.

6.  The Boy Scouts and Camp-fire Girls are organized.  They have made their own tents and have camped on the battlefields.  Marked improvement is seen in the conduct of these young-people whose morals suffered greatly during the war, when their fathers and older brothers were at the front and their mothers were in the fields and munition factories.  Our Boy Scouts took second place at a National encampment, bringing home five 1st medals and the Gold Medal for second highest place in the Camp.

7.  The Girls’ Social Club.  Young women meet weekly for self improvement, with music, games and uplifting conferences.

8.  War Museum.  A valuable collection of souvenirs of the war has been made.  German cannons and French mortars, together with parts of aeroplanes, including the motor of Quentin Roosevelt’s plane which fell at Chamery, are in the museum.  Autographed photographs and letters have been received from nearly all of the commanding officers who were here in 1918.  More than 8,000 persons visited the building in the summer of 1925.

9.  The Rooms  have been made attractive and home-like.  these are open every evening in the week.  English classes, music, games, coversation in English and French, afford an ideal opportunity for closer acquaintance and the making of abiding friendship between the American, English and French peoples.  Such gatherings had not been known before.  Conferences and soirees have been held with speakers or artists from Paris.  Dramatic performances are staged and Concerts given.

There is no charge made for the services rendered in the Methodist Memorial.  It has been the joy of Methodism to offer this in loving appreciation of the people of Chateau-Thierry, and in tender memory of the brave boys who sleep at Belleau Woods.

While the Board of Foreign Missions has founded and financed the Memorial, special gifts are necessary for maintaining the present program.

This is only one of the social activities of the France Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church in France, others being in Paris, Poissy, Charvieu, Lyon and Toulon.  The Paris Office is at 89a Boulevard Haussmann.

Julian S. Wadsworth, Director.

—————————–

3000-12-10-12  —  Herbert Clarke, Printer, 338 Rue St-Honore, Paris.

Published in: on March 27, 2010 at 8:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

War comes to the Marne valley, September 1914

Going to war as a soldier is one thing.  Having it arrive unbidden in your front yard, especially if you are a woman, is quite another.  American-born Frances Wilson Huard had said good-bye to her husband only a few days before and all she knew of his whereabouts now was that he was somewhere with the French Army.  As for herself, she was responsible for a large chateau a few kilometers northwest of Chateau Thierry, and a small household of three women, four children, several dogs and a number of farm animals.   The war was about to arrive at her doorstep.  Her account of that unwelcome visitor is to be found in her book, My Home in the Field of Honour, published two years later in 1916.  What follows are several excerpts, for which I have provided times and dates.

BJ Omanson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sunday evening, August 30

That night I was awakened by the low rumbling of heavy carts on the road in front of the chateau.  Fancying that perhaps it was artillery on its way to the front, I put on my dressing gown and went as far as the gate.  There in the pale moonlight I beheld a long stream of carriages and wagons of every description piled high with household goods, and filled with women and children.  The men walked beside the horses to prevent collision, for as far as eye could see, the lamentable cortege extended down the hill.

What did this mean?  “Who are you?” I called to one of the men as they passed.

“Belgians–refugees.”

Refugees!  My mind flew back to descriptions of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, when so many people fled for their lives!  What nonsense!  Were we not in the twentieth century?  Wasn’t there a Peace Palace at The Hague?  My thoughts became muddled.

Opening the gate, I went out and accosted another man.

“Won’t you come in and rest?”

“No, we can’t.  We must make our twenty miles by dawn–and rest during the heat of the day.”

“But why do you leave home?”

“Because the savages burned us out!”

Bah, the man must be dreaming!

I turned back and addressed myself to another:  “What’s your hurry?” I queried

“They’re on our heels!” came the reply.

Surely this one was madder than the other!

A third did not deign to reply, sturdily marching on ahead, his eyes fixed on the road in front of him.

On top of a farm cart half filled with bay I saw the prostrate form of a woman with two others kneeling beside her ministering to her wants.  In the trap that followed was the most sorrowful group of old men and middle-aged women I ever hope to see.  All were sobbing.  Besides them rode two big boys on bicycles.  I stopped one of these.

“What’s the matter with her?” I questioned, pointing to the woman on the cart.

“She’s crazy.”

“?”

“Yes, lost her mind.”

“How, when, where?”

“Two days ago, when we left X.  (Try as I may, I cannot recall the name of the little Belgian town be mentioned.)  She was ill in bed with a fever when the Germans set fire to the place–barely giving us time to hoist her into the cart. Her husband lingered behind to scrape a few belongings together.  In spite of our efforts, she would stand up on the cart, and suddenly we heard an explosion and she saw her house burst into flame.  She fainted.  Outside in the woods we waited an hour, but her husband never came.  Perhaps it’s just as well, for when she woke up her mind was a blank!”

Ye gods!  I rubbed my eyes.  It couldn’t be possible that all this was true!  I was asleep!  It was merely a horrible nightmare.  But no–the carts rolled on in the pale moonlight carrying their heavy burdens of human misery.

It was more than I could stand.  All thought of sleep had vanished, so I went and woke Madame Guix.  We dressed and descended to the kitchen, where with a few smoldering embers, we soon managed to light a good fire.  Water was set to boil and in half an hour’s time we carried out to the bridge two huge pails of hot coffee, a pail of cold water, and one of wine.  No one refused our offerings, and the hearty “God bless you’s” of those kindly souls brought tears to our eyes more than once.

Dawn, Monday, August 31st, found us still at our posts.  I rang the farm bell, assembled my servants, and told them we would abandon all but the most necessary farm work and minister to the wants of the refugees.  By eight o’clock they had peeled and prepared vegetables enough to fill two huge copper pots, and the soup was set to boil.  And still the long line of heavy vehicles followed one another down the road: moving vans, delivery wagons, huge drays, and even little three-wheeled carts drawn by dogs, rolled on towards the south.

When asked where they were going, most of the people replied, “Straight ahead of us, a’ la grace de Dieu.”

Pre-dawn hours, Tuesday, September 1

. . . we were all hard at work when a haggard female face looked in at the kitchen window.

“Is there a doctor here?”

“No,–but–”

The woman burst into tears. Madame Guix and I hurried out into the court.  “My baby–I can’t seem to warm her,” moaned the poor mother.  “She hasn’t eaten anything since yesterday.”  And stretching out her arms, the woman showed us an infant that she had been carrying in her apron.  It was dead.

I had difficulty in overcoming my emotion, but Madame Guix took the poor little corpse into her arms, and I helped the mother to an arm chair in the refectory.  A cup of strong coffee brought back a little color to her wan cheeks and she told us she was from Charleville.  The Taubes had got in their sinister work to good advantage among the civil population but they were merely the forerunners of another and heavier bombardment.  The townspeople had fled in their night clothes.

“Are you alone?”

“Yes–I’m not a native of Charleville.  My husband and I have only been married a year.  He left the second of August and the baby was born the tenth.  She’s only three weeks old.”  No wonder the mother looked haggard–one hundred and fifty miles on foot, with a newborn infant in her arms, fleeing for her life before the barbarous hordes!

I pressed another cup of coffee with a drop of brandy in it upon her.  She looked appealingly at both of us and then drank.

“Was your husband good to you?” asked Madame Guix.

“Ah, yes, Madame.”

“Do you love him well enough to endure another sacrifice like a true wife and mother that you are?”

“Yes.”

And then we told her that her baby bad gone — gone to a brighter Country where war is unknown.  She looked at us in amazement, and burying her head on her arm, sobbed silently but submissively.

“Come, come, you must sleep–and when you are rested we will help you to find room in a cart which will take you towards your parents.”  She cast a long, loving look at her first born, and let herself be led away.

All we could do was to make an official declaration of the death at the town hall. A small linen sheet served as shroud, a clean, flower-lined soap box formed that baby’s coffin, and George and I were the grave diggers and chief mourners, who laid the tiny body at rest in the little vine-grown churchyard. War willed it thus.

Dawn, September 2

At six-thirty the public distribution of soup recommenced.  Who my guests were I have no idea.  There were more than a hundred of them.  That was clear enough from the dishes that were left.  Just as the last round had been served, George came in to say that the village was beginning to get uneasy–people from Neuilly St. Front and Lucy-le-Bocage and Essommes had already passed down the road, and the peasants looked to the chateau for a decision!

I went out to the gate.  Yes, true enough, our neighbors from Lucy (five miles distant) had joined the procession.  Then there was a break, and a lull, such as had not occurred for two days, and in the silence I again recognized the same clattering sound that had caught my ear on the hill top the afternoon before. This time it was much more distinct, but was soon drowned out by the rumbling of heavy wheels on the road.

Surely this time it was artillery!

I wrapped my shawl closer about me and sat down on the low stone wall that borders the moat, while little groups of peasants, unable to sleep, clustered together on the roadside.

Nearer and nearer drew the clanking noise and presently a whole regiment of perambulators, four abreast, swung around the corner into the moonlight.

Domptin!

Domptin, our neighboring village, one mile up the road, had caught the fever and was moving out wholesale, transporting its ill and decrepit, its children and chattels, in heaven knows how many baby carriages!

I had never seen so many in all my life.  The effect was altogether comic, and Madame Guix and I could not resist laughing–much to the dismay of these poor souls who saw little amusement at being obliged to leave home scantily clad in night clothes.

They passed on, without further comment, and the last man had hardly turned the corner when a scream coming from up the road drew us to our feet, and sent us running in that direction.  Almost instantly, the figure of an old white-capped peasant woman appeared in the distance.  She was wringing her hands and crying aloud.  When we were within ear shot, I caught the word, “Uhlans!”

“Uhlans!  Where?”

“Dans le bois de la Mazure!” (A half-mile from Villiers.)

“How do you know?”

“Saw their helmets glittering in the moonlight!”

“What rot!  They’re Frenchmen–dragoons.  You don’t know your own countrymen when you see them!   Did you approach them?”

“No.”

“Then what in the name of common sense sent you flying down here to scare us like that?  You’ve got no business spreading panic broadcast.  If you don’t turn around and scamper home, the way you came, I’ll have you arrested.  Allez!”

My nerves had stood the strain as long as possible.  This false alarm had roused my anger and in a jiffy I could see how thousands of people had been deceived, and were now erring homeless along the roads of France!

“You can do what you like,” I said, turning to the others, “but I’ve had enough of this for one day–I’m going to bed.  Good-night, gentlemen.”

“The chatelaine is going to bed, the chatelaine is going to bed!” “Let all go to bed,” and similar phrases were echoed among the groups and presently we all separated, after many cordial a demain.

The clock in the village church was striking midnight when I finally retired, after calling my greyhounds and Betsy into my room, and assuring myself that they all had on their collars, and that their leashes were hanging on my bed post.

Nini, the little traitor, had evidently told Yvonne of my preparations for departure, and the two girls, whose beds were in the next room to mine, had been unable to close their eyes, for as I blew out my lamp, I could hear their childish voices repeating the rosary:

“Hail Mary full of Grace–the Lord is with Thee…”

* * * * *

I may have slept an hour.  Then I can dimly remember hearing a wild yelp from my dogs, and when I found myself in the middle of my room rubbing my eyes, Yvonne was calling, “Madame!  Madame!” in terrified tones.  My pets were mad with excitement, and the sound of the farm bell was ringing in my ears!

“Silence!” I yelled.

Everything but the bell ceased.

Heedless of my attire, I rushed to a back window and repeated my command.

The bell stopped.

“Who are you that you dare wake us like that!” I scolded.

A boy between eighteen and nineteen let go the rope and stepped beneath the window.  I could see his blond hair in the moonlight.

“Are you Madame Huard?”

“Yes.”

“I’ve come with a message from your husband.”

I grew cold as ice.  Good God, what had happened?   In a bound I was down stairs and had opened the front door.

“Is H. wounded?” I gasped.

“No, Madame.”

I breathed again.

“Where was he when you saw him?”

“On the road between Villers-Cotterets and La Ferte Milon.”

“What’s your message?”

The boy put his hand to his breast pocket and drew forth a slip of paper.  The full moon shining on the white facade of the chateau threw such a brilliant reflection that I recognized a sheet from a sketch book, and could distinguish the following words scribbled in pencil:

“Give bearer fifty francs, then in the name of the love you bear me, evacuate now; go south, not Paris.”   The last words were underscored three or four times.

“What time was it when H. gave you this?”

“Noon or thereabouts.”

“How did you come?  On foot?”

“No, bicycle.”

“But it’s after midnight!”

“I know, but I got lost and had three bad punctures.”

Here were marching orders for fair, and if I intended obeying enough time had already been lost.  To stay in spite of everything was to be responsible for all the young lives that looked to me, for protection.  Could I promise it?  No. Then go it was!

At that same moment and as though to reinforce my decision, the strange clattering noise I had observed growing nearer and nearer during the last two days broke on the night air.

“Hark!” said the boy.  “La mitrailleuse!”

“The machine guns!” I echoed.

“Oui, Madame.”

That sufficed.  “We’ll be leaving in ten minutes.  Go to the kitchen.  I’ll send someone to look after you and we’ll go together.”

All this had transpired in less time than it takes to tell it.  Awakened by the bell, the refugees in the stables came pouring into the courtyard.  A second later, George, lantern in hand, came running towards me.

“Tell Leon to harness Cesar–then go and wake Julie and say that we are leaving in ten minutes.  I expect her, and her family, with their horse, to be ready. The courtyard in ten minutes.  Mind!”

On the landing I met Madame Guix already fully dressed.

“Nous partons,”  was all I said.  She understood and followed me towards Yvonne’s room.

The two children, their teeth chattering, looked towards us in terror.

“Nini, put on the warmest clothes you possess and help Madame Guix to dress Yvonne.  Then go to the kitchen and wait there without moving.”

My own toilet was brief, and five minutes later, lamp in hand, I was pounding on all the doors of the long corridors, fearful lest some one be forgotten and locked in the house.  When I reached the second floor I bethought me of the woman and her two children, and as I advanced I called, “Don’t be frightened. This is merely a warning!”

The poor soul must have been dreaming, for when I touched her door she screamed, and as I opened it and held the lamp over my head, I could see the two little creatures clinging to their mother, who on her knees begged, “Take me, but spare my babies!”

I had some difficulty in reassuring her, but finally succeeded, and left her to go below to the hospital.

At the first alarm, the women who were sleeping there had fled in terror, and when assured that all were gone, for safety’s sake I went up into the vestibule and standing at the foot of’ the stairs, called, “All out!  All out!  I’m closing up and leaving!”

No one answering, I judged that my summons had been obeyed, and so hurried back to my own room to fetch jewels, kodak and pets.  On my way down I opened H.’s wardrobe and grabbed several overcoats, confident that the boys would forget theirs and need them.  In the courtyard I found Julie and her family already perched on the hay-cart, where Yvonne had been hoisted and lay moaning, well covered in a blanket.  Both horses were hitched and my servants waiting orders.  Beside ours, other big drays were being prepared for flight, yet there was no confusion–no loud talking–no lamenting.  I then told the boys to hurry to the farm yard and open all the gates so that the poultry and cows could have free access to the entire estate, which is closed in by a wall.  I was thus certain that though they might feel hungry they, would not die for want of food or water during the short time I intended to be gone.

This done, I went to the kitchen where I found Nini, who had obeyed orders not to move but who had presence of mind enough to lay out bread and jam and wine for the famished youth who had brought the message.

In the lamplight I caught sight of my road maps on the refectory wall, and setting my jewel box on the table I began unpinning and carefully folding them and put them in the pocket of my motor coat.  Almost at the same instant, the lamp flickered and Leon came in to say that all the dogs were found save the beagle hound and three fox terrier puppies, who, frightened by the bell and the commotion, had hidden in the hay lofts.  We went out, and I called and whistled in vain–none of them appeared.

All this had taken more time than I expected.  The wagons full of refugees had disappeared, and we were alone.

“En route!”  I called, climbing into the charette, a big lump rising in my throat.

En route!” called George.

Once again I counted our party to be sure all were there, and then slowly the heavy-laden hay-cart pulled out of the courtyard onto the high road.

The first ten steps that my horse took he limped so painfully that my heart sank in my boots.

What nonsense, this departure!  The poor beast would break down and we’d have to shoot him by the wayside, and other similar cheerful thoughts fled through my brain as we jogged up the narrow village street.

In front of the town hall I halted, first of all to rest my steed, secondly to await George and Leon, who had remained behind to shut the entrance doors and bolt the gate, and finally because I was astonished to see all the windows illuminated.

I Jumped down and approaching one of the panes looked through and saw the entire municipal council seated in a semi-circle, their faces grave with anxiety. Presently the boys, accompanied by H.’s messenger, rode up on their bicycles and handed me the keys.  I entered the room where Mr. Duguey, the schoolmaster and town clerk, greeted me.

“Gentlemen, I’ve come to give you the keys to my estate.  I’ve received a message from my husband begging me to leave at once.”

“Then make haste, Madame, while there is still time.  We are just about to beat the call to arms and warn the population that those who hope to escape must leave at once.  Though we have no official orders to do this we have taken it on ourselves, for we now know for certain that the Uhlans have surrounded the village and are awaiting daylight to take possession.  They are probably bivouacking on the heights in your park.”

Then the old peasant woman had not lied!  Those were really Uhlans she had seen in the bois de la Mazure.  Ye gods, and here I was trying to get away with a lame horse! . . .

Dawn, September 4

. . . Dawn was breaking as we reached the summit and pausing for a moment’s breath, we could see people with bundles hurrying from cottages and farm yards, while the fields seemed dotted with horses and carts that sprang out of the semi-darkness like specters, following one another to the highway.  In less than no time the long caravan had re-formed and was again under way.

We brought up the rear, preceded by five hundred snow-white oxen.  There was no way of’ advancing faster than the cortege.  It was stay in line or lose your place, and as the sun rose over the plains, I was so impressed by the magnificence of our procession that I forgot the real cause of our flight and never for an instant realized that I now formed an intimate part of that column which but a few hours since inspired me with such genuine pity.

As we passed through a small agglomeration of houses that one might hardly call a village, I recognized several familiar faces on the doorsteps, and presently comprehended why Charly was so dark and silent the night before.  It was empty–evacuated–and the greater part of its inhabitants were here on the roadside, preparing to continue their route.

Where were we going?  I think none of us had a very definite idea . . .

Published in: on March 4, 2010 at 2:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Pilgrimage on behalf of one long dead

Cpl Alpheus Appenheimer, USMCMy lifelong fascination with the history and culture of the First World War began as a small boy with stories heard from my grandfather, who had served with the Marine Brigade, 2nd Division AEF, in France.  He had been a muleskinner, driving rations and ammunition into the front lines, at times under heavy shellfire, and had twice been awarded a Silver Star Citation and Croix de Guerre, once at Belleau Wood and again at Blanc Mont.   

On more than one occasion I asked if had ever wished to return to France, to visit again the places he had been during the war.  He said he had often wished to return, to show those places to his wife, but that they had always been too poor and too busy with a growing family and running the farm.  And in any case he would have wanted to return within the first ten years after the war, before the places had greatly changed from what he remembered.

In later years, after his death, his only son made the attempt and got as far as Paris, but being an older man himself at the time, and a partial invalid, with little travel experience abroad and not speaking the language, he found himself unable to complete the final leg of the journey from Paris to Chateau-Thierry.  He could not find Belleau Wood on any map, was uncertain where it was, and could find no English-speaking French person patient enough to assist him.

Some years later I made the attempt myself, and even with my French-speaking wife was nearly defeated.  We got as far as Chateau-Thierry, but only to be told that there was no longer a bus to Belleau, and that we would have to rent a taxi, if one could be found who would not mind waiting for us as we walked around the cemetery.  Hailing a cab from a central intersection proved impossible, and making herself understood over a phone to a cab company dispatcher, whose country patois bore little resemblance to any French Marian had heard before, was an obstacle surmounted only after many minutes of mutual bewilderment and exasperation.  But somehow, against all odds, at the very end of the day, we managed it, and the experience of arriving at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery not long before sunset was so overwhelming that Marian mistook my speechlessness for morosity and felt slighted and hurt, and wandered off alone into the deep wood, until driven back into the sunlight by what she encountered there . . . 

Only after returning to Chateau Thierry where, in a local bistro she plied me with repeated glasses of beer in an effort to soften what she mistook as my incivility, did we sort things out.  And it was not until days later that she begin to speak of she had experienced in the shadows of the wood itself.

For weeks afterwards I was haunted by the graves and ghosts of Belleau Wood until, finally, I was able to lay the phantoms partially to rest by rendering the experience into artistic form: a series of fourteen rough-hewn sonnets whose basic rectangular form and controlled phrasing recall the form and function of memorial plaques.  The rhymes, however, are not regular and commemorative, but widely-spaced, and often more suggested than actual — like distant echoes.

BJ Omanson

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The Tower at the Edge of the Wood

Demure, nestled fields so intensely green
they appear to float amid clouds of swallows…
shimmering fields of incipient wheat
awash with scarlet of poppies, like those
my grandfather mentioned. Here, where arises
on battlements of crag and ravine,
the huge and shadowy bulk of a wood,
a sole brigade of Americans met
the army that swept towards Paris and stood
against it, dying by hundreds. I stare
at its rocky defiles and crevices
till my scalp begins to tingle and crawl.
My grandfather spoke of the poppies here,
how petals by hundreds would break and fall ~~ 

how every sullen recess of the wood
would flicker a vicious flame ~~ how a mighty
moan arose from the ranks as poppies,
soldiers and grain were cut down together
till not one man or stalk of wheat stood ~~
how those still breathing cringed behind bodies
crumpled or sprawling ~~ how raking fire
shredded their haversacks and pinned them
close to the earth ~ how strangely, somewhere,
the note of a warbler, piercingly clear,
emerged for a moment above the din ~~
how the fire hit them again, again,
as curse accompanied prayer ~~ how cries
of the wounded tore at the heart with pity.

Grandfather never spoke of such dying
directly ~~ there were clipped allusions,
disquieting, never intentional
and, often, there was the lapse of silence
that fell like frost on the otherwise green
and pastoral heart of each reminiscence.
Mostly what he imparted were small
vignettes and stories of commonplace things
reassuring to any farmer’s son:
how he stole up into the loft of a barn
with a bottle, or how he hauled ammunition
on a night so dark that he walked his team
by the flaring of shells ~~ how he stole a swim
while washing his lathered mules in the Marne. 

One evening he held the porch like a stage
for a crowd of us boys and related the time
that he turned an all-but-terrified team
directly into a rolling barrage ~~
how he steadied the creatures, with reins taut
in his left hand, and a watch in his right
and, timing the march of the fiery wall
that bore upon them until the earth shook,
how he barked a brusque command to his mules
and bullied them straight through the coiling smoke.
But there was a darker side to the war
not found in his tales or among his letters,
or even between the lines of the battered
diary stashed in the back of a drawer. 

In all his words there was nothing of what
when, years afterward, exhuming the past
in the moldy crypt of an archival vault,
I uncovered by chance a written account
by a young corporal in Grandpa’s detachment
who described how the dead lay in summer heat
all swollen and black ~~ how Marines were sent
on burial parties, not from a sense
of rightness, but only to stop the stench ~~
how, unceremoniously, they tossed
the corpses in shell-holes ~~ how when they pulled
on limbs they could feel the joints separate ~~
how flies buzzed up from the flesh in a cloud ~~
how, mostly, the bodies were left to rot. 

Such images weltered up in a flood
as our taxi turned through the somber gate
some minutes ago and proceeded straight
through a corridor of identical trees
and bordering hedges of clustered roses.
Directly before us, positioned midway
up the side of a hill, in a brooding wood,
an immaculate, white, unworldly tower
commanded a field of white marble crosses.
As we left the car, the driver leaned out,
and said he would wait for one full hour,
and turned off the meter. At our surprise,
he told how his father had also fought
on the Marne, and with that he looked away. 

In the years just after the war they came
in multitudes here ~~ the mothers, widows,
and fatherless children ~~ to walk among rows
of crosses in search of some single name
out of all the rest ~~ and there came, as well,
the soldiers themselves: alone or in pairs
or, ever more frequently through the years,
together with wives. For months afterward,
Grandfather talked of a long journey back,
of showing my grandmother what had occured ~~
of trying to show what he couldn’t tell.
But he gave it up ~~ with too many rows
of his own to walk, too much acreage, stock,
and too little savings, too little time. 

When, long after that, I asked him whether
he might still return, he said, with a frown,
“That was decades ago. Your grandmother’s gone.
Nothing would be the same.” I remember
the way he looked out at the evening sky
as though he might peer through miles and years
to those far-off events, and how I arose
from the sofa and silently left the room.
And now, what a strange, ironic turn
that it should be I and not he who has come,
and my wife rather than his who should see
this place of all places. ~~  She takes my arm
and, almost touching her lips to my ear,
quietly whispers, the circle is closed

We proceed along the avenue, dazed
by the sheer translucency of the air,
by all the surrounding acres of wheat
and myriad poppies, by wheeling arcs
of swallows suffused in light . . .  everywhere
we turn it is almost as though we gaze
upon the first morning before there fell
the least intimation of closing night.
My wife, knowing little of what has passed
in this sorrowful wood, sees it most of all
as a beautiful and mysterious place
and, venturing off on her own to where
a stair rises dimly into the dark
of the trees, she slowly climbs out of sight. 

And now for the first time I am alone,
alone in that locus of legends to which
my grandfather always longed to return,
a place of apocalyptic fury,
of carnage and devastation…   a place
of villages and reclusive pastures
and rivers that haunted him all his days.
At the close of this wrathful century
which he, as a boy, observed at its dawn,
I have come in his place to stand and watch
at post, as a cloud moves over the sun,
as a shadow moves slowly across the face
of the tower that stands like an ancient cairn,
marking the derelict bones of warriors. 

I cross a rectangular swath of lawn
to the base of the hill where, step by step,
I mount an austere and gradual stair
to the terrace that foots the tower and stop
to face the imposing arch of a doorway.
Passing beneath an medieval warrior
surrounded by archivolts like the dawn,
I find myself standing within a small,
obscurely-lit chapel where sunlight glows
through a deeply-set and faceted window
of tinctured and leaded glass, muted rays
of spectral radiance slanting through air
to hallow, in auras of blue and rose,
names of the missing incised on the wall. 

Since before the last war these ghostly rays,
pivoting on axes of window-glass,
have cloven the cloistered air of this place,
their indiscernable movement across
the walls precisely in opposition
to the arc of the sun across the sky.
In shadow, a Gothic altar of brass
and marble stands recessed in an apse,
presenting a stark, solitary cross.
I turn from its presence and wander out
into warmly showering light, a vision
of uninterrupted tranquility
rising above me: a sky without cloud,
a single swallow that soars and dips. 

I watch, completely absorbed in its flight
till it skirls into aether, and then I turn
and follow the terrace around the wall
of the tower from where I can see, above,
the stairway vanishing into the wood.
The air is less cordial here, with the sun
eclipsed by a circuit of conifers
closing on every side. A residual
atmosphere, haunted and unresolved,
hovers about their boughs and they brood
like portals opening into the night,
into a purgatory of craters,
of trenches and dugouts clouded with fern,
of corroded cartridges, buckles, spoons. 

But there are are darker ravines in this wood
where more survives than detritus of war,
where memory stains the air and where cries
of huddled and immaterial forms
are like shuddering leaves… ~~ She catches my eye
from the stairway, suddenly stepping forth
from out of the shadows, a strange, uncertain
regard on her face that makes me afraid.
I rush up to meet her. She grasps my arm
and urges me rapidly down the stair
toward the waiting taxi. I pull her near
and ask her to whisper what she has seen ~
she turns with a look that is oddly removed ~
her eyes are unaccountably grieved.