On Memorial Day in May, I found myself in eastern France, the lieu of many of the worst battles of World War I, which was sometimes called, with a sense of irony that cannot be overstated, the “Great War.”
It was the war to end all wars, and of course with the introduction of industrial-strength killing power (huge artillery pieces, and above all, the machine gun) it became a four-year blood bath of unprecedented proportions.
It’s full of places with such fetching names as Chemin des Dames. (“The ladies way” … created by an 18th-century count who ordered a navigable road built across a mountainous ridge line so that his lady friend could remain close to her pals in Paris.) It became a de facto front line over several years, with French and German troops facing off against each other in what must have seemed like an interminable ongoing battle with little to show for it other than dead bodies.
At one point, a French general sent wave after wave of troops up the hill to try to retake the mountain, and with German machine guns positioned every 10 meters, the French were cut down in horrible numbers, some 4,000 in a single day, without reaching their goal. In the battle at Belleau Wood, the U.S. Marine Corps suffered more casualties than it had during its entire history up to that point.
As you wander through the countryside there are more signs advising of more cemeteries than you can count — French, German, British and American. It simply takes your breath away to walk amid a cemetery where 5,000 or 11,000 young men are buried. You cannot help but be struck by the youthfulness of those lying there, ages and dates etched in the headstones. You realize quite quickly that lying before you are more people than can be found attending some Major League Baseball games. You try and make sense of it, and yet, there is no sense … only an appreciation of honor, duty and enormous loss to families of combatants.
The Ossuarie in Verdun (from the Latin for “bone”) is a huge stone memorial, the interior of which is bathed in soft orange light, the product of tinted windows, with arches of large blocks listing names of countless soldiers who fought on the French Side. Buried under the building are the various piles of bones of 130,000 unidentifiable soldiers killed during the fighting around Verdun.
Every town in the region has its own monument dedicated to the “Glorious Dead,” though for most, the life of a WWI fighter was anything but glorious. More likely it was incessantly muddy, flea-bitten, disease-ridden, and generally awful. All this was shared by nearly all the countries that sent troops in the wake of August 1914, pretty confident that they would be home by Christmas. They were so wrong.
This is a centennial year for World War I marking significant battles and dates including, the marking today of 100 years since the armistice was signed on Nov 11, 1918. This past July 14 in France was also one of those dates etched in history — one that the United States felt deeply at the time.
Quentin Roosevelt, the ebullient youngest son of then-former President Teddy Roosevelt, who had joined the Reserve Aero Squadron, had became a well-loved, gusto-charged flier. These were the early days of military aviation (the aeroplane having been invented only 15 years before.)
On July 14, following a battle in which even his German enemies recognized how he flew with great courage, never backing off his aggressive maneuvers, Roosevelt’s plane was attacked. That afternoon, over Coulanges-Cohan, a small village in eastern France, he was shot while dog-fighting German planes. He crashed in an area controlled by the Germans, and when they found out who it was, he was buried with full military honors. He was known to be the favorite of Teddy’s children, and the former president felt his loss for the rest of his life.
I was traveling with my friend Tom Herman, and we walked to the edge of Coulanges-Cohan and began climbing a beautiful field. We had no real directions to the Roosevelt marker, which we knew existed somewhere “up there.” My French got us, we thought, close, but it was Tom’s idea to keep climbing to the top of the field where the rise flattened out. Fifteen minutes later, we saw a small clearing in the field, and yes … it was the memorial
plaque, covered with grass. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like for a president to have lost a son or daughter in Iraq (to date, Quentin Roosevelt’s death is the only instance of a president losing a child in a war), but no doubt it would have been a stunning moment of national mourning. For Quentin, there were tears from those who knew him only by his name.
It’s one thing to walk through a cemetery seeing thousands of headstones of young soldiers who never would return home. In their expansive numbers they become almost too much to comprehend. But that afternoon, on that hilltop, I paid my respects to a young aviator and, by extension, his father, a revered president. In that moment, I was overcome with a sense of bittersweet joy in finding this elusive place, haunted by the deep sorrow which the reminiscences of war visit upon us all too often.
David Burnett, a photojournalist and co-founder of Contact Press Images, has reported from more than 70 countries, covering wars around the world since Vietnam and every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Donald Trump. He has won the most prestigious photography awards, including the Robert Capa Gold Medal and the Overseas Press Club of America’s Olivier Rebbot “Best Reporting from Abroad in Magazines and Books” Award. © 2018 David Burnett (Contact Press Images)