It's really hard to describe in words my experience at the Aisne Marne American Cemetery near the beautiful village of Belleau. It happened two days ago, but it's taken some time to process my experience. I'd been looking forward to visiting the cemetery and work for quite some time, as Francine (my France/WWI/WWII muse) has said that it was one of her favorite spots. It was near the end of a long day, and I had already seen two American military cemeteries in St. Mihiel and Oise Aisne, so I figured that I would enjoy my visit, pay respect to the men very there, and bounce to the next monument. My experience turned out to be much more - in fact, it was easily be the best moment(s) of my trip.
After German troops pushed into the tiny village of Belleau in June of 1918, the small town and the woods just south were the site of horrific fighting. Allied troops, predominantly American, pushed to halt the German advance in the area. The Marine Corps valiantly fought through intense combat in the woods, which changed hands six times over the month of June. The successful efforts of the US troops stopped the final major German advance in the war. Although suffering heavy casualties, the AEF demonstrated the ability of the US troops and served as a turning point in the Great War.
Walking up the incline to the cemetery, I got some chills as I knew I was again walking into a beautiful final resting place for American soldiers. This brought on a different feeling, maybe because Francine claimed that the area is haunted. As I stepped into the reception area, I said hello to the associate and asked about if the chapel was still open and if the church was available for visitation. Little did I know but I would make a new history friend, someone I feel I will keep in contact with for a very long time. His name is Constant Lebastard, and he offered me the first of many treasures that afternoon – the key to the church. I was taken aback, but quickly excepted and spent ten minutes in an amazing chapel dedicated to the relationship of the French and Americans. To be in there alone was one of those moments I will never forget - moment one.
After returning to the cemetery and handing back the key, Constant and I chatted a bit about the cemetery in the battle. I instantly felt his true passion for these hallowed places. (I found out that night that he wrote the book on the Normandy American Cemetery - seriously, he wrote the book, and everyone should get it.) Asking again about the chapel, he offered me the opportunity to take part in the flag lowering ceremony at 4:30. Every afternoon, the American flags are taken down, folded, and one is placed in the chapel. Just the offer was moment number two.
After walking the grounds a bit, I went to the flag pole and met a family that was participating in the ceremony as well. They had a granddaughter the age of my students, and I roped her into grabbing my camera taking over the filming. I will be forever grateful to Christine for this moment - moment three, but the moment I will always remember.
We headed to the beautiful chapel that overlooks the two plots of graves. Heading inside, I noted the shell hole from bombed during World War II. It was since rebuilt, but the battle scar remains. Upon entrance, I was immediately struck by the beauty of the interior. Stained glass windows on each side featured in the insignias of the divisions that served in the area. The list of the missing covered the walls as in other chapels, but Constant pointed out that a few names had a rosette marker. These were bodies that were later found, including one within the last twenty years. After identification, families were given the choice of having he men reinterred in France or repatriated to America. He said the most families sent there descendants to the US, yet he wished they knew about the beauty of the cemeteries, the immaculate care of the grounds, and the honor and respect given to the memory of the soldiers. I agree - wholeheartedly. Moment four.
A memorable aspect of the visit was creating a relationship with Constant. For his sake, it was good that the closing time was near or I would have talked to him for the entire day. I look forward to continuing the conversation about these incredibly special places, especially Aisne Marne and Belleau Wood, and peppering him with questions about the ABMC.
After the cemetery closed, I headed up to the Bois de la Brigade de Marine to see the area of intense fighting, and to visit the Belleau Wood Monument. I not only wanted to see the area, but also to make a proxy pilgrimage for a friend and Marine, Mike Brennan. The monument is one I have seen countless times on line, but visiting it in real life, in that spot ... moment five.
What does it feel like to participate in a flag ceremony at an American military cemetery, especially for a guy who loves military cemeteries, military ceremonies, and the flag? Hopefully the post expresses it to some degree, but for personal reasons, I don't know if I can ever communicate how special it was. But ... I think that's ok - they are all great moments.