Among the sacred places on this earth, none are more so to me than a military cemetery, as I was reminded a few days ago on a visit to the American cemetery at Thiacourt, France. There are more than 4,000 graves at Thiacourt, marked by soldierly rows of white marble markers and an impressive monument. It is a place of peace, quiet, and sober reflection on the lives of the young men and women who rest there.
The graves at Thiacourt hold the remains of the dead from World War One, many of them killed in the nearby Battle of St. Mihiel. It lasted for four violent days in September, 1918, near the end of the war, and marked the first major battle test of the American Expeditionary Force under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing.
It had been a European struggle since 1914, and by the time of St. Mihiel, the two warring sides were exhausted with the killing. Their soldiers lived in filth and terror in their trenches, under constant artillery bombardment, and occasionally their generals would order them to attack across the ravaged landscape of No Man’s Land. It accomplished little except slaughter. Hundreds of thousands died in battles whose names are etched in history – The Somme, The Marne, Ypres, Gallipoli, Belleau Wood, Chateau Thierry – cut down by machine guns, blasted by cannons. Thousands of others died from accidents and disease. When the first American troops arrived in 1917, the war was a stalemate.
British and French generals had grave doubts about how the raw, untested American boys would perform in battle. Their fears were unfounded. More than 600,000 Doughboys attacked the German lines at St. Mihiel, and in that fierce fight and the ones than came after in the nearby Argonne Forest, they tipped the balance of the war. Less than two months after St. Mihiel, Germany surrendered. By then, 26,000 Americans had died.
The names on those granite markers at Thiaucourt tell moving stories about who those Americans were, and about the America they had left behind. They are from every state, from cities and small towns, villages and farms – North Carolinians and Michiganders, Alabamians and New Yorkers. I would love to know about their individual lives, and how they came together to cross an ocean and fight in America’s first foreign war. As I walked among them, I remembered the words of a grizzled basic training sergeant in my own military experience. He said, “When you’re in combat, you aren’t fighting for your parents or sweethearts back home, you aren’t fighting for national honor. You’re fighting for the guy next to you in the foxhole, and you want more than anything not to let him down.” In that respect, war – for all its unspeakable obscenity – is personal and intimate.
World War One was tragically unnecessary. Europe stumbled into conflict in a series of bizarre and often pig-headed decisions by a few of the continent’s princes who then sent vast numbers of their young men and women to kill each other. By the time it was over, 37 million people had died. Even more tragically, the world was again engulfed by war only 20 years later.
But I didn’t think about all that in the cemetery at Thiaucourt. I thought about the people in those graves, who they were, where they came from, the all-too-short lives they lived. And I thought about the ones who survived, who brought the scars of war –mental and physical – home with them to a nation that couldn’t begin to understand what they had been through. A hundred years later, I hope that many of them, in their own individual ways, found some of the peace and quiet of Thiaucourt.