I Dare Say -- Somewhere in France (6-1-43)

The Pittsburgh Press (June 1, 1943)


Somewhere in France

By Florence Fisher Parry

It was in 1919. They were saying of Verdun:

The grass will never grow again, the earth has been blasted into a perpetual shell-hole, it is as dead as the moon.

But the grass grew, and Fort Douaumont, where rotted the skeletons of men and horses in the impersonal sun, is now a trimmed fine monument.

We journeyed over the devastated area in little halting trains, in broken-down cars, in carts and by foot, and always, at the sides of the roads, there would be crooked, hasty graves with crosses leaning crazily at jaunty angles; and in the fields, the German prisoners would be digging up the dead, the long, shallow tiers of the dead, and their French guards would speak to them in hushed and gentle voices, as though the grisly sight has resolved all emotion into a common whisper.

Among the thousands of graves, it seemed that we would never find our grave; but we did. it was up there near Bar-le-Duc, and we stayed the night at Châlons-sur-Marne, the shelled stairs that led up to our room propped up perilously with planks, and the wind mourning through the great holes in the wall.

When we found, at last, our grave, it was in midst of others, in a little white lime plot high on a hill. Pebbles covered the graves to keep them from corroding, and the crosses crouched almost to the ground. No blade of grass was anywhere, no bush, no tree; the war had picked the face of France clean, like a bleached bone.

American graves

But hung over the crosses like horseshoes over stakes, were wreaths, everlasting wreaths, dry and faded and tired with purple ribbons and rattling in the wind. And here and there were bent, black figures moving like shriveled nuns among the crosses and stopping before this painted name and that, and saying the name softly in their pretty French way, “Jean Smeet,” they would murmur over the cross of one John Smith. And then one of them would place a stiff, small wreath across the arms of the cross, and the little shrouded arm would make a sign of the cross, and they would move on to another undecorated grave.

They were all American graves. Unclaimed as yet. The great work of reclamation had not started. The vast green cemeteries, stretching out in beautiful geometrical designs as in Arlington, had not yet been assigned…

But while they were waiting, they were being taken care of, in that meager, punctilious way that the French have, making a ceremony of the most trifling token, and in so doing bequeathing to the token a priceless value.

They eyed us with open wonder and respect. That we should have crossed the great ocean to fetch our dead! Quel expense! Quel sentiment!

…Now our escort was one of whom I have thought much these last few years. He is dead now, for he was leaning toward the sunset then.

The tribute

I keep thinking of him today, for it is Memorial Day, and I remember how we got a letter from him one day in the June following our mission to France. It was written in the most exquisite French, so of course there is not any way whatever to translate it and preserve its delicacy…

But he told us, quite modestly, how he had learned of our lovely Memorial Day, and how he had made for himself the rare occasion of journeying to our little white graveyard up there beyond Châlons-sur-Marne, so that on our Decoration Day the grave would be garlanded with tokens of France’s undying gratitude.

He had had to remain up all night in a chair in the office of the concierge of the little leaning hotel at Chalons, and much of the journey thence had been made on foot.

There was no way for us ever to know how long the wreath swung there upon this lowly bit of Calvary… But should the wind have blown it down, the cross still would not have been bare, of that we were quite sure! For the little bent figures of the widows of France would have seen to it that the grave was not neglected!

Voila!” they would exclaim, at sight of the bare cross. And hang, anew, a token of their everlasting love.

And as they look upwards to find the sound of airplanes, they are saying now, even now:

Ah, des Américains! They will come again! Wait! Hold the heart, keep it from storming yet a little while! Des Américains will arrive.