Unless one has a completely cold heart, it is difficult not to feel overwhelmed by what the Bucknellians in World War I group encountered today in what was an emotionally overwhelming series of visits to places of memory and remembrance. We ended our day emotionally exhausted and physically tired, with the fortune of our good hosts at the wonderful Le Cheval Rouge hotel in Sainte-Ménehould to help us recover over a dinner of camaraderie, lots of water, and profiteroles.
As others have noted, we began our day at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery, where we observed the Memorial Day ceremonies. Speeches, taps, national anthems, soldiers (and firefighters – the sapeurs-pompiers) in ranks, dignitaries, an appreciative audience, and for some of us, a strong sunburn. Small cost. Crisp uniforms, light reflected off of badges of rank, rifles with bayonets fixed. Perfectly, perfectly, perfectly manicured space…not a blade of grass or leaf out of place, anywhere. We joined in a reception honoring the opening of a new, small interpretive center, which is nicely done, and the retirement of an official of the American Battlefield Commission, and all of us consumed many, many of the complimentary waters and sodas, as did members of the French and American honor guards. A surprising amount of obviously armed undercover security. I overheard one of the volunteer Air Force flag bearers commenting, “Wow, we should come to France more often!” Some humorous relief. We pleasantly picnicked in the pubic park in front of the cemetery. In many ways one could anticipate these moments.
But I could never in my life anticipate the emotion of the place and within our group in connection with the grave of our fallen Bucknellians William Chalmers Acheson (Plot G, Row 21, Grave 19) and Baker Fairchild Spyker (Plot A, Row 16, Grave 26). Nothing. Ever. I didn’t attend Bucknell, but I am sure as hell appreciative of the sacrifice of these Bucknellians. We had to reflect in tears together that in fact, for what they sacrificed, or took into themselves – the sins of the failure of their leaders for not preventing such senseless slaughter and leading their peoples into war – actually, over time, will hopefully prevent war, and lessen the appetites of the arrogant for it. Not that it did at the time. Maybe when next year world leaders come together, we can sit down and resolve long-standing sources of conflict.
15,000 crosses and Stars of David. Soldiers and civilians included. An American baby interred! What is the story there. Rising on a slope to a lovely chapel. Farmers’ fields full of ripening wheat beyond.
When we left, what impressed me was that as we drove around, we saw hundreds of examples of crossed French and American flags. As my colleague noted, in the US, we might feel afraid to do this. Indeed now, I think that the first thing I will do when I get home is buy a big ass French flag and put it out on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July.
And that was just our morning.