This Memorial Day Weekend, there was one particular veteran who I sought to remember and honor. I have been researching the life and service of Thomas Wesley Agnew, class of 1920, since the winter. I chose to follow Thomas’s story because he was a volunteer in one of two Bucknell ambulance units that served in Europe. Furthermore, Thomas had graduated exactly 100 years before my expected graduation in 2020, a fact that made him seem more “real” to me.
Over the past two days, we have visited two locations where Thomas served. The first was located in Samongneux, where French villagers were evacuated in 1916 and have not been permitted to return since, due to the contamination from war. Ambulance unit 525 had been attached to the French 63rd Infantry that was stationed in this location. By the time Thomas arrived to this area in December of 1917, the vill age had been completely destroyed. World War I battlefields have often been described as “wastelands,” and Thomas surely noticed the desolation as he helped to transport soldiers from trenches to hospitals. In contrast, the “veux” Samongneux we visited was a beautiful forest landscape. However, among the wild flowers and natural spring at this site, there were crumbling remains of bunkers and village homes. Craters from heavy artillery dotted the fields. All around, there was a stillness to the place that felt almost somber to me based on my knowledge of the area; it was as if you could just sense sone of the horrors had occurred here a century before. We managed to find what we think is the same spot in the sector where a postcard photograph was taken; their contrast shows Samongneux’s transformation in the decades after Thomas saved lives on the very same ground.
The next day, we visited Saint Hilaire-le-Grand, a French town where Thomas was injured in the line of duty. The combat in this town was part of the 1918 Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which began on September 26, and for which Thomas was present. On October 3, 1918, he received a serious injury to his thighs that confined him to the hospital until the end of the war. Another postcard taken just after the war shows that many buildings in the village were seriously damaged, some even being reduced to rubble. In particular, it shows a church that had lost its steeple and a significant portion of its walls. Today, Saint Hilaire-le-Grand today is a small, rural French town. We were able to find the church pictured, now completely restored and beautifully kept. Because of the comminity still living in town, this location felt far less somber; however that did not stop the memory of Thomas’s hard work and sacrifices here from taking my breath away.
These experiences have caused me to connect with Thomas and his story in a much deeper way. For example, in reviewing my notes tonight, I realized that I was standing in Samongneux on the exact date that, 100 years ago, Thomas had officially volunteered for the ambulance corps. I am so grateful to have been able to share his story thus far, and I look forward to honoring him further by continuing my research.