Wednesday, 12 Dec 2018

The mysterious death of a sailor in the last days of the First World War still haunts his family

The portrait of Pvt. Foster Stevens, who now belongs to his grandnephew, Joby Warrick. Stevens was killed in France nine days before the end of the First World War. (Warrick family photo) (N / A / family photo) Joby Warrick National Security Journalist Covering Terrorism, Rogue States, Weapon Proliferation, November 2 BAYONVILLE, France – For half a century, the young Marine was guarding an isolated corner of my grandmother's house. mother, next to an unknown writing room living room reserved for the company. In every memory of my childhood visits, he is there, familiar but profoundly mysterious. In my childhood, I spent so much time looking at his portrait that I memorized all the details: the high-necked tunic and the suspenders, the joined hands, the felt hat with the Marine Corps emblem and the numbers "8-3". smiles lightly and I see on his face the traces of my grandmother. Maybe even myself. I knew it was my grand-uncle, my grandmother's beloved brother. But almost everything I knew about him was in the small brass plate on the frame. It read: Foster B. Stevens, 83 Marines of the United States, killed in action, 1918. From my youngest age, my cousins ​​and I knew the singular detail that had always made his death more tragic: Foster died on November 2, just nine days before the armistice that ended the First World War on November 11, 1918, we did not know exactly where and how he served – and where and how he is dead. His letters and war records had been burned in a fire that destroyed the family farm in eastern North Carolina a few decades earlier. And my grandmother, Ina, who was 17 years old when her older brother was killed, could rarely bring herself to talk about him. Once, after one of the Scrabble marathon games she played every night after dinner, she spoke nostalgically of the day Foster left home for the war, boarding a horse-drawn wagon that would would drive to the Goldsboro Station, North Carolina. "I cried, he cried. We all cried, she said. About her death, she said, "It was a sad and sad day." And nothing more. His sorrow for his brother was so profound that years later, while I was studying in London, I decided to go to France with a friend to find his grave. We traveled 300 km by train, bus and hitchhiking until we reached the vast Meuse-Argonne cemetery, the largest American military tomb in Europe, with 14,000 white crosses and Jewish stars honoring the dead. of the First World War. We found my uncle's stone near a row of linden trees and, as we had no flowers, we made a coarse bouquet of colorful autumn leaves and took pictures. When I gave my grandmother the little photo album of my trip, she stayed for a long time, silently flipping through the pages without speaking. She had never seen her brother's grave. Ina Stevens Warrick was then 81 years old, a grandmother of nine widows for a long time and who wore herself with a kind of imperturbable gaiety, as if her life had forged her a steel ability to accept adversity without tears or complaints. The loss of his brother had been a particularly hard blow; among ten brothers and sisters, she and Foster were older children, young enough to tease and torment each other.
A young Foster Stevens (top row, far left) and sister Ina (front row, far left) pose with their parents and seven other brothers and sisters on the front steps of their home. North Carolina in 1908. (Photo of the Warrick family) (N / A / Family Photo) The death of his brother coincided with
the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, which cost the life to his closest girlfriend. After a stint at the university, she married Luby Warrick, a country doctor whose small clinic next to their home was dead-end for all the trauma and crises that could affect a small community of farmers from horrible accidents and deadly fevers to baby deliveries. hours of the day and night. She became a widow at age 60 but continued to organize blood drives for the American Red Cross and managed the household herself for 40 years, refusing to succumb to self-pity or her own growing fragility. After turning 90, she finally acknowledged that she was too old to use a lawn mower to mow her own lawn. Yet, as she was browsing the photo album that day, her eyes rose. She thanked me without a word, with a hug longer and deeper than anything I had ever received from her. Years later, after her death at age 100, I learned that she had stuck a handwritten note on the back of her brother's portrait. It read simply: "For Joby".
Joby Warrick and his grandmother Ina in the 1980s, shortly after visiting the grave of his great-uncle at the French cemetery Meuse-Argonne. (Family Photo) (N / A / Family Photo) This is how I started my photo management, which eventually found a new home in my office. Every time I looked at her I was amazed at my ignorance of my great-uncle. A few minutes on the Internet one day revealed clues: the numbers "8-3" refer to the 83rd Company of the Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment, a combat unit that seemed to have the gift of presenting itself where the fighting was the hottest. and bloody. His death, 100 years ago, would probably have occurred near the French city of Verdun, in the American sector of a huge Allied battle line that has opposed the Germans in recent weeks of the Great War. But where and how exactly? The search for answers was spread over several months and led from a village riddled with bullets in eastern France to
Archives filled with hand-drawn maps, diaries and scribbled messages written by men – everyone called them at the time "doughboys" – who fought and died a century ago. On the way, I would meet a battalion of young naval soldiers, whose courage earned him the nickname "Devil Dogs", still used by the Corps a century later. And I'll be back in the footsteps of these warriors with a final decisive push against the German lines at the end of what historians have described as the biggest and bloodiest campaign ever conducted by US troops – a battle that the Americans have today have almost entirely forgotten. But that would not be enough. To understand the story of the doughboy of my own family, from his moments of heroism to the tragic turn of events that will haunt my grandmother for decades, I had to dig deeper still. In the version of American history familiar to most schoolchildren, the American experience of the First World War was an almost unblemished triumph, a time when a young, energetic and powerful nation saved the European democracies and inspired the world with his ideas, optimism and military might. This vision hardly resembles the reality faced by American soldiers and Marines who landed in the muddy killing fields of France in the spring and summer of 1918. In every way, the Americans who arrived were ill-prepared for a fierce and heavily mechanized war of war. the attrition that the great armies of Europe have fought over the past three years. [The U.S. joined the ‘Great War’ 100 years ago. America and warfare were never the same.] The US military had neither tanks nor planes – the Americans ended up using French and British equipment borrowed – and its generals were slow to master the essential lessons of survival as an army in the trenches. The prevailing view was that the American fighter was naturally superior – in character, in marksmanship, in maneuvers – and that "Europeans would not have much to teach them," Richard S said. Faulkner, a historian. College professor and staff of the Army at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. and author of "Pershing's Crusaders," a detailed account of the American fighter's experience during the First World War. Whatever the native talents that newcomers may have possessed, this failure To fully understand the rules of the twentieth century warfare, it resulted in "one of the steepest learning curves in the world." Modern military history, "confided Faulkner. "The Germans, the British and the French are painfully learning from each other during the first years of the war. We were in the thick of things. This fact, perhaps more than any other, would define the first months of the war for Foster and other American doughboys, many of whom witnessed a carnage of a magnitude comparable to the fighting the bloodiest of the civil war. , said historian David J. Bettez, author of two books on the navies of the First World War. "Men have been jostled," he said, "and the men have continued to be killed."
A 37mm gun crew from the US Army in action during the Meuse-Argonne offensive in France in the autumn of 1918. (AP Photo) (N / A / AP) Moments of extraordinary courage distinguished Americans as exceptional fighters. Upon learning this, I began to see my great-uncle, who was constantly returning to the midst of some of the most memorable – and often bloodiest – American battles of the entire First World War. Such a battle occurred in a plot of land owned by the Germans near the Marne River, known as Belleau Woods – or, in English, Belleau Wood. On June 6, 1918, he was ordered two battalions of marines to charge on hundreds of meters of wheat fields discovered to attack a heavily defended German line extending to the edge of the forest. One of the units, the 3rd Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment, commanded by Major Berton Sibley, was mainly composed of university recruits, many of whom were attending their first action of the war. When the Marines began taking charge at 5 pm, the German line broke up with machine guns, slaughtering hundreds of assailants as they advanced without hiding in wheat at waist height. In a way, the Sibley battalion went into the woods and gained a foothold after silencing a machine gun nest and driving the defenders back into melee combat. A fierce counter-attack followed, but the Marines maintained their position and started a slow advance of several weeks to take Belleau Wood on the American side.[[[[
The Battle of Belleau Wood was brutal, deadly and forgotten. But he forged a new navy corps.]On June 12, on the sixth day of combat, a replacement unit of 125 newly minted Marines arrived on the battlefield to consolidate the two battered units. Among them, Foster Stevens, a young soldier from North Carolina, was posted to the 83rd Battalion of the 83rd Sibley Group Company. He was red and thin, with soft brown eyes. He was 25 years old the day before his arrival at Belleau Wood. His youngest son and the third of 10 children born to a modestly prosperous cotton farmer, he volunteered for the Marines in January 1918, nine months after the United States' official entry in the war.
A recruitment poster from 1917 uses the German nickname Teufel hunden for US Marines. "Devil Dogs" has become a nickname for the USMC. (Library of Congress) His reasons for signing up are unknown, but he did not have to look for inspiration. His grandfather was a decorated veteran, although it was Second Lieutenant Josiah Stevens was wounded in 1862 and captured three years later by General William T. Sherman's Union troops after the Battle of Bentonville, a bloody clash that took place 10 A few miles from the home where Foster Stevens grew up in Wayne County, North Carolina, both his parents were born in the south of the rebuilding era but their son would serve under the stars and stripes, alongside volunteers from New York and Pennsylvania. the small rural county would do the same, including 54 who would never come back. He could have believed that he had little choice. Half of the nearly 5 million Americans who served in the war were drafted and Foster Stevens' registration documents in June 1917 named him a single farm worker, placing him in the higher in terms of eligibility. His decision to volunteer with the Marines – then a tiny branch of the armed forces with just 13,000 soldiers at the beginning of the war – may have reflected his desire to exercise some control over the location and the way he served. In any case, after only four months of training, he landed in Brest (France) in April 1918, wearing a sniper badge, multiple signs of good behavior and a kit containing an overcoat , a helmet, extra socks and four woolen clothes. swimsuits being part of a wave of young Americans who, for the first time in history, were preparing to fight in one of the biggest wars in Europe. Her new unit had been so badly beaten in Belleau Wood that it took two weeks to recover in the back. But on June 25, Foster and the rest of the Sibley Battalion returned to the forest to help lead another assault on the German fortresses. They spent an anxious night seizing craters and hastily digging fox holes as German artillery swept through the woods. "Sitting here in the mouth of my hole in the ground, like a prairie dog," Lieutenant-Colonel David Bellamy, adjutant of the 6th Regiment, writes in his diary during a brief lull in the bombardment. The usual bombardments were already painful, he wrote, but what really angered the Marines were the German artillery shells known as "whiz-bangs", which arrived on a trajectory so low that there was no time to dive to the shelter. "You hear the whistling sound of their coming, and then they go away, a hundredth of a second after you've heard them for the first time," he writes. However, the next day, the Marines advanced again, this time submerging the German defenders. That evening, the commanding officer sent a hasty message to headquarters saying, "Woods now the US Marine Corps." The battle has become an instant legend and remains today one of the most famous victories. all time. The French War Cross was awarded to two naval units, including the 6th Foster Regiment, and the French government was officially renamed Belleau Wood in the US honor, dubbed "Marine Brigade Wood" . General John Pershing, commander of the US Expeditionary Force, was moved to state that "the world's deadliest weapon is a US Navy and its rifle."

General John J. Pershing reviews 5th Infantry troops during the First World War (US Army / AFP). However, the gains were very expensive. During the first day of loading in the woods, the two battalions suffered 1,087 deaths and injuries, about half of the strength of the unit, which was then the largest number of casualties in a day for the Marine Corps. The entire campaign, which included six major assaults in the United States and included units from two army divisions, left nearly 10,000 Americans dead or wounded. The magnitude of losses would increase over the next few weeks. On July 19, the 6th Marine Regiment, including the 3rd Foster Battalion, was again sent through open fields to attack heavy German fortifications at the French town of Soissons. The battle finally succeeded in ending Germany's last big offensive, but it was a bloodbath. As the official history of the regiment later states: "The 6th Marines have had the harsh experience of trying to defeat the enemy with little more than their bodies." After stopping their advance, the Marines have tried to dig, but the German artillery pounded men with deadly accuracy. Sibley, the battalion commander, sent a letter to headquarters with a gloomy assessment: half of the assault force had been killed or wounded, the others had little ammunition or water and were at risk of being killed. To be annihilated by German soldiers who seemed to be massaging for a counterattack. "The situation was worse than I had hoped to believe," he wrote. The Marines were relieved by French troops after dark and retreated to the rear. The regiment saw little activity, until September, when Allied commanders planned a massive assault that would unleash waves of US troops – 1.2 million total – against the German lines for the bold purpose to drive out the occupiers and end the war.

Troops of the 64th Infantry Brigade, 32nd Division, advancing near Romagne-Sous-Montfaucon, France. The photo was taken by Sgt. Frank A. Wallock, 1st class, October 18, 1918. The battle would be known history under the name of Meuse-Argonne offensive, the largest US military operation of all time. And Foster and his 6th Marine Regiment would be at the heart of the action again. "Of the war?" The village of Bayonville is a very small crossroads of the French Grand Est, a lush and agrarian region of undulating hills and sleeping farm towns that shares a north-eastern border with Belgium and Luxembourg. It consists of an old chapel and maybe twenty stone houses with rustic charm and differs little from a thousand other French rural villages, with a distinction: Bayonville, because of its geography, was the epicenter of France. a powerful clash between armies exactly one century ago. . On the morning of November 1, 1918, the village was under the control of the German army, which had erected a cuirassed iron wall and 77-mm artillery batteries on wooded ridges to the north and to the north. East of the city. Yet, as I had learned, in the middle of the same day, the fortifications of Bayonville would be invaded by the troops of the 6th Marine Regiment. At nightfall – last night, my great-uncle – the narrow streets of the city would be guarded by the men of Foster Stevens' 83rd company. As I returned to the village on a Saturday morning in the middle of summer, I wondered what visible reminders of this day could still exist. There were many such signs on the roads leading to the city, as it turned out. Along the road to the north, I met a large German military cemetery with rows of iron crosses marking the graves of dead men in the autumn of 1918. South of the city were forests still cut in two by trenches and strewn with fragments of discarded military equipment ammunition. Throughout the old battle lines, each year's spring plowing still produces an "iron harvest" of unexploded artillery shells. In the village itself, the evidence tended to be just above eye level. While walking, I noticed the marks of small arms fire on the stone walls of the chapel and other older buildings, as well as larger gouges that appeared to come from artillery or artillery. 39 shrapnel. As I watched the damage, a scarf-shaped head pierced a door and looked questioningly at the stranger taking pictures in front of his house. I greeted the old woman in my French baggage and tilted my head towards a deeply marked stone facade. "Of the war? Of the war? The woman shrugged and, with one arm, made a quick gesture that encompassed the entire street. "Anywhere," she says. All over.

Bayonville, France, was the scene of heavy fighting in November 1918. Held by the Germans, it was taken by Allied forces, including US Marines. (Joby Warrick / The Washington Post)

Walls of buildings marked by battle in the village of Bayonville. (Joby Warrick / The Washington Post) 'Deadly Machine Gun Shooting & # 39; For Marines forming battle lines on the morning of November 1st, the starting point was a field outside Landres-et-Saint Georges, a nearby agricultural town just south. of their goal. From there, the Marines make an upward run of 3km up to Bayonville, then try to neutralize the German guns, secure the city and position themselves in order to cope with the counterattack that was going to follow. This time, the preparations for the battle were distinctly different. For the last offensive, the Marines were commanded by Major-General Charles Summerall, a former artillery instructor, who insisted that the superiority of the shots rather than the work force was the driving force of the attack. As a result, the Americans threw dozens of tanks on the battle lines and launched the assault with what the historian Faulkner called a "hurricane dam," with 1,500 pieces of artillery. artillery firing non-stop for two hours on a narrow front before advancing ground troops. "Summerall thought that there should be a shell or bullet that falls on every inch of ground to a depth of twelve hundred meters" throughout the front, said Faulkner, "and it seems like it's going to happen. is pretty much what they have. " the marines withdrew at 5.30 am, after stopping the bursts and ascending north along the narrow road in the darkness of dawn. According to the plan, the battalions of the 6th Regiment maneuvered in leapfrogs, each approaching the road and stopping to allow the next unit to pass. Foster Stevens' 83rd company was in the lead, with the Marines moving closer to Bayonville behind three of their own tanks when the main enemy artillery batteries appeared. An after action report from the battalion describes in an unusual way what happened next. "Under the guise of the crest of a hill, it was found that it was possible to maneuver the 83rd Company and tanks to flank a battery of four 77mm enemy guns," the report begins. "This battery was firing directly at the left of our sector and was taken completely by surprise from its left flank. "A tank approached and covered the advance of a rifle squad, and the skillful use of his weapons from a pound and his riflemen forced the surrender of a officer and 75 gunners in charge of the battery, "the report continues. "As a result of this operation, more than 200 enemies from different points of the ravine were observed while they were fleeing into the forest." The threat of artillery now neutralized, the men of the 83rd company have ran up to Bayonville, where, according to the battle report, the "capture of the city was affected in a systematic and professional manner, without loss of [the] company and 100 captured prisoners. By the early morning of November 2nd, the rest of the regiment had passed beyond Bayonville for a total gain of a five mile day and the German line was collapsing. Similar progress has been made by other units along the American lines, but the Marines' exploits have been so radical that they have drawn the attention of the war correspondents of the leading American newspapers of the day. "In the center, we crashed to Bayonville," the New York Times correspondent reported in a November 2 dispatch. "… In the face of woods from which deadly machine gun fire had been shot for weeks, the Americans advanced under the guise of fog, but also a thick layer of smoke." Trapped between artillery fire and marines in charge, according to the article, hundreds Germans simply "returned and surrendered". & # 39; & # 39; A great regret to inform you … Sometimes during this day, in the wake of the greatest triumph of his company, Pvt. Foster Stevens fell. What happened to my great-uncle was not recorded in regimental reports, which describe minor clean-up operations on November 2, but no major clashes. Indeed, the city was quiet enough so that at 10 am, kitchens on wheels were allowed to enter the village with hot meals for exhausted troops. As I would have learned later, the Bayonville attack was actually the last fight of the 83rd Company. At the end of the war, the Marines were waiting for the completion of the bridges over the Meuse in France to continue their assault on the German positions on the other side. The bridges were still under construction on November 11 when a messenger announced that the armistice had been signed.

Marshal Ferdinand Foch, left, commander of the Allied troops, and General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force, speak in the courtyard of the Palace of Versailles before the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918. (AFP / Getty Images) By studying the official reports, I've been thinking about the likely scenarios. Perhaps Foster had suffered a fatal injury during the Bayonville attack on November 1 and had he died the next day, or had he disappeared and been found dead? Or perhaps he was struck by one of the randomly selected artillery shells that reportedly continued to fall around the village after being secured. New clues finally came in a stack of centennial personal documents that arrived in my inbox one morning. I knew for a long time that the service record of the vast majority of World War I veterans had been destroyed in a fire in St. Louis in the 1970s. But a few months after my research, I learned that Foster's archives, as well as those of most of his Marine Corps comrades, had survived. Soon, I was holding a copy of Foster's 1918 introduction materials and a yellowed booklet that tracked his progress throughout his six-month deployment in Europe. Only one document from the 148-page collection caught my eye. It was a field report dated November 5, 1918 which contained what was almost certainly the first written account of Foster's death. He was simply saying that Stevens was killed by a gunshot wound while he was on duty on November 2nd. Other documents in his funeral record suggest that it was a clean shot; nothing indicated that he had been treated for injuries or had been missing, nor any missing limbs or any significant physical malformation when examining his corpse. A reasonable hypothesis is that he was killed by a sniper, one of the dozens who, according to testimonies, continued to harass the Marines while the German lines retreated. What is known is that Foster's body, still in his naval uniform, had been wrapped in a burlap, placed in a simple pine box and buried on November 3 in a temporary grave near the place where the Marines had begun to advance two days earlier. Le capitaine Alfred Noble, officier supérieur de la 83e compagnie à Bayonville, qui a plus tard commandé les Marines dans le Pacifique en tant que général quatre étoiles pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale, a fermé le registre des services de Foster avec une brève note louant son "excellent" personnage et citant son service dans six batailles, du bois de Belleau à la Meuse-Argonne. C’est pourtant un autre document qui a eu la plus grande surprise, apportant un éclairage nouveau sur les profondeurs de l’angoisse d’une famille il ya 100 ans. Une des dernières pages du livret de service était une copie du câble original du ministère de la Marine qui informait notre famille, dans le phrasé standard du télégramme, de la mort de Foster. «Un profond regret de vous informer», a-t-il commencé, «un message émanant d'états étrangers, le soldat Foster B. Stevens, du Corps des Marines, a été tué au combat le 2 novembre.»

Plus de deux semaines après la déclaration de la paix en Europe, un avis de décès et une lettre de condoléances adressés à Pvt. Foster Stevens ont été envoyés à ses parents. Il portait la date du 30 novembre 1918. (NARA) Un détail de la page ressortait clairement: le télégramme était estampillé le 30 novembre 1918. Je me suis arrêté pour réfléchir à la signification de la date. Un peu plus de deux semaines auparavant, 19 jours avant la transmission du télégramme, les Américains avaient appris l'existence de l'armistice. La nouvelle de la fin de la guerre avait déclenché des célébrations spontanées: cloches sifflantes, feux d’artifice et feux de foule incendiaires dans les rues des villes américaines. Pour les familles des soldats et des marines servant en France, la signature de l'accord de paix a mis fin au souci de savoir si leurs maris, leurs fils et leurs frères retourneraient chez eux. Mes arrière-grands-parents et le reste de la famille ont été ravis d'apprendre la nouvelle du 11 novembre, comme tout le monde, mais leur coeur s'est déchiré le 30 novembre. Il n'est pas étonnant que ma grand-mère n'ait jamais pu se résoudre à en raconter les souvenirs. day. Environ deux ans et demi après l’arrivée du télégramme fatidique, alors que le cercueil de Foster était retiré de sa tombe temporaire pour être inhumé dans le nouveau cimetière Meuse-Argonne, un autre avis arriva du département de la guerre. Si la famille le souhaitait, la lettre indiquait que les restes du soldat Stevens pourraient être renvoyés aux États-Unis pour un enterrement privé ou militaire, aux frais du gouvernement. Les familles de près de la moitié des 26 000 militaires américains tués lors de l'offensive Meuse-Argonne ont finalement choisi de renvoyer leurs proches à la maison. Peut-être que les douloureux souvenirs de novembre 1918 étaient encore trop récents pour envisager l'épreuve supplémentaire d'un autre enterrement et d'une réinhumation. En tout état de cause, une note manuscrite datée du 5 mai 1921 transmettait la décision de la famille Stevens concernant la disposition des restes de Foster. «Rester en France», disait-il. "Du fond du cœur" Lors de mon dernier jour en France, j’ai visité le vaste cimetière américain pour visiter la tombe de mon grand-oncle. J'avais une voiture cette fois, contrairement à mon dernier voyage en tant qu'étudiant, il y a 36 ans. Je me suis donc rendu dans la ville voisine de Romagne-sous-Montfaucon pour acheter des fleurs. La ville se trouve au bord du cimetière et accueille chaque année des milliers de visiteurs avec des drapeaux et des banderoles américaines et françaises saluant l’alliance des deux pays pendant les deux guerres mondiales. Il y avait des fleurs partout – dans des jardinières, sur des places publiques, dans des jardinières sur les trottoirs – mais aucune, étonnamment, à l'achat. J'ai remarqué un petit café où les serveurs commençaient à se préparer pour la foule de l'heure du déjeuner et je suis arrivé pour demander s'il y avait un magasin de fleurs en ville. Le propriétaire du café, un homme légèrement bâti avec une barbe et un short coupés, m'a salué en anglais et m'a demandé si je visitais le cimetière. Quand j’ai expliqué l’histoire de mon grand-oncle, il m’a étudié pendant une minute et a dit: «J'ai quelque chose à vous montrer."

Des artefacts de la Première Guerre mondiale rassemblés sur les champs de bataille par Jean-Paul de Vries, un résident de la région. Il a trois salles pleines des rappels du carnage. (Joby Warrick / The Washington Post) Je l'ai suivi dans un sous-sol faiblement éclairé et j'ai respiré. Sous le café se trouvait la plus grande collection d’objets de la Première Guerre mondiale que j’ai jamais vus. Le propriétaire, Jean-Paul de Vries, fils de parents français et hollandais installés dans la ville plusieurs décennies plus tôt, avait passé sa vie adulte à parcourir les champs de bataille où Foster Stevens et ses compagnons doughboys se sont battus. résultats. Parfois, dans les vitrines d'exposition, mais le plus souvent en piles, se trouvaient les rebuts et les ratés des grandes armées. Il y avait des dizaines de milliers d'articles de toutes sortes, qu'il s'agisse de fusils et de baïonnettes rouillés, de casques, de plaques d'identité, de cantines, de matériel hospitalier et même d'une jambe de prothèse. De Vries avait établi un modeste
un musée et une fondation pour soutenir son travail, mais il a dit qu’il passait le plus clair de son temps à éduquer les visiteurs – américains, mais aussi français, allemands et britanniques – sur les hommes qui se sont battus et sont morts près de la ville un siècle auparavant. Pointant vers le casque en acier d'un «bol à salade» de Doughboy, il a déclaré: «Je ne vois que ce qu'il y avait sous le casque. C'étaient tous des jeunes garçons, peu importe d'où ils venaient. »Et les fleurs? Il n'y avait pas de fleuriste à proximité, mais DeVries avait une autre idée. «Mon amie Frances a les plus belles fleurs de la ville», a-t-il déclaré. «Je vous emmènerai là-bas.» Il s’est avéré que Frances vivait dans un chalet à deux rues de là. She was in her 60s and was regarded as a bit of an eccentric, and she had a very personal connection to the events of 1918, as DeVries explained to me: Her grandmother had met one of the American soldiers who stayed in the area after the war — perhaps to assist with burials — and had fallen in love with him. Their brief affair had resulted in a child — Frances’s mother. She was thus the granddaughter of one my uncle’s brothers-in-arms. We found Frances in her garden, which turned out to be a maze of overgrown shrubs and weeds interspersed with a few plots of ornamentals. DeVries introduced me in French, explained my quest and passed along my offer: Five euros, or about $6, for one of her famous flowers. I extended my hand with the crinkled note to show her. “Which flowers?” she asked. I pointed to a patch of white daisies. “Ah, marguerites,” she said, using the French word. She took out a pair of a pruning shears and made a quick snip. As the flowers were small, I assumed she would give a modest bouquet. Instead, she accepted the cash and handed me a single white daisy. DeVries, noticing my surprised expression, offered a reassuring smile. “Of all the flowers that will be placed on the graves,” he said, “this one is from the heart.” Minutes later I was strolling through the cemetery, along the vast rows of white crosses and Stars of David. The linden trees were bigger than in the early 1980s, but everything else seemed exactly as I remembered. As I walked, I saw memorial stones with names of men from every U.S. state, most of them killed during a span of eight weeks between September and November 1918. I also noticed, for the first time, the many crosses that bore no name, and simply honored an “unknown American soldier” whose remains were buried there. There are 486 of these unknown graves in the cemetery, and a separate memorial plaque records the names of an additional 954 doughboys whose bodies were never recovered. I found Foster Stevens’s white cross and sat beside it, thinking about my great-uncle’s final day, and about the ordeal that would await his family weeks later back at home. Then I thought about the families of his missing comrades, the parents, spouses and siblings who would be denied even the small comfort of knowing. My family’s doughboy had been lucky, at least in this one sense: Pvt. Foster Stevens had a name, and a grave. And now, for the first time in my lifetime, he also had a story. I placed the single daisy beside my great-uncle’s memorial cross, snapped a photograph, and then left for home.
Foster Stevens's grave at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, France. It is the final resting place for 14,246 Americans, the largest U.S. cemetery in Europe. (Joby Warrick/The Washington Post) Read more Retropolis:
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