At the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in France, the first thing my husband and I noticed were the perfectly aligned rose bushes lining the paths to the rose granite colonnade.
Our visit was particularly poignant because, among my husband’s family, we were the only relatives of Napoleon Morin to have visited his grave in France. He was 19 years old, a Franco-American soldier from Biddeford, ME, at the time when he was killed during the Battle of Chateau-Thierry.
When we returned home, I wrote an essay about our visit to see “Uncle Nap”. I am including the text of my published story in this blog. The title of the essay is “Somewhere in France“.
As a prologue, a description of the cemetery was described in 1922, by Major George Gibbs, Jr.: The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in France contains the remains of 6,012 American war dead, most of whom lost their lives while fighting in this vicinity in 1918 during World War. Their headstones, aligned in long rows on the 36.5-acre site, rise in a gentle slope from the entrance to the memorial at the far end. The burial area is divided into four plots by wide paths lined by trees and beds of roses; at the intersection are a circular plaza and the flagpole.
The memorial is a curving colonnade, flanked at the ends by a chapel and a map room. It is built of rose-colored sandstone with white trim bearing sculptured details of wartime equipment. The chapel contains an altar of carved stone. Engraved upon its Walls of the Missing are 241 names. Rosettes mark the names of those since recovered and identified. The map room contains an engraved and colored wall map portraying the military operations in this region during 1918. (Uncle Nap’s name is among the engraved.)
My essay published in Goose River Anthology: “Somewhere in France”
No one in the family had visited Uncle Nap’s grave in France
My husband and I traveled by train from Paris to visit the quiet town of Château -Thierry in northeast France. It’s a scenic location, so picturesque the panorama is suitable for framing. Complete with a real chateau, the town’s charm would likely enchant any causal tourist.
Yet, a century ago, 1914-18, the landscape was embroiled in the Great European War. Château –Thierry’s charm today is a veneer for the memories of thousands of people who once lived in terror, surrounded by no-mans-lands, trench warfare and barbed wire barricade fences.
Paradoxically, World War I was supposed to be “the war to end all wars”. Instead, it was a prelude to even more horrific events in World War II.
A rapidly dwindling number of people alive today likely know how Château –Thierry’s beauty is also the somber location of the 42.5 acre American Veterans Oise-Aisne Cemetery. It’s a World War I burial ground, landscaped with the headstones the dead who were the fatalities from the Battle of Château –Thierry and the surrounding areas.
During the fighting after the Battle of Château-Thierry, that was fought on July 18, 1918, Uncle Napoleon “Nap” Morin, age 19, of Biddeford, Maine, was tragically killed while trying to provide evacuation assistance to wounded soldiers from the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF).
My mother in law, Rose Anna, was Nap’s sister. She spoke about war with uncharacteristic obscenities throughout her long life. In fact, war made her a pacifist. It’s understandable, after she witnessed the tragedy of having her mother receive Nap’s death notice, then experiencing the life long grief, resulting from the loss of her brother, and subsequently sending three of her own sons to survive World War II, the Korean Conflict and Viet Nam.
“Somewhere in France” was the heading of the September 21, 1918, dated letter, notifying the family about Nap’s death. Although the parchment paper is fragile with age, the message is as chilling to read today, as it was when it was delivered to Mrs. Emma Morin. It’s obvious the letter was hand typed by someone who found spelling and punctuation to be challenging.
“I am writing you relative to the death of your son who was killed in battle on August 8, 1918. The sacrifice he made was among one supreme (typographical error was marked out here). ‘Greater love hath no man that (sic) this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ There is comfort in the fact that the value of a person’s life does not depend upon its length but its investment. Yours in deep sympathy, Lewis W. Dockery, 1st Lieutenant and Chaplain, 38th Infantry.”
Nap was among 9 million who were counted among World War I deaths.
Locating the grave of American veterans is the work of the American Battlefield Monuments Commission. A data base with every service person buried in a veterans’ cemetery is kept by the Commission. We could never have found the Oise Aisne Cemetery without the detail provided. A few days before leaving for France, a package arrived from the American Battlefield Monuments Commission containing a map of the area we were going to in France, directions for how to locate the cemetery and a picture of the location. Most important, the directions also told us where to look for Uncle Nap’s memorial, inside the magnificent rose granite colonnade, right above the religious alter, in the chapel. Uncle Nap’s name was engraved in the chapel because he was among those who were cremated, rather than buried. Later, we learned that the chapel inside the colonnade was built on the location of the front line trench where Uncle Nap may have actually died.
So, we had the directions to Château -Thierry and a picture of what we were looking for, but we still had to find our way to the location of the cemetery.
At the Chateau-Thierry train station, we were the only two Americans standing on the disembarking platform. Everyone ignored us while we walked to a queue of taxi cabs. To our utter amazement, the first cab driver refused to drive us to the cemetery! He was followed by a second taxi driver, who also refused our fare.
On a third try, I pleaded with the driver about visiting my husband’s uncle’s grave, but it was obvious, even he didn’t want to drive us to the cemetery.
Yet, the third driver looked like he was considering a change of heart.
“C’est l’oncle de mon mari!,” je l’ai dit. (“It’s my husband’s uncle!,” I said)
It worked. We were driven about 20 minutes outside of the town to the cemetery. Other taxi drivers probably didn’t want to miss quick turn around fares and loose multiple customers during the time it took to drive to Aisne-Marne, plus wait for us to visit the grave site. Thankfully, our map showed us exactly where to look for Uncle Nap’s name, so we didn’t waste time finding the chapel located inside the cemetery’s rose granite colonnade.
We were the only two people in the cemetery. It was surreal to be in an American veterans’ cemetery with over a thousand headstones and not see another person. A quiet sadness engulfed us as we realized how rare an event it was to be among so many dead.
Their ages at death were between 19 and 23 years old. They’re eternally young in their graves, while their families of a century ago are too old to visit them anymore.
Although the cemetery was without visitors, at least while we were there, the maintenance of the graves and the lawns was impeccable. Rose bushes lined all the walkways. Inside, the chapel was immaculately clean and the granite alter gleamed like polished crystal.
We quickly made a pencil rubbing on paper of Corporal Napoleon Morin’s name.
Meanwhile, our taxi driver waited with the cab, having refused our offer to go with us while we walked to the chapel. Upon returning, we were excited to show him the pencil rubbing with the name of the deceased person he had driven us to visit. But, I was stunned when he sadly looked at the name and broke down crying! While I was gleeful for having made the pencil drawing of Uncle Nap’s name, our driver was appropriately mourning our family’s sacrifice to help secure his nation’s sovereignty.
Surely, I thought to myself, this taxi driver’s family must have told him stories about what the peaceful Oise-Aisne cemetery meant to them.
Our regret was in the realization that no one else in the family would ever follow in our footsteps, because Uncle Nap was unmarried when he went to war.
Moreover, those who would have joined us in tears of grateful appreciation (along with the French taxi driver), especially because Emma Morin, and Rose Anna Morin L’Heureux and her siblings, are themselves deceased.
It was an unforgettable experience for my husband and me, but when we came back home to Maine, there was no one alive from the immediate family to tell.