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The Somme and Verdun

A family visit this summer to the WWI battlefields of northern and eastern France: the Somme and Verdun. The trench warfare in these places was some of the bloodiest (and most unproductive) combat in history. Four observations:

In the Somme, which we visited first, traces of the war — other than monuments, cemeteries, and several memorial parks — have all but been erased by the industrious farmers of Picardie. The re-building of villages, the tilling of fields of sugarbeets, wheat, potatoes and other crops, and the regrowth of forests over the past ninety years have restored the once lunar-like landscape to its former productive state. However, if you look for grazing cows, you can find expanses of unworked pasture that are still marked every few yards by the indentation of shell craters. The contrast is moving.

Fricourt-jewish-grave.jpgAt Thiépval in the Somme and at the Douaumont Ossuary outside Verdun, the names of some 72,000 and 130,000 men, respectively, are noted on soaring monuments: the killed and missing-in-action with no known place of rest.

At the German cemeteries in the Somme, the wooden grave-markers (invariably crosses at the time of interment), were replaced in the 1960’s by stone crosses or personalized headstones. At the cemetery at Fricourt, we saw more than a smattering of Star of David grave markers. Hitler fought in the Somme, and he visited this cemetery during the Nazi occupation of France. One wonders if the future Führer had Jewish comrades-in-arms in the trenches. By all accounts, Jewish men of draft age fought bravely on the German side in WWI.

The gravestones in the British cemeteries were put in place in the early 1920’s, and at that time the next of kin were invited (for a fee) to have a few words of their choosing inscribed on their loved one’s marker. At the La Chapelette cemetery outside of Perronne in the Somme we saw an inscription which seems to me to well summarize the transition between the attitudes of two different eras:

It Was God’s Will Not Mine

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