AMERICAN SOIL IN A FOREIGN LAND – RICH PASCHALL

 How a field in France became the resting place for thousands of Americans

In September of 1944 the Third US Army resumed its push across eastern France to drive opposing forces out of France and back across the border.  The Seventh US Army, after landing in southern France and joined by First French Army, drove northward.  The US Air Force provided key tactical support.  On September 21st the Third and Seventh armies joined forces providing a solid line through France to the Swiss border.  On Monday, November 27th St. Avold, France was liberated by the US 80th Infantry Division. This becomes important to our story today.

By December the eastern front was being pushed toward Germany.  On December 19th, the Third Army moved northward to counter attack at the Battle of the Bulge. The many months of fighting throughout this region brought thousands of US casualties. A temporary US military cemetery was set up at St. Avold on March 16, 1945.  The struggles to hold territory and move forward were paid for in the lives of much of the Third and Seventh Armies.  By the end of the war, the rolling fields of the Lorraine region of France at St. Avold held the remains of over 16 thousand US soldiers.

st avold cemetary france

St. Avold cemetery, France

The burial grounds of the US soldiers at St. Avold as well as four other places across France were given to the United States in perpetuity as military cemeteries. Today the Lorraine American Cemetery and Memorial is the largest World War II cemetery in Europe.  It is bigger than the more honored and remembered memorial at Normandy. Ten thousand four hundred eighty-seven of American’s finest generation lie across this 113.5 acres of land.

There are Medal of Honor winners, ace pilots, 30 sets of brothers, 151 unknown soldiers.  In addition, 444 names are inscribed on a wall to honor those who lie in unknown graves across this region of Europe.  Their bodies were lost and never returned home or to one of the hallowed grounds in France or England or Belgium or the Netherlands or Italy or Luxembourg.

When you include those in the Philippines and North Africa (Tunisia), 93,236 American soldiers found their final resting place in World War II on foreign soil that became American soil over time. The ground we visited in France was handed over without charge or taxation by a grateful nation that did not forget the sacrifice of American soldiers who fought a bitter war to win freedom for others and keep the aggression away from our shores.

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On Armistice Day in France, or what we call VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), May 8th, we walked the hallowed grounds of St. Avold and paid our respects to the greatest American generation. The rows of crosses and Stars of David fill the landscape and remind the few who remain that freedom came at a high price in 1944 and 1945. Americans were willing to stand beside people of another land to win freedom, and now many lie there in eternal rest.

I signed the guest book at one in the afternoon. I noticed I was the only American who had signed in. There were signatures of a Romanian, a German who added “in honor and respect” in German, and two French. One wrote “we will never forget the sacrifice of their lives.” I asked myself if the sacrifice will indeed be remembered or forgotten in time? Will this become, over the years, just another historical curiosity? A footnote? Ancient history forgotten by many if not most people?

Taps at St. Avold cemetary, France

Taps at St. Avold cemetery, France

It is easy to understand why there are no Americans to kneel and pray in the tall chapel, no relatives to decorate the graves or loved ones to shed tears. Many at St. Avold were too young to have children when they answered the call from Uncle Sam. They were barely more than children themselves.

Many had no remaining families. If they had siblings after the war, most have passed by now. Anyone who remains alive to honor them are likely at home, in America. Sad that the national holiday in France saw the honored dead receiving about as much attention as our honored dead will receive here at home on this Memorial Day. And how was your picnic this weekend?

Read about the origins of Memorial day on the Sunday night blog here.

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR – REVIEW WITH VIDEO AND MUSIC

OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain. The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable who’s-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease and starvation. It remains one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, paving the way for major political upheaval and revolution in many of the nations who fought.

You can’t make this stuff up.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could well be categorized as an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder an entire generation and they did a damned good job of it. The absurd statements and dialogue of the historical characters, all safely lodged a safe distance from actual fighting, sound ludicrous.

Did General Haig, when looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really say: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? Apparently he said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — and bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to preserve — is a great moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would they still be fighting it today? Would Europe even exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs are mixed with pithy comments by generals, kings, Kaisers and occasionally, soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and the meaning of those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny and catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and also love great movies, grab one before they disappear. Over the Memorial Day weekend, one of the movie channels, usually it’s on Encore but sometimes TCM runs it.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and surprisingly informative, this motion picture is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You will not be disappointed and you will never forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I never forgot it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. All-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.

144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

NOTE: This title is out of print. Limit ONE per customer.

FADING FLOWERS AND LONG MEMORIES

Who left the little flag and the fading flowers by the old tombstone? It could have been anyone in this town, where memories are long and roots run deep.

The cemetery is in the center of town, across from the dam and just a hundred yards or so from the river. It’s up on the hill, so it never floods, even when the rivers rush over their banks. The people who chose the land for the cemetery knew the river. They picked a beautiful spot, but dry and safe for bones and memories.

old cemetary in uxbridge

An old cemetery, dating back to the early 1700s. It contains traces of many generations of those who lived and died in this town, this valley. Folks who lived along the Blackstone and its many tributaries, fished in its lakes and streams. They fought in our wars and are buried here — Revolutionary War soldiers, Civil War veterans as well as those who fought in all the American wars since.

Every Independence Day, Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day, the cemetery blooms with bouquets and flags. The schools bring the children here, so they will remember too and traditions will be maintained. They bring bouquets of wild flowers or from the back garden. Lilacs and lilies, scarlet poppies … and always a miniature American flag. Even if there’s no special holiday, the cemetery always shows signs of caring, remembering.

Maybe it’s easier to remember here, with such a small population. Is that it? Or it’s just part of the air, the character, the history. Remembering is what we do in the Valley.

The cemetery is one of my favorite places. We’re newcomers after all, only living here 13 years. Our ancestors — Garry’s and mine — come from Sligo, Antigua, Minsk, Bialystok … from tiny villages in Ireland and the West Indies and the shtetls of eastern Europe.

Valley people have been here longer. Many came from French Canada in the late 19th century to work in the mills. Another large group formed the dominant Dutch population. They built churches, businesses and factories, dairy and truck farms, shops, horse farms and sawmills. Their names are prominent wherever the rivers run.

Newcomers like us have no ancestors in the cemetery, at least none about whom we know. Anything is possible in America. The valley is the only place I’ve lived where the majority of families have lived in the town or in a nearby villages for three, four, five generations.

“We’ve always lived in the Valley,” they say, meaning as long as anyone can remember. If gently prodded, they may recall at some point, long ago, they came from somewhere else … but some can’t remember when or if it’s true.

HAPPY MOTHERS DAY!!

To all the mothers, to my mother and all those whose mothers who have passed, let’s get a little maudlin and cry a few tears for the mothers who raised us, the surrogate mothers who nurtured us.

From left to right, my Aunt Pearl, Mom, Aunt Ethel, and Aunt Kate,

From left to right, my Aunt Pearl, Mom, Aunt Ethel, and Aunt Kate,

MOSES, PETER AND MEL

Before I put one finger to type, I acknowledge this may be heresy to some people. On this day of days, one simply doesn’t make fun of religious movies. But I do.

Last night, Marilyn and I had our traditional viewing of “The Ten Commandments”. Marilyn has already posted a piece on this event which expresses our sentiments about Mr. Demille’s final epic. Cecil B was, once again, going for life altering moments. He gave us, instead, much-needed laughter.

Today’s lineup of movies on our favorite cable station includes almost all of the familiar biblical movies. Few stand the test of time. Some are really well intended like George Stevens’, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. But the man who gave us classics like “Shane”, “A Place In The Sun” and “Giant”, wound up with a ponderous and static film in “The Greatest Story”. It’s biggest sin? It is boring!

As I write, we are watching Mel Brooks’, “History of the World-Part One” which is the perfect antidote to historical films that have become parodies or that were really never good. The ironic thing is that we have a greater appreciation of history because of Mel’s equal opportunity insults than the cardboard epics which play fast and loose with facts.

I must admit I love watching gladiator movies. It’s a guy thing like war films.  I also enjoy seeing semi clad (or even less clad) young women engaging us in erotic dances before evil monarchs who are not playing with a full deck. But we’re not talking about great cinema here.

HistoryOfTheWorldPartI

Charlton “call me Chuck” Heston was really honest when he talked about playing Moses. He told me it was a good gig. Working with Cecil B. DeMille (for a second time) was nice for his résumé. It actually gave him a boost for a religious film he really wanted to do. “Ben Hur” is one of the best religious films out of Hollywood. It stands the test of time because of William Wyler’s fine direction. And, yes, the chariot race alone is still worth the price of admission.

This really is obviously subjective. If you love Cecil B’s forceful (?) narration of his take on the old testament, so be it. So let it be written, so let it be done,

We’re back with Mel. Now, it’s the French Revolution and those girls in their generously cut costumes.

It’s good to be king!