Here’s some highlights from a transcript of a broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR). It’s from the show Weekend All Things Considered, the Veterans’ Day edition of 2007. There’s a downloadable audio file of the story (“Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches”) as well.
Reporter Naomi Lewin and her friend Brad Wolcott toured the French countryside during the summer of 2007.
“World War I seemed so distant now that most people don’t feel the connection to it. But all my life, I’ve heard my mother say that her father’s two siblings were killed fighting in World War I and that their mother never got over it.”
A woman who knew the mother said that she “always dressed in black . . . mourning for her two lost sons.”
During World War II, some of the men who helped fight for Germany, particularly Jewish men, became targets of the new order. But the mother was undaunted.
“She said, come, let’s go to the Gestapo. I’ll do the talking. And she went in. It was unheard of for a Jewish person to go to the Gestapo voluntarily. And when she came out, she said, it’s all right, they promised me they’d let them go. And we said, what did you say? And she said, I gave two sons to Germany in the war, and you will give me my third one back.”
Lewin noted that “almost 10 million soldiers lost their lives in the trench warfare so vividly described in Eric Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Remarque, a World War I veteran himself, wrote, “At the front there is no quietness. Even in the remote depots and rest areas, the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears.”
Today, in the village of Fey-en-Haye, “all you hear are birds, bells and distant highway traffic.” Nothing in Fey-en-Haye is more than 85 years old “including the church at the intersection of the only two streets. The reason is etched into the side of the church, right beneath the pair of stained-glass windows featuring soldiers rather than saints.”
Wolcott translated the church plaque from the original French: “Situated on the frontline during all of the hostilities, under incessant bombardment, totally destroyed, this village, by its ruins, has gained the gratitude of the entire country.”
Another town, Remeneauville, was completely destroyed, but unlike Fey-en-Haye, it was never rebuilt. “Instead, a canopy of silent woods has grown up around pathways that once were streets.”
Plaques in German, French and English “poke out of undergrowth, marking where buildings once stood. Where a farm was, where the school was, where the wheelwright was, where the city hall was.”
Wolcott noted, “The woods have taken over. There’s something incredibly peaceful about the way the woods come back to what was a pile of ruins.”
The trio also visited a German cemetery and noted how spartan the cemeteries of the defeated were compared to the victors.
Here, the waist-high gate is gunmetal gray, and the lawn is flexed with wildflowers wafting through the air, the sweet scent of linden trees and the gentle clank of farm machinery from neighboring fields.”
Jean-Charles de Belly, a young historian who works for the local municipal government, serves as a guide for anyone interested in the area’s World War I battlefields and memorials.
“This is very important for us to explain to the new generation, and my generation, that the young American people come here in France and died in France for the liberty of French people,” de Belly said.
“You know, so many of them helped win the war, and then didn’t make it back,” Lewin said.
The full transcript is available.