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Wars to End All Wars

April 5 to 8, 2003 (written 2 May)

Dear Friends and Families

On some of our road trips, we get history lessons. On this trip, our history was that of European war. We learned about wars fought a generation ago, almost a century ago and even a millennium ago. Then, our evening TV was filled with a new war. Here are impressions of each.


France invades England. Major battle outside Hastings. King slain. Occupiers establish combined kingdom. Food and language will never be the same.

These might have been the CNN banners from September 1066 if there was a Ted Turner predecessor back then. In fact, news was hard to communicate and it certainly was not real time. About ten years after the Battle of Hastings, the Bishop of Bayeux in Normandy commissioned English craftsmen to create a documentary.

The linen tapestry that the craftsmen embroidered can be seen today. It is 80 yards long by about one yard high and tells the French version of the history leading up to the defeat of the English, following the last successful invasion of the British Isles.

At the time, the seas from Brittany through Norway, especially the "English" Channel, served as the link between settlements, much as the Mediterranean served farther south. The histories of these communities were blended by sea trade and invasion. Almost a thousand years later, the Bayeux Tapestry shows how bishops, kings, and princes interacted and how armies fought.

To see more, visit the following websites listed at the end of this note. (they do a much better job than I can).

We enjoyed our visit. There are three parts to the Tapestry museum, an annotated replica, a movie, and the old cloth itself. Each part was interesting. The replica explained each of the scenes and gave a real sense of the history and times. The movie gave more insight into the characters of the drama. But finally, the embroidered cloth itself was the most impressive. Its colors have faded only a little and it seemed like it could have been made 50 years ago, not 950. It is absolutely worth the visit (even if pictures are not allowed!)

Verdun, Carnage on a Grand Scale

Of course, Europe continued to fight for the next several hundred years. Nowhere was that more continuous than in the borderlands between France and Germany. Our next visit was Verdun, France, to the site of one of the fiercest battles of The Great War, World War I.

Verdun had been a fortress from even before Roman times. From the Third Century BC, the fortified hill in the crook of the Meuse river served to guard the trade routes between the plains around Paris and the German lands to the East. The fort was Gallic, Roman, Frankish, Carolingian, and finally handed back and forth between local princes. Massive walls were built and eventually the French added underground bunkers able to house thousands.

In The War to End All Wars, the fighting stalled early between the French and the Germans, but Verdun remained in French hands. The Prussian General Erich von Falkenhayn recognized that it was key to protection of Paris and that the French would have to defend it at all costs. From February through December of 1916, the definition of "at all costs" was redefined as 700,000 soldiers died in the fruitless struggle over a small parcel of land. In the end, the front line was unchanged.

We spent just one afternoon in those lands, but it gave us a sense of the sacrifice. Today, the battlefields are a few minutes drive northeast of the small town of Verdun. Our first stop was the park commemorating the town of Fleury, a place that found itself in the center of a battlefield in 1916 and which, even today, contains bomb craters after all these years. The main town street has been transformed into a path through woods and a small church now marks the end of the ravine where soldiers and supplies made the climb up from Verdun and injured and dead were returned.

The nearby museum had plenty of memorabilia from the fighting. There were glorious old uniforms, maps showing front lines changing from day to day, and samples of the latest technology. The center of the museum was a replica of covered trenches that criss-crossed the battlefield and it provided a realistic vision of the conditions of trench living and fighting.

There were also displays of the industry it took to support fighting. The major battles around Verdun had been started with "shock and awe" artillery campaigns that dwarf the recent effort in Iraq. Over two million shells were fired &endash; in the first day. Later, as the machines and routines of war developed, a single July battle started with almost eight million shells, many as big as a person. Over 100,000 of these shells contained poison gas, a technique so repulsive that it was to be declared contrary to the rules of war. (What a strange phrase: "rules of war". Might we just "rule out" war?)

Our last stop in the battlefields was the Ossuary, built to contain the unidentified bones that had piled up on the battlefield. It was a sobering thought to consider that some soldiers did not even have the privilege of a private grave. This truly was a horrible war, yet today it's memory seems to fade. It is slipping into the anonymity of history, just as the world has long forgotten the people in the Bayeux Tapestry.


Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery

The final stop on our visit to French battlefields was the American Cemetery by Omaha beach. Here the graves were well groomed and visitors passed by, reading names and wondering about the unnamed.(PICT 0074) Some of the visitors were old enough to be contemporaries of the fallen soldiers and this made the place more human &endash; and more moving. Ten thousand American soldiers are buried here and it was reassuring to see the groups of French school children learning this part of their history. The French have not always been opposed to American involvement in war.

Omaha Beach was bright and sunny on the day we visited. As I stood on the remains of a defensive gun emplacement, I looked over the peaceful surf and tried to imagine early June, 1945. I couldn't. To me, it was just a beautiful quiet beach, sunny but still too cool in the spring air to be filled with beach umbrellas and laughing kids.



As we spent our days looking at the history of war, we spent our evenings with the news of war. Comparisons were inevitable. The Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, changed history for much of Europe, certainly for us English-speakers. Is Iraq such a turning point or is it just a milestone on a longer road?

Would the carnage of Verdun have been allowed if the folks back home had been shown real-time pictures from embedded reporters? I think not.

Will contemporary French politicians erase the memory of American sacrifice in foreign wars? I hope not.

Take care and remember soldiers,

John and Marianne

















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