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Brian Pohanka
The Western Front:
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   Craters

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- Ulster Tower,
   Beaumont

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- The Fallen Soldier
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- Verdun

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Visit to the Western Front
Part 15: Verdun

By Brian Pohanka - November 11, 1999

This brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.

One of themes of our visit, or pilgrimage to the Western Front, was to pay homage to certain authors, poets, literary figures, who perished in the War of 1914-1918. Gauging the terrible loss of those doomed soldiers, that Lost Generation, in talent and artistic ability cut down, potential greatness so sadly destined never to blossom. Their faces, seen in fading photographs like their words, haunting, ghostlike, a vestige of what might have been. Thus on a foggy October morning Cricket and I drove south of Verdun, into another of those rugged forests of the Argonne, in search of a remarkable site -- a mystery solved -- the fate of a young French writer named Alain-Fournier.

Henri Alban Fournier, who wrote under the pen-name of Alain-Fournier, was 27 years old when he died in the second month of the Great War. He left behind one great work, though the book is little known to English speakers -- Le Grand Meaulnes (published in English as The Wanderer). I've not yet read it, though I plan to; not only for the connection to another of that Lost Generation of World War One soldiers, but because it seems to have been a great influence on one of my favorite modern novels, The Magus by British author John Fowles. But I digress.... What is so compelling in the fate of Alain-Fournier was the fact that he simply disappeared on September 22, 1914. The young Lieutenant and his "section" of 20 men -- sent into the forest to make contact with the Germans -- sent on what amounted to almost certain death by a senior officer who was drunk or mad, or both.

Lieutenant Fournier, one other officer, and 19 soldiers dutifully marched into the Argonne and never returned. The situation was fluid, combat had not yet settled down in the grim war of the trenches. It was assumed that Fournier and his section had been cut off, surrounded, ambushed, destroyed. Like so many others, they would be "missing in action" forever.

But the general area of Fournier's disappearance in that heavily wooded landscape was known. And over the years various efforts were made to learn more of his fate. Surviving German reports indicated that some 20 French soldiers had indeed been engaged and annihilated somewhere east of the old 18th century road called the Tranchee de Calonne. And in October of 1992, a hunter brought word that he had found a sunken area that appeared to be, or might be, a mass grave -- several hundred meters east of the old road. Those who admired Alain-Fournier convinced the authorities to permit an archaelogical investigation. Thus it was, seven years ago, that the mystery of the Lost Patrol was solved.

Within what indeed proved to be a mass grave, lay two rows of skeletons, layed feet to to feet. The remnants of their uniforms -- lacking kepis, weapons and in most cases shoes -- were with the bones. There were 21 bodies; 16 of them still had their metal identity disks. And the names matched those of the soldiers of the 288th Regiment of Infantry known to have been with Lieutenant Fournier's section the day of their disappearance. Forensic studies followed, and in the end, 19 of the 21 bodies were positively identified -- including the bones of Alain-Fournier and his fellow officer. All of the soldiers were short, with indications of heavy musculature on the bones, and with generally poor teeth, lacking any signs of fillings or dental work. The two officers were taller, had good teeth with professionally-done fillings, and had the appropriate insignia of their rank discernible on the remnants of their uniforms. A year after the conclusion of the excavation and forensic work, the 21 soldiers were layed to rest in the little military cemetery of St. Remy la Calonne.

As we drove through the quiet forest -- with nary another car in sight -- we spotted a sign indicating "Tranchee d'Alain-Fournier et ses Compagnons." We pulled over, got out the camera and video gear, and walked silently back down a narrow trail into the woods. It was cool and windless; rainwater stood in puddles on the muddy trail and occasional craters could be seen on either side, amidst the trees. Several hundred yards we came to a clearing -- the place where Fournier and his men were found in 1992. There is a long glass enclosure there. Inside are little foot-stones with the individual names of the men whose bones were found there -- in formation as if on parade -- feet to feet. "Mort Pour La France" -- inscribed on each stone. And there was the marker for Alain-Fournier amidst his companions of the 288th R.I. Around the clearing were a half dozen interpretive signs -- telling the story of this remarkable discovery -- one of them with a photo of the skeletons as they were found. And there was another larger monument, carved in stone, a torch with an officer's kepi at its base, and an open book -- Le Grand Meaulnes -- Fournier's one, great work.

How peaceful and how sad it was there, in that moist forest, in the muddy clearing! One felt a thousand years away from War, it was so quiet. We could even hear the sound the autumn leaves made as they dropped from the branches onto the forest floor.... The poetry, and the mystery -- and our remembrance, too -- would have appealed to Fournier's passionate, deep, artistic soul. At least I would like to think so!

From the mass grave site we drove a few more short kilometers to the Church at St. Remy -- destroyed in the War, now rebuilt. And there in the cemetery were the soldiers of the 288th, side by side, their officers at their proper place -- Fournier and his troops, united forever by the awful fortunes of War.

Note: Following his stop at the Church at St. Remy, Brian continued on his Great War battlefield journey and visited a number of other sites on his trip to France. However, his series of Great War battlefield sketches concludes here.

red poppy by DLO

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