to the Western Front
Part 15: Verdun
Brian Pohanka - November 11, 1999
brief sketch was originally posted at a Civil War discussion
group site and is reprinted here with the author's permission.
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
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.
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.