(For the anniversary of the beginning of World War One, the war to end all wars, which ended instead three monarchies and came close to ending one republic and putting an empire on life-support … one of my best archive posts.)
We drove across the border on a Sunday, my daughter and I, on a mild autumn day that began by being veiled in fog when I gassed up the VEV at the PX gas station at Bitburg, and headed southwest assisted by the invaluable Hallwag drivers’ atlas, open on the passenger seat beside me. Blondie shared the back seat with a basket of books, a pillow, some soft luggage stuffed into the space between the seats, and half a dozen Asterix and Obelix comic books. Fortunate child, she could read in the back seat of a moving car for hours. Not like me— child or adult, I could not even look at the printed word while underway without becoming nauseated.
“We’ll cross right over Luxemburg, and then we’ll be in France,” I said. “You know, Gaul.”
“Will there be indomitable Gauls?” my daughter asked, seriously. She was just coming up to five years old. Her favorite comic books followed the adventures of the bold Gaulish warrior Asterix, and his friend, the menhir-deliveryman Oblelix, whose tiny village was the last to hold out against the imperial might of Roman conquest, thanks to a magic potion worked up by the druid Getafix, which gave superhuman strength to all the village warriors. The drawings in the books were artistically literate, and there were all sorts of puns and word-plays in the stories – and they had been translated and distributed all over.
“There could be,” I said, noncommittally. Three or four weeks ago, we had left the apartment in the suburb of Athens where we had lived for most of what she could remember of life and taken the car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, on our way to my new assignment in Spain.
In easy stages I had driven the length of Italy, over the Brenner Pass, through the tiny neck of Austria, and across Southern Germany. We had so far stayed in a castle on the Rhine, a couple of guesthouses, a hotel outside Siena which could have been nearly anywhere, as it overlooked a junkyard on one side, and acres of grapevines on the other three, and another which covered two floors on the top of an office block in Florence and offered a view of the Duomo from the terrace. We had been to see ruins in Pompeii, the Sistine chapel, the wondrous Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, a Nazi concentration camp, and a mineral bath in Baden-Baden.
“Where are we going to do first?”
“Buy some jam,” I said.
“What kind of jam?” my daughter asked.
“It’s very superior jam, made with currents. They pick out the seeds by hand with a goose-quill, so it’s very expensive and only made in this one little town in France, but it is supposed to be the tastiest on earth. It’s on the way between here and Paris.”
Well, it wasn’t any odder than anything else I had taken her to see in the time that we had lived in Europe. She curled up with Asterix, while the VEV’s tires hummed tirelessly down the road.
I could tell, without having to see a border sign, when we had left Germany. Germany was as clean as if Granny Dodie had dusted it all, and scoured it twice with Lysol, and then groomed all the grass and trees with a pair of manicure scissors. Houses and cottages were all trim and immaculate, not a sagging roof or a broken shutter to be seen – and then, we were in another place, where slacker standards prevailed. Not absolute rural blight, just everything a little grimier, a little more overgrown, not so aggressively, compulsively tidy. And the highway became a toll road, and a rather expensive one at that. I made a snap decision to take the rural, surface roads at that point, and the toll-taker indulgently wrote out a list for me of the towns along the way of the road I wanted, hop-scotching from town to town, along a two-lane road among rolling hills and dark green scrub-forest, and little collections of houses around a square, or a traffic circle labeled ‘centre’ around which I would spin until I saw a signpost with the name of the next town, and the VEV ricocheted out of the roundabout, and plunged headlong down this new road. (Good heavens, a signpost that way for Malmedy! Well, they did say snottily in Europe that wars were a means to teach Americans about geography, but I was interested this day in the earlier war, and my route led south.)
Always two lanes, little traveled on a Sunday it seemed. I had no shred of confidence in my ability to pronounce French without mangling every syllable, but at least I could read signs in Latinate alphabets. And this was Alsace-Lorraine, I was sunnily confident of being able to make myself clear in German, if required. The VEV’s tank was still better than half full, and it was only midday. Here we were climbing a long steady slope, a wooded table-land, and a break in the trees, where a great stone finger pointed accusingly at an overcast sky. A signpost with several arrows pointed the various ways farther on – Ossuaire …Ft. Douaumont … Fleury. A parking lot with a scattering of cars, the same oppressive sense of silence I had felt in places like Pompeii, and Dachau, as if even the birds and insects were muffled.
“What’s this place?” My daughter emerged from the back seat, yawning.
“There was a horrendous battle here, sixty years ago. The Germans tried to take it, but the French held on.”
“Indomitable Gauls,” My daughter said wisely, and I pointed up at the Ossuary,
“That place is full of their bones. We’ll go see the museum, first.”
This was the place of which the stalwart Joffre had commanded, “They shall not pass,” the place in which it could be claimed— over any other World War I battlefield— that France bled out as a significant military power. For ten months in 1916 Germany and France battered each other into immobility, pouring men and materiel into the Verdun Salient with prodigal hands, churning every inch of soil with shellfire and poison gas, splintering the woods and little towns, gutting a whole generation of the men who would have been its solid middle-class, the politicians and patriots, leaders who might have forestalled the next war, or stood fast in 1940. It was the historian Barbara Tuchman who noted that the entire 1914 graduating class of St. Cyr, the French approximation of West Point had been killed within the first month of war. For this was a wasteful war, as if the great generals all stood around saying “Well, that didn’t work very well, did it?— so let’s do it again, and again and again, until it does indeed work.” And afterwards, no one could very well say what it had all been for, and certainly not that it had been worth it, only that the place was a mass grave for a million men.
There was the usual little sign at the admittance desk to the museum— so many francs, but students and small children were admitted free, and so were war veterans and members of the military. I got out my military ID, and politely showed it to the concierge, a gentleman who looked nearly old enough to have been a veteran of Verdun saying
He looked at me, at the card, at my tits, and at my daughter, and then at the card again, and laughed, jovially waving me on to the exhibits; models and bits of battered gear, mostly, and a bit in the cellar made up to look like a corner of the battlefield, hell in a very small place, all the ground stirred up again and again. Supposedly, they had despaired of ever planting a straight row of trees; there was so much stuff in the ground.
When we came out again, the clouds were lifting a bit … down and across the river there was a golden haze over the town.
“Are we going to buy jam now?” my daughter asked.
“When we get to Bar le Duc. I think we’ll get something to eat, and stay the night there,” I said, and in that golden afternoon, I followed the two-lane road, the Voie Sacree, the only road into Verdun from the railhead at Bar le Duc, where traffic never stopped during the battle, two hundred trucks an hour, and 8,000 men shoveling gravel under their wheels day and night. The only visible mark left along the road were square white-washed mile markers, topped with a metal replica of a poilu’s helmet, like grave markers for a France gone sixty years ago.
I bought six jars of the confiture, six tiny jars of preserve as bright as blood, filled with tiny globes of clear red fruit. It was exquisite; saved for special occasions; I made them last for nearly a decade.