Among the rows and rows of graves and amidst the linden trees of the Meuse-Argonne American Military Cemetery the cool breezes of eastern France gently suggest the lines from Horace that ‘It is sweet and right to die for one’s country,’ Dulce et decorum pro patrie mori. The cemetery, in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon, is the largest American military cemetery in Europe, the last post for more than 14,000 of our ancestors who died in the last two months of World War I. It is serene and quiet, respectfully folded into rolling hills. The nearest cities, Sedan and Verdun, are not on the way to or from anywhere in particular unless, perhaps, one is leading a German army into France.
I was surprised when, while researching an article on the army transporting the Gold Star Mothers and Widows of World War I to France in 1932, to visit their sons’ and husbands’ graves, I discovered a photograph of my grandmother, Paralee Witt, at her son’s grave in France. Thomas Graves was killed in 1918, one month before the end of the war, on the far western end of the Meuse-Argonne front, near St. Étienne á Arnes. He was never mentioned in my family.
When I told my friend Keith Kisner of my discovery, he revealed that his uncle had died in France as well, in an attack on his B-17 in February, 1944. Our uncles died within twenty-five miles of each other, albeit in separate wars. We resolved to find where they died and to pay our respects. In late May, 2015, we flew to Paris, rented a car, and set out for Sedan.
By all accounts, Zeb Kisner was an East Texas small town boy who persuaded his parents to let him enlist before he was eighteen. Sergeant Kisner died when the decision was made to send almost 900 bombers to Germany in a daytime raid, escorted by only 139 fighters that could reach Germany and return. Lost in the statistics of success was that thirty-one bombers were shot down that day, with almost three hundred crew killed or captured. Sergeant Kisner was the ball-turret gunner; his position was blown away from the plane and he died hurtling to the earth without a parachute.
We located the head of the local veterans’ association near Sedan who, in turn, found the son of a woman who had lived on Ferme Montgarni in February, 1944. These gentlemen unhesitatingly stopped what they were doing and took us to the farm. They walked us deep into the woods where even today one can see that something had happened.
There, they pointed out, is where Keith’s uncle died. It was humbling to stand with him as he placed American and Texas flags on the lonely forest floor. Our French friends could not have been kinder to us or more grateful for Sergeant Kisner’s sacrifice.
Thomas Graves was a railroad clerk before being called to the infantry as a doughboy. His first action was the battle in which he died in a tangle of barbed wire during a foot attack across almost open farmland to take the village of Saint Étienne-á-Arnes. His unit, the 36th Infantry Division, had been detached from the First American Army and reattached to the infamous Fourth French army; the Fourth had suffered a mutiny at Chemin des Dames Ridge because its leaders repeatedly sent the unit into attacks over open fields against entrenched Germans in appalling conditions. To get to their jump-off line Private Graves and his unit had to march past the post in Somme-Py where four mutineers had been shot at dawn. He and 371 others died in the attack on October 8-9. More than 1200 were wounded. The road from which they attacked is now gone, the ridge now leveled, and nothing left of the hellish shell craters and mutilated earth but peaceful fields of barley and rapeseed. There is now however, an American and Texas flag to mark the place where he died.
In the dystopic arithmetic of total war their deaths were probably inevitable and, perhaps, even necessary. But were they right and sweet? World War I poet Wilfred Owen, who fought in the horrific trench slaughters of the war, wrote:
‘My friend, you would not tell with such high zest,
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum estPro patria mori.
From Dulce et Decorum Est, Wilfed Owen, 1917.
Sergeant Kisner was buried in a local cemetery, unmentioned in the news. The following day’s headlines were about the largest boxing match in the war, at an army base in Africa. After the war his body was brought home to Texas.
Thomas Graves and the men who died with him were buried in the cemetery of Saint Étienne, along with the German soldiers who died in the attack. No news accounts of their battle were reported because on that same day the ‘Lost Battalion’ was found in the Argonne Forest and Alvin York heroically captured a German machine gun nest. After the war Thomas Graves’ body was removed to the newly built American Meuse-Argonne cemetery thirty miles away, where it remains.
No obituaries have been found for Zeb Kisner or for Thomas Graves. If we don’t remember them, who will?
Not only is the Meuse-Argonne cemetery the most serene, it also is one of the loneliest and the most difficult American military cemetery to get to. The nearest major highway is an hour away. When Keith and I visited in June, 2015, the guest registry in the cemetery chapel revealed no American visitors, apart from military officer celebrants on Memorial Day, in more than a year. Before the words ‘Meuse’ and ‘Argonne’ were forgotten, however, they were known to every American home and family because together they referred to the largest, and deadliest, battle in American history. In less than two months, between September and November, 1918, more than one million American soldiers fought, almost thirty thousand died, and almost one hundred thousand were wounded in the push to end the war to end all wars. It was so vast that every single person in the United States knew someone who fought in that campaign. It has been forgotten, difficult to find even in histories of World War I.
We pay very little to be Americans. None of us is compelled to serve, and few do. We’re not obligated even to vote, and few do that as well. Pledging support for the troops is easy when no full-scale war galvanizes the nation. We’re sincere with our parades on Memorial Day and July 4 and Veterans Day, but as our memories fade not only of World War II and Korea but also of Vietnam, of Bosnia and Afghanistan and even Iraq, we know fewer and fewer who risked all and fewer still who gave all. Remembrance is a fading duty.
Today, the Meuse-Argonne battle is forgotten.
The B-17 raids on Augsburg are forgotten.
And deaths pro patrie cannot be right, or sweet, if they, too are forgotten.
Jack Woodville London is the author of two World War II novels, Virginia’s War (finalist, Best Novel of the South) and Engaged in War, (Silver Medalist, London Festival of Books), and of the non-fiction A Novel Approach, (E-Lit Gold Medalist for 2015). He was educated at the University of Texas, The Fiction Academy of St. Céré, France, and Rewley House, Oxford University, and was the 2011-2012 Military Writers Society of American Author of the Year.