The ritual of commemorating America's contribution to WWI in France and at Suresnes in particular took hold immediately after the war. Consider President Wilson and wife, Edith laying a wreath at Suresnes on Memorial Day in 1919.
Wilson reflected on the visit a year later:
Visitors in the years after the war included both grateful French citizens, as Wilson notes, and soldiers that served alongside those that lost their lives.
These visits also included the family left behind. A little over a decade after the armistice the Gold Star Mothers began their own pilgrimages to the graves of their lost children.
The tradition of commemorating these individuals at Suresnes continued today, 28 May 2017, marked by the French and American flags on each service member's grave and a bilingual ceremony celebrating the Franco-American connection across time.
Peyton, an ASP student, attended the ceremony with her family. Reflecting on why she attended, Peyton alluded to her family's departure from France at the school year's end, which rendered this visit more poignant for her.
After the ceremony Peyton took a bouquet of flowers to the grave of Washington State's Lawrence Allen, the soldier she has researched since April.
Earlier that day, Peyton shared her findings with her family, showing them the app pin of Laurence Allen that she and her teammates researched and wrote. With our app now live and free to download, all Suresnes visitors can learn about soldiers like Allen, whose stories have been researched and relayed by students like Peyton.
Peyton's reflection demonstrates that knowing just a bit more about these individuals' lives greatly impacts our attempts to reflect on the time period, the war, and the lessons they might hold for us today. I felt it in visiting Laurence Allen's grave with Peyton and her family. I felt it while visiting Homer Ward's grave too, the soldier that I have researched during this project. Since first visiting Ward's grave in April I have found out much about his unit, his family, and life in the town where he grew up. I've also had the pleasure of finding and connecting with his nephew, the son of Homer's brother, Arthur, who traveled to Europe on the same ship as Homer.
Laying a bouquet on Homer's grave today consequently felt differently than it might have last year, when I knew nothing about those in Suresnes. Visiting today I thought of what I'd found about Ward: letters he wrote home to his mother, his expressed desire therein to see Arthur once more, and the local Honor Roll's expression of disbelief that, "a young man who had left home in the pink of health, could be so suddenly stricken with death."
I thought of Arthur and how he went to war with Homer on the same ship, then returned across the Atlantic alone. I thought of Arthur's son, John Homer Ward, who I spoke to by phone recently with my students present, awed by the direct connection with this faraway time. Standing at Homer's grave I thought of how John explained in my call with him that he also stood at that spot in the 1950s, a service member himself on a layover in Paris. He took the train out to Suresnes to pay respects, pausing for a photo of Uncle Homer's monument to bring home to his father, who had survived the war and a battle with the very flu that took Homer.
Nobody that visits Suresnes will struggle to appreciate the power of the place as a whole but to begin to see individual stories like this in fuller relief adds another dimension, one that briefly satisfies our desire to know more about these abbreviated lives before quickly demanding further investment and attention to the stories remaining untold, as Peyton well recognized. To stand at Homer or Laurence's grave after our research and feel closer to them is at the same time to feel a pressing distance between yourself and the rest of the individuals laid to rest all around you. Their stories need telling too.
31 May 2017
Part II of this Memorial Day blog will be posted tomorrow.