I confess that I am fascinated with the veterans of World War I. It is a sad fact that there are none still living to tell their stories.
My grandfather James Madison Pearson was one. He arrived on the battlefields as a first lieutenant, in time to experience many of the battles, become wounded, then met and married a young French girl, Marguerite Chevallier Meine, who was my grandmother.
It is an irony that I, like so many, owe my existence to the tragedy of war.
Like my grandfather and father, I served in the Army. As a young Army captain in Germany, I took my wife to visit Verdun. I was in uniform, a rule the French imposed on visiting American soldiers. Driving into the hallowed grounds at Verdun I was greeted by a French soldier in uniform. He was old the, approximately the age of my grandfather who had died a few years earlier. He stood tall and erect despite his age. He sharply saluted me as I entered the grounds with my wife and I drove on.
I again confess, I was taken aback by the honor of his salute. It was he who deserved my salute.
In 2007, Harry Patch, at the age of 109, the last survivor of the trenches of WWI, gave an interview to the Daily Telegraph. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/features/3633344/Ive-never-got-over-it.html). In this interview and in other interviews, he told of his experiences.
Much of it bears repeating, all of it bears reading.
We were the PBI. That’s what we called ourselves. The poor bloody infantry. We didn’t know whether we’d be dead or alive the next day, the next hour or the next minute.
We weren’t heroes. We didn’t want to be there. We were scared. We all were, all the time. And any man who tells you he wasn’t is a damn liar.
And in all that time, although I never said it, I still felt a deep anger and resentment towards our old enemy, the Germans.
Three years ago, at the age of 106, I went back to Flanders for a memorial service. I met a German veteran, Charles Kuentz. It was 87 years since we had fought. For all I know, he might have killed my own comrades. But we shook hands. And we had so much more in common than I could ever have thought.
He couldn’t speak English and I couldn’t speak German. We had a translator but in a way we didn’t need him. After we had talked, we both sat in silence, looking at the landscape. Both of us remembering the stench, the noise, the gas, the mud crusted with blood, the cries of fallen comrades.
Once, to have shaken the hand of the enemy would have been treason, but Charles and I agreed on so much about that awful war. A nice old chap, he was. Why he should have been my enemy, I don’t know.
It is a sad, solemn, and sobering fact, that the bodies of many dead soldiers were never recovered. And so, they never received a proper burial. Many of the bodies and body parts recovered were unrecognizable.
One night late September 1917, Harry Patch’s battalion, part of the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry Brigade, was pulled out of the line and moving to the rear over open ground when a German shell exploded. Harry was wounded in the groin by a shell splinter.
One other member of the five-strong team survived. Three were blown to bits.
“It killed Number Three – he came from Truro – and Number Four and Number Five. Jack and Jill we called those two. They came from Falmouth. Number Three was known as Maudy. There was an actress of that name. He had a good sense of humour.”
Tyne Cot is the largest cemetery in Belgium, the final resting place of those who fought and the names of those who bodies were never recovered. It is located 9 kilometers, about 6 miles, north east of Ypres.
There are 11,956 soldiers buried here, of which 8,369 are unnamed. The stone wall surrounding the cemetery markers makes-up the Tyne Cot Memorial to the Missing, with more than 33,000 names.