Remembering…

(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day on Monday, I’m reposting this in memory of all those who fought and lost their lives in the Great War.  It was also called World War I, and it was fought with the hope that it would end all future wars.  Sadly, that was a dream never realized.)

I first met him as a name carved into a marble memorial.

That we were connected as family was lost to me at the time. I was only 24 and my vision was limited by my youth.  It was only years later when I visited his town again, and I stood once more in front of that monument that I began to wonder about the man beyond the name.

Gratien Ocafrain.

A name so foreign, yet so familiar.  He links me to this day we celebrate every year – Armistice Day it used to be called.  Veteran’s Day we now call it in the U.S., and it’s known as Remembrance Day in Britain and the Commonwealth countries. The date is always the same – November 11th – a date that symbolizes hope and peace.

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918– after 15 million soldiers lost their lives, and 20 million souls were forever wounded.  It was the war to end all wars and so it was called the “Great War.”  But we know the truth now – that it didn’t stop others from happening. We now call it World War I and it’s taken its place just as one more war in a list of too many others. We remember it only for its ending and for the holiday that comes with it.  Few of us know much about the Great War. What little I know, I’ve learned from Gratien.

Most towns in France have Great War memorials inscribed with the names of the sons of that town who didn’t come back – “Mort pour La France.” Gratien’s name is one of fifteen engraved on a marble obelisk watched over by a brass mother of France sheltering her young child.   The first time I saw it – years ago – I took photos and moved on.  But two years ago when I returned to his village, Gratien’s name held me there in front of that memorial longer than I expected.

I wanted to know more about him – about this uncle I never met. I searched the Internet, and found one single piece of paper, and nothing more.  Gratien was a common man with no accomplishments, no titles, no loving wife or children to leave behind.  But he attained greatness as a “Mort pour La France.” A single piece of paper remains forever as a testament that he lived, and that he fought for his country.

And because of it his name is carved in marble.

Gratien was 20 when he was inducted into the French Army in 1907 at Bayonne, France – a city perched near the Atlantic Ocean, 45 minutes west and down slope from the Pyrenees mountains. It was the first time Gratien had ever been in a city, that day his train pulled into the Bayonne station.  He was a mountain boy.  His village, St. Etienne de Baigorry, with only a few hundred people in it, sat at the beginning of a valley called Baigorry, with its two roads leading out of town climbing higher and higher through the Pyrenees, and on to Spain a few kilometers away.

Gratien was in the Infantry – the 49th Regiment.  He was already in the Army for seven years when France declared war against Germany in August, 1914.  The infantry soldiers were confident of a win, and they were called, in slang,  “poilus” for their swagger.

But they soon lost that cockiness.

Dressed in red trousers, and blue jacket – the colorful uniform of Napoleon’s army, they were a perfect target for the Germans’ machine guns and artillery. The French casualties were devastating in those early battles. The uniforms were changed in the winter of 1914 – the soldiers now dressed in sky-blue and steel helmets – the first soldiers ever to wear metal helmets.

I can only imagine Gratien, how he looked, and the way he stood. He might have had a moustache like the soldiers in this photo, like so many others I’ve seen.  I have no photographs, or letters to show me the man. I know he was 27 when the war began and I know where it ended for him.  But the rest of his story I have to fill in, with history books, and faded maps.

From September to November in 1914, the fighting was fierce. And Gratien was probably in the middle of it all. He wasn’t new to the Army – he had seven years of training, and he knew how to be a soldier.  He was an infantryman – “cannon fodder” is what my father used to call it when talking of his own days in the infantry.  The list of battlefields for those early months of the war is long: Lorraine. Ardenne. Charleroi. I look at names of towns I can’t pronounce and wonder in which ones Gratien might have fought. In early December of 1914, I notice that the battles seem to slow down, and pause. And in their place, there is something different, something new – trench warfare – at a place called “The Western Front.”

Long wooden trenches dug into the earth stretch almost 450 miles from the North Sea coast of Belgium all the way to the Swiss border.   What part of those 450 miles of trenches did Gratien hunker down in?  Amidst the sewage, and the rats, the stench of unwashed soldiers and death, where was Gratien?

Or was he part of the First Battle of Champagne – the first significant Allied attack against the Germans since the trenches were built? It started December 20th and went all the way into the new year, until March,1915.  There were 90,000 French casualties, and Gratien might have been one of them.  His “Mort pour La France” paperwork lists a date – January 27, 1915.

The handwriting is too small for me to read how Gratien died, or what wounds or sickness might have stopped his life. Only two-thirds of military deaths were from battle; the other came from sicknesses like the Spanish flu.

I can’t even be sure that 1915 is the year of Gratien’s death. The memorial in his town says it is, but the military officer who filled out the form seems unsure. The “5” has been written over and looks almost like a “6.”

Thousands upon thousands of soldiers who died in “no man’s land” – between the barbed wire fences of the opposing trenches – remained there, unable to be moved in this static yet deadly warfare. The remains of hundreds of thousands of French, German, British and Commonwealth soldiers still lie undiscovered in the soil of the Western front. Dozens of bodies are found each year during ploughing and construction work.

Perhaps this is what happened to Gratien.

The signature at the bottom of his “Partie A Remplar Par Le Corps” – is signed by an official in Gratien’s hometown of Baigorry, and the date is marked February, 1916 – one year later than the one listed on the memorial as Gratien’s “Mort pour La France.” If Gratien was ever found, or lost forever in the sacred soil of a battlefield, is a question that may never be answered.  But the date, February 21, 1916, is significant: It was the day the Battle of Verdun began – the longest and one of the most devastating battles in the Great War and in the history of warfare. There were over 976,000 casualties.

I’m glad that Gratien didn’t live to fight through it.

And although I can’t be certain the year in which he died, I do know where he died – at Oulches, France.  The name Aisne has been written off to the side – whether the district or the River, I’m not sure.  But photos from the area tell me that fighting must have been intense.

Gratien’s story seems to stop here.

But in a way, it doesn’t: It just pauses.

It would be another year – 1917 – when the U.S. would enter the war to fight with France, and the rest of the Allies, against Germany.  Among those American doughboys was a 26-year-old blacksmith, Erasmo John (E.J.) Craviotto, a private in the 115th Engineers, E Company, 2nd Army.

E.J. Craviotto, last man on the right.

E.J. never knew Gratien Ocafrain, but unlike him, he would survive this Great War to go home when it was all over and to eventually meet and marry Gratien’s sister, an immigrant who had fled France with her three sisters, just a few months before war broke out. E.J.’s Great War story is one that I never knew either, until my research about Gratien led me to it.

Tucked away among some old papers, I found E.J.’s little address book from the Great War.  Never a man of many words, he simply listed all of the dates he was gone from his family.  Like Gratien, he had never been away from his hometown before.

E.J.’s small handwriting shows the path he took, from the moment he was signed in at the Presidio in San Francisco, then, crossing the country in a railroad car filled with troops, across land as foreign to him as the European landscape would soon be.  He traveled all the way to Camp Mills on Long Island and then on to embarkation at Hoboken, New Jersey where thousands of troops on his ship suffered through sweltering heat, and E.J. would note, “It was so hot there that some of the boys went down like chickens.” They were twelve long days on the ship, through the submarine zone where life jackets were worn 24 hours a day, until finally twelve English torpedo boats came out to greet them, and lead the way into Liverpool.  It would be four days later – days filled with much marching, and long rides on troop trains – when finally, E.J. would first set foot on France, at Cherbourg.  The date was August 23rd 1918 – It would be 79 long, difficult days until the fighting would stop.

E.J. would chart his advancement by the name of the location and how close they were to the Front, “Traveled two and a half days in a boxcar – Reach woods in Alsace Lorraine about eight miles from the front.” “October 20th, working on road under shell fire about two miles from the front.”  He didn’t write any more dates after that one.  But on a page below that entry something has been scratched out, a furtive erasure almost clear through the page.  I can make out the words…”…under shell fire..credit on frontline trenches.”

I don’t know what “credit” means or if maybe it’s something else; I can’t make out the words that come before it or what he meant to write, but whatever it was, he didn’t want anyone to ever read it.

I don’t know what E.J. saw, or what he was called upon to do between October 20th and the next entry in his diary.  There were another eleven days until the end of October and eleven more after that until the armistice.  The next date E.J. wrote was November 11, 1918.

“At 11o’clock sharp quit firing.”

Whether that was the command or whether that’s what he witnessed isn’t clear.  Not all the boys were told to stop shooting – an oversight by General Pershing who thought the armistice was a German trick, and who allowed the fighting to continue a few more hours, at the loss of another 4,000 American lives.  This was the Great War, after all, and it had to be fought to the finish.

When the guns went silent that November morning, E.J. was in the Forest du Puvenelle, 628 kilometers from where Gratien’s life had ended, and only 25 kilometers from where E.J.’s own son’s life, one day in the future, would miraculously be spared by fate: by a piece of shrapnel entering his face just a matter of inches away from his temple.  And that’s what saved E.J.’s son – my father – from an ending like Gratien’s.  26 years after his father had written, “At 11’oclock sharp quit firing,” my father first stepped on French soil – the country of his mother’s birth and the birth of his Uncle Gratien who had fought so valiantly for its protection, and lost his life doing it. The Big War did not accomplish what it had set out to do, what it had promised to be – the war to end all wars.  And my father’s generation would learn that the hard way.

I never much thought about World War I when I was younger.  It was too long ago, and my grandfather’s silence I mistook as him not having much to say.

I was wrong.

Only Gratien – without personal artifacts, with no photos, or a loving wife and children to remember him, caught my attention.  Seeing his name engraved in gold with “Mort pour La France” above it, and discovering his birthdate, his date of death, and the location where he fell made me pause and want to know more: to find the dots and to connect them.  For some reason, these few little facts spoke to me, and the Great War, for the first time in my life, became something real and understandable.

Gratien’s silence somehow reached me.

(New to Darlene Craviotto’s blog?  Here’s where it all started: Can You All Hear Me In The Back?)

40 thoughts on “Remembering…

  1. It is unfortunate that mankind must go to war, sometimes for selfish reasons and other times to defend family and country. As much as I detest war, it is reality.

    Thank you for posting such a great story that connects those who fought and suffered in wars with the living.
    Reynold

  2. What a moving post. How horrible it must have been to live through those times. The story of your relatives is fascinating, and there are just as many stories out there still untold, stories of sadness and horror and bravery.

    We still unfortunately live in a world of war, but it is much different. It also seems that we have learned little from those who have gone before us.

    • Yes, all true what you’re written. In researching this piece I found amazing stories that I had never known about before. The style of warfare was so different than it is now – trench warfare allowed the men on both sides moments when they could communicate with one another as momentary truces happened – for Christmas, as an example. The personal stories of the soldiers involved makes the war more real than just reading a cold list of casualty numbers.

    • Thank you so much for linking “Remembering…” to your blog. In many ways, until “War Horse” was produced, WWI had become a forgotten war. I think all wars should be remembered so we can learn from them and never repeat the mistakes that led to such massive violence.

  3. Well written, Darlene. My grandfather, too, lost his life in WW1 fighting in the Canadian army. We don’t know how, where or when he died – only that at some point around 1915 my grandmother received notification (which she didn’t keep) that he was either dead or missing. To this day, we don’t know what happened to him. Such a terrible war (though what war isn’t?) with so many men lost. Thanks for writing such a nice memorial to those soldiers who gave their lives for democracy.

    • I’m so sorry you lost your grandfather in the war, Lynne. My family was so lucky to have both my grandfather and father return from combat. It just struck me writing this piece that within a twenty-six year period of time BOTH my grandfather and father had fought in the same country, and in the same area. After the devastation of the Great War, and the loss of so many people, you would have thought that nations would have become wiser, and avoided this kind of violent conflict. But no, the cycle just continued.

  4. Darlene! Because so much has been going on this past week or so with the marathon, with some elite who shacked up with us for the weekend, blahblahblah, I haven’t read either of these posts, but I will tomorrow and will comment! Hope you’re well.

    p.s. I am injured and had to let go of the race this year. It was a little bit of a shock….

  5. Your most moving story, Darlene, has given me some insight into something I read recently. I came across the following sobering quote as I was browsing in a bookshop last week. “The greatest gift God has made to us is death.” The full shock came, however, in who said it. Incredibly, it was Winston Churchill. How, I wondered, could this passionate champion of civilisation and leader of the world’s resistance to the greatest tyranny we have known have said that. Did he say it in a fit of depression? I don’t think so. I guess he must have been contemplating the big contradiction in civilisation: that from generation to generation over thousands of years it has been providing society with more and more deadly means of self-destruction which society has been using for that purpose. We can only wonder what great carnage is brewing now. I don’t mean to depress you, but you really have pointed up a reality.

    • As always, your writing is always so rich and makes me pause to think and reflect. Thank you for coming by and reading my post, and for leaving such an evocative comment. I would love to know more about that Churchill quote – as to when and where he said it. It is quite provocative.

      • Hi Darlene,

        I went back to the shop to look at the book of quotes I’d been browsing through but couldn’t find it. I then tried to find that Churchill quote on the internet, but could only find his better known, more rumbustious one about his being ready to meet his Maker, but whether his Maker was prepared for the great ordeal of meeting him was another matter. I could be misinterpreting what he meant in his speaking of death being God’s greatest gift. I don’t know the context in which he said it. I merely note that if we think of life being a divine gift, then the end of life must also be in that gift and, perhaps, the best part of the gift. I note, also, that self-destruction seems to be inherent in human society, expressing itself in devastating wars that kill millions. Moreover, there doesn’t seem much the individual can do in face of generation after generation of mass murder save to hold up his hands like the little boy surrendering to Nazi soldiers in Warsaw in that famous 1943 news photo.

        I shall continue to look for that Churchill quote and its context. Please keep writing your thought-provoking posts.

        Yasseen

      • Hi again,
        I have found the book: a small collection of Churchill quotes which comprise advice on various topics, including “The Art of War.” His exact words, according to the book, are: “Death is the greatest gift that God has made to us.” It appears, somewhat ironically, in a section of the book devoted to advice on how to live. The only clue as to its context is that it was a remark he made in 1943, a year in which he had meetings with FDR, Stalin and Chiang Kai-Shek and planning for D-Day started. That year, the Axis forces surrendered in North Africa and the Allies invaded Sicily and Southern Italy. Mussolini resigned and, by October that year, Italy declared war on Germany. In view of this, it seems unlikely that Churchill was in a despondent mood when he made the remark.
        All the best,
        Yasseen

      • That’s fascinating research! The point in time when Churchill said that quote makes those words so prophetic. One might think he was preparing us for what he knew lay ahead.

      • Your story of Gratien and how his sister became your grandmother is unforgettable. I am not sure why. It has something to do with a problem I faced early in life. It is also connected to having, at one time, had to edit yards and yards of wartime video for TV newscasts. The war had taken its toll of many small boys who had been sent to the front. I hope they somehow live on through their sisters, as I feel Gratien did in some way through his sister and does to this day through you. Perhaps Churchill meant there were grander prospects beyond the self-destructive sphere in which we live. I can only fervently hope reincarnation is not involved. If it is, I shouldn’t want to return as anything more exalted than a wood ant.

      • I never know why I write something, only that I must write it. Thank you for pointing out the reasoning behind the telling of Gratien’s story. With that in mind, Churchill’s words take on (for me at least) a much deeper, and better meaning. And although your wood ant comment made me laugh, that would be a waste of your exceptional writing talents.

      • Great! I am glad you find you must write. You often touch on things that are important to me and do so brilliantly. So, if you must write, I’m always sure to find something I really want to read.

        In my country when we condole with somebody over a bereavement, we always say, “May the rest of his/her life be fulfilled in yours.” My thinking on death has clearly been influenced by that. But Churchill’s words continue to resonate for me beyond that and I still try to penetrate his meaning.

        It is kind of you to talk of my writing talents. I see my own obsession with writing, however, as a curse. For little voices pipe up with, “Yasseen, discretion is the better part of valour” and “Happy is the man who is unknown to the sultan.” So much of what I write ends up in the waste paper basket.

      • We all have that critical editor within us. But I have learned to ban him from the room while I am working. Please don’t throw your wonderful words into the trash. I think you are very gifted and what a waste to toss away that talent. Not everyone is talented with stringing words together, but you are. You must always use the gifts the fates have been kind enough to give you.

      • Darlene, I love the positive reinforcement you give to other budding writers. I wish one of them were me, LOL!

      • I’ve always wanted to but just never could decide what I wanted to write about!! that’s me – indecisive as always!!

      • Thank you for your tremendous encouragement. I agree with you in principle about self-censorship and something is sure to happen sooner or later that makes me abandon caution. A friend once wrote a poem I love called “Address to a Head of State” in which a fawning civil servant says, “History, which is on our side, can always be rewritten.” It is the would-be re-writers of history that would set me off. I pray they don’t because they are likely to do dreadful damage. Meanwhile I am trying my hand at a fiction story set a great distance away from my home and using the Na No Wri Mo suggestion of 2,000 words a day. It isn’t easy as I keep getting called away to do other things, but it is worthwhile having such a target in mind.

  6. The greatest challenge for every writer is juggling the demands (and joys) of real life with the needs of our imagination. I wish you much luck in wrestling with the muse. I would love to read it once it’s written.

  7. Many thanks for your good wishes, Darlene. If my story ever surfaces you’ll get the first copy. (I do the family cooking and that takes time away from writing.) Your positive outlook has cheered me up no end. Thank you for that also.

  8. Thank you for the link to this!! It is hauntingly beautiful. I think WWI is undervalued. So many young men fought and died and its bet sad so many only think of it as a day off from work. Trench warfare would have been horrific. I cannot imagine what those boys would have gone through. He lives on through you and your tribute to him! So many mysteries–a fascinating story!

  9. Hello,

    The “mort pour la France” paperwork reads: “tué à l’ennemi” (Literal translation: “killed by the enemy”). Gratien did not die from illness but was killed in action.

    I took a quick look into the 49th infantry regiment’s journal ( in French “Journaux des marches et opérations des corps de troupe” or “JMO” for short), which states, day by day, all the operations and activities the regiment took part in for the entire war as well as the list of casualties.

    Below, my attempt to translate the January 27th 1915 entry:


    January the 27th 1915
    Lt Colonel Birot commending the 49th takes command of sector n°2 at 3am.
    From 9h30am to 10h30am, forty-three 77mm shells coming from the east of wood B1 were fired on trenches a3 and b3. At the same time the 4th platoon was bombarded. At 11am the newly dug trenches on the northwest of Oulches were bombarded. The bombardment stopped around 12h30 but resumed at 1h45 pm.
    A machinegun platoon was heavily shelled and a machine gun was destroyed.
    From 3pm to 5pm the whole frontline of sector n°2 was bombarded by the enemy artillery in particular trenches a3, b3 and d3 which are linked to the 2nd foreign regiment trenches.
    During the night, and especially during the 8pm attack that forced the 34th infantry regiment to abandon trenches e4, d4, c4 and b4, the platoon located at the center was caught under heavy artillery and minenwerfer fire.
    At 8h30pm, Major Mesqui (1st battalion), who was sent with his battalion to organise and occupy the defensive line between the “three trees” and the “Oulches path”, reported that the enemy had entered our trenches and that due to the reinforcement sent toward the “three trees” and sector n°4 held by the 34th company, a large gap existed between platoons n°3 and 4.
    In order to prevent German reinforcement, at 8h50pm the artillery started firing toward the German fortifications located on the east of section 3 and 4 as well as on the south of wood B1.
    Around 9h45 pm the artillery started to bombard the (German) trenches located on the northwest of the ”three trees”. Order was given to major de la Guillonière from the 34th infantry regiment to counter attack with his remaining troops and the support of the 3rd platoon of the 49th infantry regiment (under the command of Bouron). Around 10h15pm major de la Guillonière informed us that the counter attack had not been launch given that the line had held and was entirely in our hand.
    10h30 pm French artillery ceased fire. “

    It goes on stating that even if the organisation and consolidation of the defensive line around the “three trees” after the attack was hampered by constant German fire, the third platoon managed to dig a new trench near the “three trees” and that a new barbwire network was installed during the night.

    The entry ends with the 49th infantry regiment casualty list for the day. You great uncle is the 6th name on the list.

    Here is the link to the JMO (in French): http://www.memoiredeshommes.sga.defense.gouv.fr/fr/arkotheque/visionneuse/visionneuse.php?arko=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#uielem_move=243.765625%2C73&uielem_islocked=0&uielem_zoom=66&uielem_brightness=0&uielem_contrast=0&uielem_isinverted=0&uielem_rotate=F

    The January 27th 1915 entry is on p.9 and 10.

    Best,

    Martin

      • I am awestruck by your generous research on my post. I can’t thank you enough nor can I accurately express how touched I felt by your response. I am grateful beyond words.

Let's keep the conversation going...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s