(In honor of this year’s Veteran’s Day, 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.
- Boy of 12 was Britain’s youngest Great War soldier (telegraph.co.uk)
- Veteran’s Day is a prayer for peace (salon.com)
- Some thoughts on Remembrance Day and the Symbol of Sacrifice. (roberthorvat30.wordpress.com)