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Friday, Apr. 29, 2016

Gray Matter: Armistice Day

Monday, November 12, 2007

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As November eleventh approaches, I realize how little thought we give to World War I, the conflict that ended on that day in 1918. Recently I was privileged to read recollections written by the late Peter Grauer, of Marcus, then a US soldier serving near Belfort, France. Here is a part of his story.

Belfort lies in a mountain pass near the eastern border of France, on a route linking the Rhine and Rhone rivers. Strategically located, it has been struggled over for centuries. There, the French resistance assured the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The Lion of Belfort, a huge pink sandstone sculpture by Frederic Bartholdi standing at the edge of the city, is a constant reminder of that event. Bartholdi was the sculptor of our own Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French.

Grauer writes of their march across this area, only recently liberated from the enemy, to join in their pursuit. The captain, with a soldier to translate, went ahead making arrangements with the farmers so the men could sleep in their barns. On only one night were they forced "to sleep on the rocky ground with the sky as a roof."

In his words, "The night before the Armistice, some buddies and I walked the mile or so into Belfort, which was totally dark….Finding a building one of the boys knew of, which looked like a small garage, we opened an outside door and then a kitchen door was opened, from which we could see a dim light which didn't reach out into the street. We stayed there about an hour having lunch and coffee. Then, back out the way we'd come, carefully closing the doors behind us, with the stars our only guide, we returned to our beds in the barn…..

"In the morning we had breakfast as usual and were to eat dinner before starting marching. Then it happened -- I could hear music coming through the trees. It was 11 o'clock. The music was coming from a café on the outskirts of Belfort." (All such entertainment had been ordered to stop at the beginning of the war in 1914.)

"I heard some of the first music again that joyful hour. As we were eating our dinner, the sun came out. We shouldered our packs and were ready to march into the city just as the chaplain came along on a motorcycle. He called out, 'Boys, the packs don't seem so heavy now do they?'"

Marching toward Belfort they could see cars, trucks, even horse-drawn buggies. People were honking horns and waving coats and flags. Mounds of dirt, 50 to 75 feet high, protected the City Gates. Inside, they marched along a stone wall, again nearly 75 feet high, and wide enough for armed soldiers to patrol on its top. These fortifications explained the daunting strength of the city.

At about 1:00 PM company band members got out their instruments and began to play, leading a parade which turned into thousands of jubilant people. Balconies, doorways and windows were packed with spectators hurling papers and confetti and waving flags. …"As we marched, the streets were so crowded we rubbed elbows with the happy French people."

His company reached the depot as the sun, sinking in the west, was brilliantly illuminating the lion elevated high against the southeast city wall. "It looked so majestic that it made a great impression on us all. At the depot we were loaded into French railroad cars called '40&8's'--they could hold 40 fully-equipped soldiers or 8 army horses. The train took us to Gondrecourt where General Pershing had first landed in 1917."

One can only imagine the sense of triumph and relief felt by those young Americans and their French allies. As the wonderful news was telegraphed to our shores, the elation spread across the nation. In these present dark days it is good to pause and look back on a day like November 11, 1918, a reminder that wars do come to an end. We can only hope and pray for a repetition of such a time!