American Cemeteries in Belgium and France
During our World War I tour of Belgium and France, my husband and I visited two American cemeteries: that near the Somme and the Aisne-Marne, both in France. All American soldiers who died during the war were initially buried near where they died. After the war, families were given the option to leave them in cemeteries which would be maintained by the U.S. government or have the bodies repatriated to the U.S. According to the superintendent of the U.S. cemetery at Aisne-Marne, about 60% of the bodies were repatriated, most in 1921. The others remain. Having seen the condition of many of our local cemeteries and the graves of World War I veterans in them and these two cemeteries in Europe, I can say that the graves in Europe are far-better tended and honored than those here. It’s a shame, really.
The American cemeteries and other memorials are maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission. The commission is an independent entity of the U.S. government, established in 1923. The first chairman of the commission was General John “Black Jack” Pershing, who had been the commander of the American Expeditionary Force. He served until his death in 1948. There are eight World War I cemeteries in Europe, with about 31,000 interments and 4,500 men memorialized, as their bodies are missing. Each grave is marked with either a white cross or Star of David, if the soldier was Jewish. If the name of the soldier is unknown, the marker states “Here Rests in Honored Glory an American Soldier Known but to God.” If the man won the Medal of Honor, the lettering is all in gold, otherwise they are the same for all, officer or Private. If a marker gets worn, it is replaced immediately. The grounds are impeccably maintained. There is a US government employee on duty every day to guide visitors.
the Chapel at the American Somme Cemetery
Taps and daily flag lowering at the Somme American Cemetery. My husband waits to lay a memorial wreath, a tour member waits to help fold the flag
The 105th NY was made up of men from New York State, formerly in the National Guard
There is a chapel at each cemetery, with the names of the missing engraved on its walls. There is also a flag pole, with the U.S. flag raised and lowered each day, the latter accompanied by the playing of Taps. We were at the two cemeteries at the end of the day, and got to participate in the flag lowering and folding. We also placed a memorial wreath at the Somme and held a ceremony in the chapel at the Aisne-Marne. The Somme cemetery was particularly significant to us as there are a number of soldiers buried there from the 105th Infantry Regiment, which included many Rensselaer County men. They perished in the battle which broke the famous Hindenburg Line- the German defenses- in September 1918.
Chapel at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery
View of the cemetery from the chapel. Men are buried without regard to rank.
Inside the chapel at the Aisne-Marne Cemetery, where we conducted a ceremony to honor the men buried there
We got to speak at length with the young man who is the Superintendent at Aisne-Marne. He is extremely knowledgeable about his cemetery and eager to know more and honor each soldier. He has a collection of letters and memorabilia brought by relatives of men buried there, and shared a couple of the stories with us. He was a wonderful representative of our government abroad.