Day 2, Reims
The. Cathedral. Was. Amazing. Check the photos. Centuries old, as exquisite as ever, and enough to stop me in my tracks during the almost four hours we spent in its presence. I would write more but it’s late and I’m not in a state to do it justice.
War is one thing in a textbook and quite another thing when you are in the stomach of a hill that was once filled with 2,000 men fighting a grueling four-year long “war of attrition”—the horror of trench warfare. We had a special tour planned for us in Verdun, at the site of the Battle of Verdun (which in fact was many battles and not just one big one.) After an overnight in Verdun (the previous morning we spent at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Notre Dame at Reims) we drove out to Vauquois, the area which is now a dented, scarred hill, shaped by four years of shelling, violence and death. It was once a small village. Before the war began, several little such villages existed which succumbed to a similar fate having been decimated in WWI.
At Vauquois, a complex system of tunnels snake through the earth, reaching down to even 300 meters. The Germans had taken Vauquois and for four years, the French pushed them back, meter by bloody meter. As a defensive and offensive maneuver, both sides burrowed further into the earth to escape relentless shelling and to gain ground and build defenses. Donning helmets and flashlights, we had the privilege of making our own way down into the maw of the earth with our French guide Dennis, where there was no sun, no air, and no sound but the heavy silence of a deserted war zone. Many of the soldiers would have been my age—20. I thought about the thousands of young men on both sides spending what is now supposed to be “the greatest time in their lives” living a slow death in a trench of cold mud, shells violently perforating the earth, their comrades either being picked off one by one by snipers, or retreated around them into the bowels of the earth.
As I walked slowly through the tunnels, crouching to avoid scraping my head along the wooden vaults supporting the low ceiling, I was moved by the men that had toiled, fought, died, lived, feared, comforted and been comforted (or not), in the dark halls of the tunnel and in the trenches above ground. I know I will never have the slightest clue as to what the intensity of this war, this kind of life, would have been like. But I did feel the ring of this poignant question in my head and heart: “So what am I going to do to stop the perpetuity of war in my own life, in the world today?” I don’t have a complete answer yet and I expect I will be answering that question for the rest of my life. But so far I am sure that peace begins by having peace in yourself, with yourself. Then you radiate outward to your family, your friends, your community, your state, nation, world. And you can move about these tiers all at once; I don’t see why not. However, if you do not first stop waging war with yourself—self-hatred, self-condemnation—then how could you be trusted to know how to wage peace anywhere else if you have not proven your peace building abilities in the backyard of your own heart?
Later we went to the ossuary at Verdun 45 minutes away where the bones of 130,000 unidentified soldiers are kept, piled together in mounds which you can see through viewing windows outside on the ground floor, as if you were looking through a basement window. Germans, Americans, French—they are all there. This monument was as moving as site at Vauquois and gave me plenty to ponder. Again, though solemn, the gravitas of the memorial was not one of sadness or depression. Instead, I honored the lives of the men who had fought, knowing I had already joined the fight along side them, as I do my best to end war in my own life, and wage peace. As I walked past their names inscribed in stone along the great, cold halls of the ossuary, I whispered their names to myself, a blessing of gratitude and honor borne heavenward on every billow of my steaming breath.
(Verdun photos to come)