In every town we’ve visited here in France there is a World War I memorial. In Bassac, there are actually two. The memorials are most often stone obelisks resting upon a cubic base with a plaque of names on one side of the base. These are the names of those killed in action, who were sent to war from that particular town. They are always in quiet places with low foot or car traffic, which is French custom (opposed to the British who tend to build their war memorials in the most public place possible.) Most often they are in the square in front of the town’s chapel, church or abbey, but several are within the walls of the town graveyard, often down the main row against the back wall so that you see it immediately when you enter through the gate. One of Bassac’s memorials is here – the names of the honored etched in stone surrounded by the decaying bodies of people on whose behalf they once fought.
Though the memorials were created to honor those dead in World War I, many of the memorials have plaques that were added later to honor those who died in World War II. Only, wars aren’t named at all. Those who died in World War I are under an inscription reading 1914 – 1918, those who died in World War II are under an inscription reading 1939 – 1945. When you stand there reading off the names of the dead, you get the impression that the first half of the 20th century was one long nameless tragedy. Above the lists of names there is often a sentence reading: A ses enfants morts pour la France, meaning “To our children who died for France.” 1.3 million Frenchman were killed in action between 1914 –1918. If you include the other 400,000 civilians who died, France lost almost 10% of their male population at the start of the war. And another one million more were maimed or crippled. I wasn’t entirely sure how to put these numbers in context, so I started to compare the death tolls to U.S. Wars. See a full list here. One example is the War on Terror, the war of my generation: On September 11, 2001, 2,977 people were killed and 6,000 more were wounded. Since then, in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’ve lost 6,717 soldiers and another 50,000 have been wounded.
200,000 more French soldiers died between 1939 – 1945. More than half of those died in the first few months fighting the invading German army and those soldiers died at a faster rate than during 1914 – 1918. Often, especially in the U.S., the French are mocked for their efforts during those years, mocked for their need to be liberated by other countries, ridiculed for their cozying up to the Germans. Some of this, thanks mostly to General Petain’s Vichy government and his exporting of Jews to concentration camps, is quite well deserved. But overall, since I’ve been here and stared at every small town’s long list of lost children and read just a few of the 1.3 million names etched in stone it’s quite easy to understand how the resolve of a country to stand and fight could be shaken after losing 100,000 men in just a few months in 1940.
I’ve been reading quite a bit of World War I history lately, something I had little previously knowledge of before landing in France. Death is, of course, the most consistent character of any book on war, but the dead themselves are so often lost in their assumed inevitable destruction in a war that already occurred. The first of Tolstoy’s two types of history is the history of results – the how, when, where and what is extremely important but it’s never the complete story. Since we’ve been living here Molly and I have walked or driven to 30 or 40 tiny towns. Most of the towns have no more than a thousand people, many less than 500. To call these towns sleepy would be an understatement – most don’t have a store or any commerce whatsoever and people outside in groups larger than two are a rarity. Yet, in every town we’ve been to, even little Talmont, population 79, there is a 10 foot tall obelisk listing the names of children who died for France. When you’re in a town this small and it’s just after the war and a monument is being constructed listing the names of a significant portion of your population who are dead it’s tough to imagine being able to understand a war being fought 1,000 miles away. This is the other type of Tolstoy’s history, this is the history of facts, of the actual effects on human life and the history one must experience to truly appreciate the impact of war. And I stand there, reading off the names, thinking of my own friends who’ve been to war, thinking of these 17 and 18 year old grape pickers loading onto a train headed north to the Western Front, armed with a gun and a shovel and thanks to the insanity of the outside world they’ve never seen, ready to die.