Finding My Stride
UNDER SLIGHTLY COOLER SKIES and a slightly calmer attitude, Lynn and I turn our footsteps south, finding that the French who have grown up near the western front speak differently about World War I than the history books. Paulette, from the tiny village of Mailly-Maillet, grew up in a stone cottage her parents had built. In 1914, when the armies dug their trenches half a mile away, Paulette’s parents fled, giving their house over to be used as a hospice. Today, at age 86, Paulette runs a bed and- breakfast from this same cottage for those who come to see the battlefields. For her, the war, which once molded family history, now brings the tourists and her primary source of revenue.
Her daughter comes over for a glass of Muscat and gestures at the battlefields outside Paulette’s window. As a child, she and her friends would ride their bikes from Mailly-Maillet down the big hill to where the cemeteries lie, where they always paused to mourn. “Even as a child, we knew something awful had happened,” she says.
Just down the road, a farmer named Philippe tends the fields around the Thiepval Memorial, which honors the 73,537 British and South African troops who fell on the Somme. In the spring, Philippe plows around the memorial to plant wheat, unearthing guns, shells and helmets matted with soil. He is not as surprised by this as we are; for him, spring is also the rebirth of history, and any surplus of antiques is taken to a local collector.
These conversations are not the only respites in our hours of walking; Lynn and I stop at war cemeteries almost every day. Sometimes they are small, containing only 50 or so graves, surrounded by a low brick wall. Often they are built with large arched entrances, the white headstones fading away into the distance. As we approach, the cemeteries waver with the heat lines on the horizon. We always pause at them because they are shaded places where we can rest, but we also stop because cemeteries make the history books more real. Each headstone represents a life as human as our own. Fifty-seven percent of all 65 million troops mobilized in the Great War were imprisoned, missing in action, wounded or did not go home at all.
There is a three-inch bruise on each of my hips from my pack, but as long as we stand before a barren battlefield, my thoughts do not focus on the pain. One day, after staring at a cemetery of 12,000 graves, Lynn draws a deep breath. “When any government is tempted to declare war,” she says, “I think they need to spend some time here first.”
IT'S DAY FIVE ON THE ROAD and I remember vaguely that I once slept in the same place every night. Lynn and I stop in Arras, France, where 24,000 British soldiers hid in underground quarries for eight days before a surprise attack. We take a guided tour of the stone tunnels where the soldiers waited for the signal to charge the enemy.
Our tour group pauses before one set of rugged, stone-chiseled staircases that lead to the ground level exits where the attack began. A soundtrack of guns and exploding shells begins to play, and the daylight at the top of the staircase brightens and fades. The sound is only for dramatic effect, but suddenly I see soldiers in front of me, and I am running with them, my pack heavy on my back. I take the stairs two at a time like I always do when I’m frightened, and then I am on the soil, squinting at white smoke and morning haze and fire. I’m running toward a vague idea of war and freedom, I’m running away from my homeland and those I love—and suddenly, in the middle of the tour group, I’m crying.
Each morning, I put on my pack and hiking boots certain I’ll go home again. The soldiers who fought on this soil could never be sure.