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Memorial Day in France

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The following article from the May, 1970 issue of the Free State Warrior, Official publication of the American Legion, Department of Maryland reports on one of the most  important events in the history of Paris Post 1, our first memorial day celebration held in France on May 30, 1920.  It is a very touching article and may bring tears to your eyes when you read it. 

Fifty Years Ago

By George Eder

Our First Memorial Day in France 

Immediately following the Armistice the U.S. Government lost no time in making the necessary arrangements with the respective Allied governments to obtain suitable locations for the establishment of permanent American cemeteries as a final resting place for its honored dead.  Some 70,000 Americans were resting in over 2400 different locations along or in the rear of American zones of operations.  Accordingly, the War Department decided to inter all its fallen in 8 battlefield cemeteries – 6 in France, 1 in Belgium, the other in England.  Each nation agreed to regard the chosen sites as American soil – forever!

The Graves Registration Service, a division of the S.O.S had several thousand men combing the countryside, scouring the woods, searching abandoned trenches and dugouts and enlisting the help of French citizens who had returned to the devastated areas – If a grave was spotted, exhumed and proved to be that of an American soldier, he or she would receive a bounty of 20 francs.  This proved to be very helpful to the G.R.S. over the years.  Service records of all reported ‘missing’ were invaluable in identifying the remains in unmarked graves. 

Paris Post 1         

About the time of the first anniversary of the Paris caucus, the 825 members of Paris Post No. 1 were talking about what should be done in honoring the memory of those comrades who made the supreme sacrifice, whose remains were being interred in the area for which they fought.  They decided they would undertake the stupendous task of seeing that every grave of an American soldier sailor or Marine was decorated – this first Memorial Day after the dissolution of the A.E. F.  From the American Legion Posts in the States, from American citizens living in Europe, from the people and school children of France (unsolicited), from subscriptions by English and American newspapers in Paris – particularly the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune, whish also raised funds in the U.S, from soldiers along the Rhine and any and all – some $200,000 was donated by May 30, 1920. 

            Flag for each grave 

Members of Paris Post, augmented by volunteers, had arranged for the ceremonies, the Graves Registration co-operating and furnished a Flag for each grave.  American Consular and Diplomatic officials formed committees for the services, The Red Cross provided motor bus service to the cemeteries and arranged train schedules.  The Y.M.C.A., the K. of C., and the Jewish Welfare Board made liberal contributions.  Mayors of cities and villages, along with prefects of Departments, made requests for the honor of participating in the tribute to the American dead.  The French “Souvenir Français” society sent notice that it wished to palace the flag of France on each grave by the side of the Stars and Stripes.  The French Government itself signified that it desired to take part in the ceremonies.  Paris Post supplied delegations for the cemeteries outside of Paris; the cemeteries in and near Gievres were assigned to Loire et Cher Post 2, A.L., while Standard Post No 3 A.L. cared for graves in and around La Rochelle. 

Memorial Day 

And so Memorial Day came to France, it was Sunday, May 30, 1920.  At Surenes, just 5 miles from Paris, stood Marshal Petain, hero of Verdun, saluting the rows of crosses in the name of all France.  Also, present were Ambassadors from America and Britain, solders of France, U.S. soldiers from the Rhine, people from Paris and relatives of many who were buried there.  Flags and flowers were placed on every grave.  At Romagne near Montfaucon, close to the Meuse River, where 22,000 American soldiers were laid to rest, went Gen. Henry T. Allen, commanding the American Forces in Germany.  The 90th division he led, operating in this general area, had suffered heavy losses.  With him was a company of American soldiers with a Band and Gen. Dupart, representing the French Army.  Around stood 3,000 French parents, their children, old men and women, who had been on the road from nearby villages – still in ruins since early morning.  There went too, the Mayor of Romagne and the Priest marching before a wreath of wild flowers so enormous – it took 23 men to carry it!  Each of the 22,000 crosses were linked one to the other by chains of daisies made by school children of the region.  In front of each cross waved Flags of both nations red, white and blue.  In the center there waved a regulation American Flag, near the staff of which there was an immense star of yellow pansies. 

Gen. Goybet 

At Thiacourt, on high ground in the St; Mihiel area where, 4,301 American were sleeping forever, went farmers and peasants from their ruined homes to honor the graves of the men who gave their lives in September when an American Army wiped out a 4 year old salient – freeing scores of towns – including ThIacourt.  The same procedure was followed there as at Romagne with detachments of American and French soldiers, men, women, school children carrying chains of flowers and singing hymns.  Severely mutilated French Gen. Goybet gave the salute while those present wept.  The Abbe Thomas, who had been a German prisoner, gave the Benediction after the flags were placed. 

Red Poppies 

On the edge of Belleau Wood a detachment of Marines and Infantry helped the people of Torchy and Belleau spread red poppies, white daisies and blue cornflowers on the 3,000 graves with the unusual memorial services.  At Chateau-Thiery, Col. F.W. Sladen, 3rd Dvi., and the 7th  M.G. Batt,, fired the salute over the graves, just decorated by a delegation of Paris Post. 

To Fismes and Fere-en-Tardenois, went Maj. K.P. Latour of Paris Post (and veteran of the Lafayette Esquadrille) to honor the Americans buried there and the lone grave of Quentin Roosevelt.  At Ploisy near Soissons 1,972 flags waved from amidst the many wreaths on that number of graves.  At Bony, near St. Quentin, 1700 white crosses were decorated with flags and flowers.  Gen. O’Ryan, 27th Div., officiated at the services and addressed French citizens assembled.  “From the children of the public school” was the inscription on the ribbon binding the huge bouquet of wild flowers placed at the foot of the flag pole during the services at Chaumont cemetery. To Lille, where 3 American sailors slept, went a delegation of 40 Americans headed by the American Consul.  From there the group went to Esquelbeck to decorate the graves of 40 Americans killed at Ypres.  At LeMans 5,000 citizens attended the services, along with a French detachment, including a band.  At Baxoilles, the school children said a prayer in unison, the Priest paraised the American dead, but the Mayor’s emotions broke down when he addressed the assemblage.  At Rouen, where they were they were celebrating the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, the populace took time out to decorate the graves of Americans sleeping in St. Sever cemetery.  In the cemeteries at Talence and Lacenau, the delegations were led by the American Consul and also included school children.

 1,327 Children 

At St. Nazaire, 1,327 little boys and girls stood beside that many white crosses in the American cemetery.  At a given signal each child placed flowers upon the nearest grave.  French soldiers fired a salute and French buglers blew taps.  The crews and officers of 4 American ships were in attendance.  At Toulouse tradition was broken when the National Anthems of America and France were played inside the cemetery where only 6 Americans were buried – 40 patriotic organizations were represented!  Not far away, at Limoges, the Bishop conducted memorial services in the presence of members of Paris Post, led by Mrs Wm. B. Haviland.  Services were also conducted at Le Harve and Etretat where 22 Americans died at Base hospitals; even at Cherbourg, wreaths were placed on graves of American dead from the Civil war (KEARSARGE and ALABAMA).

Even down in the Rhone valley where a few Americans died – far from the battle zones, at Avignan was the grave of a single American;  in Orange there was but one American grave, near Nimes there were 3 graves.  In each of these towns soldiers in horizon blue took part in memorial ceremonies.  Thus passed the first Memorial Day in France after the departure of the American Armies.  France pledged she would regard these cemeteries as her own on future Memorial Days.  How would America regard her own cemeteries in future years – and the memories of those who lie within them? 

 With reference to the question posed in the last sentence of the article, America has done a remarkable job of caring for its cemeteries through the American Battle Monuments Commission.  It operates and maintains 24 permanent American burial grounds on foreign soil. Presently there are 124,913 U.S. war dead interred at these cemeteries, 30,921 of World War I, 93,242 of World War II and 750 of the Mexican War. Additionally 6,149 American veterans and others are interred in the Mexico City and Corozal American Cemeteries.  

For more information on the Commission, visit its website:  http://www.abmc.gov/home.php