Print Page   |   Contact Us   |   Sign In   |   Join BAMC
President's Message
Share |

Nous voilà, Lafayette!

This Memorial Day marks the 100th anniversary of our nation’s entry into the First World War.  Because of some poor directions and a wrong turn on a French road many years ago, the day will have added significance for me this year.  More on that in a moment, but first, some background:  My gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices of the members of our military did not arise from personal service in the armed forces.  I was fortunate to have grown up during the post-Vietnam, pre-Gulf War era when the youth of our country were not called upon to fight a war.  Other than my paternal grandfather, who served with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I (his photograph, along with his fellow soldiers of 2nd Platoon, L Company, 310th Infantry, hangs proudly on the wall of my office), my family does not have a record of wartime military service.  Nevertheless, I came to develop a serious interest in American military history and, in particular, the Second World War.  The bookshelves of my childhood were filled with countless books on this subject.

So it was with enormous excitement that, about fifteen years ago, I traveled to France with my wife and her parents to see, firsthand, the locations of some of the most significant events in human history.  The trip did not disappoint.  We visited Sedan where, in 1940, the German army broke through the French lines and drove all the way to the English Channel, prompting the Miracle at Dunkirk.  In Reims, we visited the former schoolhouse which houses what is now known as the “Surrender Room.”  On May 7, 1945, a classroom in that building served as the war room of General Eisenhower’s supreme headquarters in Europe.  It was in that unassuming space that the Allies secured the unconditional surrender of German forces, ending the war in the European theater of operations.  With the exception of the removal of the ashes from the ashtrays, the room is entirely preserved with maps outlining the operations of the day still hanging from the walls.

And, of course, no visit to France is complete without a stop at the Normandy beaches.  No movie or book can adequately prepare you for the experience of standing at the top of Point du Hoc as it rises above the English Channel with Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east.  The remnants of many of the German gun emplacements and bunkers remain to this day.  It is nearly impossible to conceive of the bravery of the American Rangers who, by the use of ropes and ladders borrowed from the London fire department, scaled those cliffs while under intense enemy fire to capture the gun emplacements above.  Our visit to the beaches concluded, as most do, at the American Normandy Cemetery where I, along with thousands of others, had come to pay our respects in that enormous and visually overwhelming space.

As it turned out though (as is often the case when traveling abroad), the most memorable and moving experience of the entire trip came as a complete surprise.  It also had nothing to do with the World War II sites that I had come to see but, rather, the First World War.  On a rainy spring afternoon, we were driving through the French countryside trying to find a monument to Joan of Arc near Chateau-Thierry (in the days before satellite navigation was widely available in Europe).  While attempting to turn around, we inadvertently entered the driveway of the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery.  The contrast between the experience here and the other, more popular historical locations could not have been more stark.  We were, quite literally, the only people there.  After stepping into the empty visitor center to sign the guest book, we set off in the chilly, damp air to walk the paths of the cemetery, passing the graves of the 2,289 American soldiers buried there during World War I. 

The paths converged on a small memorial chapel that sits over what was, in 1917, the front-line trenches occupied by American Marines during the Battle of Bellau Wood.  The chapel is not ornate.  In fact, its most distinguishing feature is not immediately visible.  But, once my eyes adjusted to the light and focused on the interior, I discovered that upon its walls are carved the names of 1,060 soldiers whose remains were never recovered.  The “Wall of the Missing” includes an inscription that reads “The names recorded on these walls are those of American soldiers who fought in this region and who sleep in unknown graves.”  It was a remarkably emotional moment as I reflected on the reality that, in the years following World War I, few families likely had the resources to visit the graves of their loved ones who were buried here.  In fact, I could not help but wonder if, other than our accidental visit to this place, any others had visited this hallowed ground on that day to visit these brave soldiers who sailed across the Atlantic to announce “Lafayette, we are here!” and do their part to bring The Great War to a conclusion.

While many are familiar with the famous American cemetery in Normandy (especially from its depiction in the opening and closing scenes of Saving Private Ryan), few are aware that the American Battle Monuments Commission maintains 25 cemeteries in 16 different countries around the world.  Like that small cemetery in Aisne-Marne, each has neat rows of headstones marking the graves of brave soldiers who died while fighting in foreign lands far from their homes.  If you ever have the opportunity to visit one of these cemeteries, I strongly urge you to do so.  I can assure you that you will never forget the experience and may, like me, be forever changed in some small way by walking the quiet paths among those markers.  It is for this reason that, on this Memorial Day, while I will reflect and pray for all of the soldiers who have died in the defense of this country, my thoughts will inevitably return to those soldiers who were a century ago laid to rest in a small cemetery in France that I visited by mere happenstance.

As you enjoy the unofficial beginning of summer this Memorial Day weekend, I hope that you will pause for a moment to reflect on the reasons why we celebrate this day and, if you have young children, to explain to them the debt that is owed to the thousands upon thousands of American soldiers who sleep in graves, known and unknown, around the world.  The freedoms that we enjoy today -- which permit us the privilege of practicing law in a peaceful society -- were secured by many who never returned to enjoy them.  In closing, I wish to extend my sincere gratitude to all of the veterans of our military, especially to those who are members of our Association.  Thank you all for your sacrifice and service to our country.

Jim Mood