It was the only time I really, really wished I could speak French.
We were traveling along the country highway with “Siri” as our navigator when Tiajuana spotted the enormous monument. We were stuck behind a farm tractor (that happened a lot) and the slow speed gave both of us time to say “yes,” let’s make the unplanned stop.
It was the right call. As we approached, I craned my neck to look up at the markings on the WWI monument. It was French, but honored American soldiers, too. I soon realized we’d accidentally stumbled onto a direct connection to the 36th Division (the Choctaw Code Talkers division).
The excited attendant could only speak French. We tried to communicate a few words, but he spoke so fast, we didn’t get far. He welcomed us into his humble workplace inside the Navarin Ossuary Monument, still chattering as he went behind his desk.
He looked at us expectantly and, in hopeful desire to communicate, I said, “Anglais?” English?
“Ah, ah, anglais!”
He made two marks on his ledger next to the written form of the word, glad to have ascertained where we were from. I tried to say American. I wanted to distinguish that we weren’t British. He just kept smiling.
I didn’t see anything like America on his ledger, so I left it at that. We may have been the first from the States in awhile to visit the monument.
We browsed the small, well-worn room, bought postcards, and read the French names of missing in action on the walls. I noticed stairs and the attendant enthusiastically motioned that we should go down.
We did, and saw tombs and more names. And then another set of stairs. Then I saw a name and division I recognized: General Gouraud and the French 4th Division, the one the 36th Division was attached to during the war. These were the French soldiers the Choctaws fought alongside.
Yes, we’d made a good call to stop there.
I learned later that the remains of 10,000 soldiers rest in this Ossuary, and that the soldiers on top featured the likenesses of General Gouraud and Quentin Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt, who was killed in the skies over France on July 14, 1917.
Outside, I walked around the monument and halted in the beautiful sunshine of the French countryside. Before me, away from the reclaimed surface near the monument, rolled lumps I knew were shell holes. And trenches. And barbed wire.
It was a preserved battlefield.
In a daze, I walked the narrow, dipping path to the end where a little metal cross marker stood.
There was my birthday, September 27th. That date would appear again in a film at a museum days later and I wondered if I’d already been at the battlefield the film mentioned.
That was the first day of being on our own, and it was planned for travel and settling into our hotel.
In the next installment, we traverse the wilds with two tour guides, climbing down into German bunkers and more.