Verdun, September 16
This is where I start. In the fading light, Rodin’s winged Victory looks frightening with her arms outstretched; one wing curled, the other extended. She supports a naked crumpled soldier, sword still in his hand. He is all muscle and brawn, but that could not save him against machine gun bullets and shells.
Auguste Rodin, world renowned sculptor even in his own time, was commissioned by the Dutch in 1916 to make a sculpture for the glory of the French who defended Verdun against a German offensive in 1916. Two hundred thousand French soldiers (and as many German) were killed in five months of fighting. Rodin’s memorial is a pietà of sorts but dramatically unlike his predecessors such as Michelangelo’s which has a quiet sorrowful, almost sublime, Mary cradling her sacrificed son in her lap. Victory’s 20th century grief is tormented anguish of the most human kind from the furrowed brow on her feral face to the dead soldier slipping from her lap. Her eyes and mouth are black holes of rage and horror screaming out to any who will listen.
It is her face I keep looking to. A face that portends the horrors I have come to research as I reach back into the past to find my own family’s part in WWI. Taking this on is no easy feat for someone who was raised in comfort and security, who never experienced loss or hunger or death of so many and so young. Perhaps I can learn though and even rewrite history by including the role of common men and women. I’m not interested in the generals and commanders, safe in their strategic headquarters whose pride and egos were more important than the lives of young soldiers and civilians. They are not the ones Victory mourns. They are not the ones Victory reveres as she cries in triumphant anger and grief: We have won! But at what price? What is victory against such loss?
This is what confronts me as I start my journey to remember the Great War, to remember my great uncle Harry and grandfather who fought there, and to remember the families at home waiting and worrying about their only sons. This is my welcome to the Western Front.