Last Monday I “celebrated” Memorial Day one week early by completing a personal quest. My husband and I had just finished a wonderful two-week trip through Brittany in northwest France, and we had one day remaining before flying back to the U.S. from Charles de Gaulle Airport. I had done extensive research during the previous several months to identify the exact route my Great Uncle Anton Bastian had taken during the Aisne-Marne offensive of “The Great War.” I was determined to spend my last day in France retracing Uncle Tony’s steps before he was killed in action on September 3, 1918.
Uncle Tony had been hastily buried in France, but his remains had been repatriated to Wayne, Nebraska, in 1920. In memory of his uncle, my father had been given the middle name of Anton. Even though my father was born after his uncle was killed, he grew up hearing stories of “Uncle Tony,” from Tony’s need to learn German for his confirmation to Tony’s departure for South Dakota to homestead with two of his brothers.
I knew the basics of Tony’s funeral service and death from the transcript of a letter written to Uncle Tony’s parents by his sergeant to his own uncle, also from Wayne, Nebraska:
“We had in our company a boy from Wayne by the name of Anton Bastian. If by chance you know his parents or can get in touch with them I wish you would tell them that your nephew knew him well and thought a great deal of him. In fact he was very popular with all the boys in the company and I have never seen him when he was not smiling. He always did his work uncomplainingly and was killed doing his bit and doing it cheerfully.
We had been five days in the line and had seen some bitter fighting and on the night we were relieved Tony was killed. It seems too bad you know when we were all headed back to a place of safety. A piece of shrapnel struck him in the heart and he never knew. It all happened near a little village, which is flat to the ground, called Juvigny, about 15 kilometers north of Soissons.
The boy was so well thought of that when he was discovered by the captain to be missing, as hard as we thought the captain was, he broke down and the tears rolled down his cheeks. The date as near as I can remember was the third of September. I write you this because I really think his folks will be glad to know that he always went ahead and did his bit. I also saw personally that the boy was buried. His grave was not elaborate but we did the best we could under heavy shellfire.”
From the transcript of a newspaper article and obituary published when his remains were repatriated in 1920, I also had a few place names: Fismes, the Vesle River, Ronchems (which I later concluded was Roncheres), and Juvigny. I knew that he had served in a machine gun battalion in the 32nd “Rainbow” Division of the United States Army.
That was a start, of course, but my real find was a book published in 1920 about the 32nd Division and now scanned in its entirety into Google Books! I was able to follow the division’s day-by-day progress and read detailed descriptions of the battles. I noted each village, studied the war maps, and planned my journey, adding Cierges, St. Gilles, the Renny Farm, the Bois Meuniere, and Terny-Sorny to my route.
For about ten hours on Monday, my husband and I drove through one tiny village after another. We stopped in the countryside and tried to imagine this lush farmland covered with troops and crisscrossed by supply lines. I read aloud the descriptions of German machine gun nests in woods and withering fire from what is now a potato field above Juvigny. I stared across the beautiful Vesle River at the formidable north bank where the Germans had dug in and could not be dislodged until later in the war. I am no war strategist, but I was able to understand the importance of high ground, dense woods, and ravines. I tried to pick out scars on the land that have over nearly 100 years slowly become more gentle.
Years after Uncle Tony’s death, my mother recorded this matter-of-fact paragraph in the family genealogy book:
“Tony’s mother suffered greatly over his death. He was the youngest of her [seven] children, and she had had a little more time to devote to him than to the older ones. She divided his insurance check among the members of his family.”
During my day’s journey through the rolling hills and wheat fields of Picardy, I felt oddly close to this family member who has been gone so very long. Perhaps in my small way, I have helped honor his service and kept his memory alive for another generation.
Note: To view photos of my experience, go to “A Personal Memorial Day Journey Part 2.”