A handful of tombstones, including a few around which a tree had grown, were near one of our barns, in a small copse of trees. They are now all gone, knocked over by cattle and farming activity – vanished much like the family that once carved out a living on that land. When I was very young, I was fascinated by the stones, three of which belonged to children, who died around the Civil War. One of the girls was named “Sarilda Jane” which I found particularly evocative, given my own confusing double name.
We go the cemeteries twice a year – at Christmas, to place wreaths on the graves, and again during the Memorial Day weekend. The cemeteries come alive during the latter occasion – with cars backed up, folks visiting, and a cornucopia of flowers, flags and poppies decorating the markers. “Decoration Day” of course, was the original name of Memorial Day, observed in the southern states to honor the graves of soldiers. For a long time, I didn’t really make the connection between veterans and our practice of cemetery visiting, because our tradition was to remember everyone – and it was a time of stories and remembrances. I treasured my trips to Machpelah and the cemetery in Owingsville with my father, as I hung on every anecdote or tale he would offer about my great-grandparents and my great-great-grandparents and their kith and kin. We’re a family of stories, and sometimes I catch myself telling someone about “Nelson” or “Jimmy” as if they were a contemporary, instead of my great-great-great grandfathers.
The cemeteries in Mercer County, my mother’s “country,” offered up their own passionate, funny, and moving vignettes. Lucy Renfrew, who borrowed a horse and rode after the Confederate soldiers to reclaim her own stolen horse…(all the way to Mt. Sterling, we think) — and she got that horse back. My “Low-Dutch” ancestors, buried at Old Mud Meeting House, and the tiny stone lambs and carved lilies gracing the stones of babies and children, including the two children my great-grandmother buried, who died of milk fever. (When I was young and heard that sad story, I used to worry that something would happen to me if drank too much milk.) Sometimes even accessing the rural cemeteries proved challenging – fording creeks, pulling back vines and getting lost all added to the sense that I was connecting with people I never knew.
When I read about Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, an installation commemorating World War I at the Tower of London, my mind flashed between the beauty of the exhibit and what I know of the horrors of the Great War. During the WWI, the Tower’s moat was used to swear in over 1,600 men who had enlisted by the end of August 1914 at the recruitment station in the City. They formed the 10th Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers – “the so called ‘stock brokers battalion’ who fought for the duration of the war.”Ceramic artist Paul Cummins and stage designer Tom Piper have collaborated on an exhibit that will entail the installation of over 800,000 ceramic poppies in the dry moat around the Tower. The poppies are being hand-made by 50 potters in Cummins’ studio, and will be placed in the moat in July. Each poppy represents the 888, 246 British and Colonial soldiers killed during the war.
Red poppies are the emblem of Remembrance Day (known here in the states as Veterans Day). Popularized by Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Field, the poppy has become the symbol for those killed in war.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The terror of modern warfare, epitomized by the thousands of dead lying in field in Flanders, where poppies later bloomed, was captured by many writers turned soldiers. So, so many died and never came home – a whole generation of young men disappeared. I still remember sitting secure and privileged in a college classroom, the warm afternoon sun seeping into the room, and reading a poem (Anthem for a Doomed Youth) by Wilfred Own, and turning cold.
I hope that I would be affected by the violence and slaughter of World War I even if I didn’t have a personal connection to it. But I do. My paternal grandfather, whom I never knew, fought in France during WWI. He died before I was born, and he, unlike my grandmother, was apparently not a passer-down of family lore. He was born in 1895, in Bath County, Kentucky, and grew up in town, not on the farm that his mother owned just outside of town. His father owned a store, and he would later become a banker. Tall and handsome, according to photographs, with a penchant for fishing and taking photographs of lily pads, he remains a mystery to me.
My father has very little to contribute about my grandfather’s experience in WWI – he didn’t like to talk about it. He was in the field artillery, and they hauled the large French guns with horses – afterwards, he hated the smell of tack and horses. He was also determined that his son would avoid being an enlisted man, and so years after WWI, my father went through ROTC at the University of Kentucky and was a lieutenant in the army.
I never expected to discover anything new about him. His contemporaries are long gone, and my grandmother died when I was only 13. But recently on a trip home, as I rifled through old photograph albums, a very small two inch by four inch ledger book fell out of an album.
It belonged to my grandfather. I can’t really describe how I felt when I realized what the small ledger contained, and to who it had belonged. I hugged the knowledge to myself, feeling like I had received an incredible and unexpected gift. Lined pages, filled with a neat and quite lovely script, recount his journey to France in the summer of 1918. He left Camp Zachary Taylor on May 30, 1918. On Monday, June 10, 1918, he left Camp Mills on Long Island, NY, headed for Philadelphia.
“Left Camps Mills, LI, NY, about 4 o’clock on the Pennsylvania Line. Came through NY City, Trenton NJ, arrived at Philadelphia, PA about 9:30 am. Were given coffee, rolls and cigarettes by the Red Cross and boarded the English ship ? [Can’t decipher name] about 10:30.
(question marks are mine – occasionally there is a word I can’t quite decipher)
Thursday June 13, 1918
Still lying in New York harbor waiting for our convoy. Weather pretty hot rather windy . Gets rather tiresome just staying on the boat, but we have two band concerts a day which helps relieve the monotony. Expect to leave tonight. The skyscrapers of NY City in plain view –
Friday, June 14
Have been traveling all day, nothing exciting has happened other than the appearance of several whales, on the starboard side. Except for being a little dizzy am standing the trip fine so far.
Saturday, June 15
Nothing unusual only still sailing. Was put on guard for a 24-hour shift. Nothing unusual happened. Saw the moon go down at one o’clock an, certainly was beautiful.
Sunday, June 16
Arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia about twelve o’clock today. Anchored in the harbor which looks to be right in the town. Beautiful scenery but from here can’t tell much about the town. Several more ships anchored in the harbor among them two other transports and two gunboats.
Monday, June 17
Left Halifax about 2 o’clock, accompanied by eleven big boats and a gun boat and few submarine chasers. Weather cold. Food some better.
Tuesday, June 18
Very foggy this morning and very disagreeable. Have no idea how far out we are but we are several miles out, possibly 200. Feeling good. Was with Harry, Clarence R, and Granville C, last night. Not on detail today.
Wednesday, June 19
Slept well last night. Nothing exciting happening only the monotony of sailing. Has been raining all afternoon and the wind blowing very had. Have not been the least seasick even tho the boat has been rocking considerably.
Thursday, June 20
Beautiful morning. Nothing exciting happened during the night. Weather beautiful all day and everything GC. (?) Am feeling fine. Been in in the army 7 weeks 2 days.
Friday, June 21
Am thoroughly acquainted with slum guilliore (?)/ Now on duty to carry same for one week. Sea very rough. Today the longest day in the year.
Saturday, June 22
Sea has been rather rough today with waves splashing on the deck. Feeling fine. Coming into danger zone tonight. Captain addressed us tonight to endeavor to ascertain who had been stealing canned beans, beef and peaches from the hold.
Sunday, June 23
Weather very rough and disagreeable all day.
Monday, June 24
Has been a very beautify day. The only exciting event happening was the cruiser firing a shot. Am feeling fine.
Tuesday, June 25
Today sighted a submarine, the cruiser fired one shot, and one other boat one shot and another two as yet we have seen no other traces of it, but they are on the alert.
Wednesday, June 26
Voyage continued uneventful.
Thursday, June 27
Sailed all day along the Irish coat accompanied by a convoy of six submarine chasers.
Friday, June 28
Lying in the harbor oat Liverpool, England. Anchored about 9:15. Left the boat about 1 o’clock and marched around the city. Greeted by two bands (one of kids and the other ours) and the Kenya Magistrate. Then we took a train over the London and Great ? Historic RR and reached ———about ? o’clock. Marched to camp arriving about 2 o’clock. Ate a lunch of preserves (?) coffee, bread and butter and cheese and rested.
Saturday, June 29
About all I did today was to wash clothes, take a bath, and buy cigarettes, chocolate, etc. at the Canteen. Handling the English money was at first confusing. Slept this morning until 9 am, a rather unusual experience.
Sunday, June 30
Day beautiful. Reveille at 5:45 am. Mess 8 o’clock. Muster 11:20 am. Rest of the morning loafing. Mess about 2 pm. Went to town about 3 pm and saw the Cathedral, second largest one in Europe, about 545 feet long. Built about 1000 years ago, supposed to have taken 400 years to build it. Most beautiful building I have ever seen. Burial place of several English kings, one grave supposed to have been buried in 1300. Also one of the early Puritan leaders was buried here and they Pilgrims thought if they should touch his tomb their sins would be forgiven. Had to build a fence around it to keep them away. The west window of the cathedral composed of fragments of a former glass ceiling of the building is exceptionally beautiful. Claimed to be the most perfect in existence.
Monday, July 1
Left 10:45 am. Arrived about 11:30. Left at 7:00 pm.
Wednesday, July 3
Leaving this afternoon at 3 arrived at Maurne and then on to Loheac.
My grandfather came home from France, married a beautiful girl called Tish, and had a daughter named Pattie, who lived for eight days in February and March of 1931. I plant flowers on her grave every Memorial Day. Seven years later, they had a little boy, who became my father. My grandfather traveled many places in the United States, but he never went back to Europe.
Every time I hear something about World War I, I think about the man I never knew, who went to France, and came home again – and all of the men who were over there with him, that never did come home. I’ll always go to the cemeteries, armed with stories that make real people out of names and images, and with my flowers, I’ll remember.