Monday, August 25, 2014
100 years later - the poppies grow
I've always been curious about something in Atlanta. There is an upscale neighborhood near the governor's mansion called Argonne Forest. Its streets are named for some of the bloodiest battles of World War I - Marne, Verdun, Argonne, Chateau Drive and Chateau Court, the two latter presumably referring to Château-Thierry.
When I was a student in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, there was a disheveled elderly man who would walk up and down the Cours Mirabeau and "preach" to people seated in the cafés. He would gesture wildly as he shouted about the horrors of Verdun, where a million soldiers lost their lives in the trenches. I assumed that the man must have fought there and suffered from a brain injury. Or, maybe he was senile, and the horror of his youth in the killing fields had come back to haunt him.
Yesterday, in the travel section of The New York Times, there was an article about the centennial of the outbreak of World War I. The gist of the two-page spread is about how the Americans entered the war in 1917, turning the tide and driving the Germans back. The author tells of visiting the areas in France where battles were fought. He described going into a tunnel in an old stone quarry and seeing all the carvings by men who had been there - some German, some French, some English and then the Americans. They had drawn or etched all sorts of things - flags, hearts, women, self-portraits, their names and hometowns.
This prompted me to go into my late husband's library and look for a shell I brought him from a trip to France with my tennis team (I am rambling here, but one of the members invited us to a château in the Loire, which she co-owned with some other Atlantans). I found the darkened brass shell on the top shelf. In it was a rusted length of barbed wire my husband had placed there. The shell was engraved with the words "Somme 1916", a fancy letter "D", and an iris, complete with foliage. One wonders if the person who so carefully decorated the shell survived the carnage.
To explain further, my husband had an entire section of books of history and poems about World War I. (In fact, he and I are married because of a mutual interest in WWI poets; see my post of Thursday, August 25, 2011, or type "Flanders Field poppies" in the search box of the blog; there, I tell the story of how this all came about). Every time we went to France, he would make time to visit the trenches in the areas named in that Atlanta subdivision. On one trip, I accompanied him to the village of Ors to find the grave of one of his (and my) favorite English poets, Wilfred Owen. Ironically, Owen was killed on November 4, 1918, exactly a week before the signing of the armistice on November 11. His poems are some of the most graphic in describing death in the trenches.
Now, to the cheerful, sunny scene above, where you can see Flanders Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas, a.k.a. red corn poppy), a symbol of WWI, growing in Bob Clinard's Atlanta garden. I am writing all this to say that the NYT article led me also to look for the catalog that just came from Wildseed Farms in Texas. I had marked the page with the red poppies so that I can order some to plant this fall. After my husband died, I found a packet of seeds he'd bought but never planted. I'll keep that one, but I would like to plant some poppies in honor of the centennial of the "War to End All Wars."