by Ellen F. Brown
In March of 1997, I went on a first date with the man who would become my husband. Sitting by the banks of the James River in Richmond, Virginia, we chatted about our childhoods and learned we had little in common when it came to our upbringings. I had been born in Berlin, Germany, to a family of New Yorkers who traveled the world through my father’s service as a career Air Force officer. Orran had grown up on a family farm in Bedford County, Virginia. The house he lived in as a baby still used chamber pots, and he had not stepped foot outside of the Commonwealth until he was seventeen. Not that he was willing to cede me the “service-to-the-nation” card. His father had served in the Merchant Marine during WWII, and his great-uncle Garnet had been killed in WWI. And then there was the matter of his great-grandmother’s Gold Star Pilgrimage to France in the 1930s. Orran’s account of her voyage played no small part in him winning my heart that spring afternoon.
The story dates back to the early days of America’s involvement in World War I when it was common practice for families who lost a relative in combat to wear a black armband in honor of the deceased. As the number of casualties rose at a staggering clip, Woodrow Wilson worried about the effect so many mourning bands would have on the nation’s morale. He proposed that military families adopt a more uplifting tribute to the war dead: white armbands with gold stars to emphasize the glory of death rather than its sadness. The idea caught on, and families who lost relatives in the Great War came to be known as Gold Star families. Orran’s great-grandmother Anna Belle became a Gold Star mother on July 15, 1918, when her 23-year-old son Garnet was killed outside of Château-Thierry, France.
The military told Anna Belle almost nothing about her son’s death. All she knew was that Garnet’s body had been placed in a temporary grave near where he fell and would remain there indefinitely. Over a year passed before she learned that final arrangements were being made for the remains of the soldiers who had died in combat. As Garnet’s closest relative, Anna Belle had a choice to make: Did she want to have him sent home for burial in Virginia or did she prefer to have him interred at one of the American military cemeteries being built in Europe?
Anna Belle made what, to me, feels like a remarkable decision. Rather than burying her son in Bedford County, where he could rest among ancestors who had settled in the American South back in the colonial era and where she could find comfort in tending to his grave, she chose to let Garnet rest in peace in the land he had fought to keep free. She had a notion he would have preferred it that way.
A farm wife of modest means for whom a trip to Europe was out of the question, Anna Belle accepted she would never see her son’s grave. She went on with her life, treasuring Garnet’s memory and the handful of letters he had sent home from France. Those letters are a memorial to the spirited and loving young man who wrote them. As a boy reading his great-uncle’s letters, Orran’s favorite was one Garnet had written a few days before his death. Confident he would survive, Garnet told his mother he couldn’t wait to “spend a pretty good while at home with you, where I can stick my feet under the table three times a day” and then “look around and get me a wife.”
More than a decade after Garnet’s death, Anna Belle received astonishing news. Thanks to the lobbying efforts of a group of influential Gold Star families, Congress had authorized funding to provide Gold Star mothers and widows who had loved ones buried overseas the opportunity to pay their last respects in person. Anna Belle was one of over six thousand women who traveled to Europe at government expense on what became known as the Gold Star Pilgrimages.
To say that the trip was a defining moment in Anna Belle’s life does not even begin to capture the momentousness of the occasion. The bravery it took to accept the invitation is staggering. Up to that point in her life, she had rarely left the family farm, let alone the borders of rural Bedford County. Imagine the thoughts racing through her mind as she boarded a train heading north to New York City, where she would stay in a hotel before boarding an ocean liner bound for France.
To be sure, Anna Belle was not the only one on the trip charting new territory. Many of the Gold Star women were from small towns and rural communities and had never been far from home. Aware of this, Congress arranged for the women to tour French historical sites as a means of educating them about the country their sons and husbands had died defending. For years after her trip, Anna Belle loved to tell the story of their visit to Napoleon’s tomb, where one of the mothers blurted out, “Now who was this Napoleon fella?”
Growing up, Orran had heard so much about Anna Belle’s Gold Star Pilgrimage that it became one of his life’s ambitious to follow in her footsteps and visit his great-uncle’s grave. On that first date of ours, he told me how it struck him as unfair that Garnet had died without any descendants to honor his memory. Seventeen years after Orran first told me about Garnet, we decided to splurge on a family trip to celebrate our fifteenth wedding anniversary. There was no discussion of going anywhere but France.
On a foggy morning in March of 2014, Orran and I and our two youngest children arrived at the train station in Chateau-Thierry to meet a local mechanic and history buff who gives tours of nearby WWI sites. We piled into his ancient jalopy and took off at breakneck speed into the Marne River Valley. We spent the morning touring war monuments and a farm where Garnet’s unit had camped in June of 1918. As the mist burned off, we headed up into the hills and enjoyed spectacular views of the countryside below. In what appeared to be the middle of nowhere, our guide turned onto a dirt path that ascended alongside a steeply graded vineyard. He stopped at the top of a hill, near where Garnet’s unit had spent time in the days immediately preceding his death. The guide pointed out his best guess, based on war reports and battle maps, as to where Garnet’s unit had been dug in.
A few steps forward into a thicket of nearby trees, one of our sons stumbled over a WWI-era artillery shell. Another few steps and the guide pointed to a winding row of indentations in the ground. “Foxholes!” he shouted in heavily accented English. He grabbed a metal detector out of his trunk and began sweeping the dirt. He didn’t make it far before the machine let out a shrill beep. After a few quick stabs at the ground with a shovel, he unearthed a fully intact machine gun bullet. A step further and there was another beep and another bullet. Step, step, beep, a fragment of a rations can. Step, beep, a pair of lens rims from a gas mask. Step, step, step, beep, beep, beep. We were definitely in the right spot.
Consulting letters that Anna Belle had received from soldiers in Garnet’s unit in the years after the war, we pieced together the sequence of events on the morning he died. Ten minutes after midnight, the Germans launched a surprise offensive. As a mechanic, Garnet was not expected to engage on the front lines and was mostly out of harm’s way. After hours of intense shelling, his unit was “sadly depleted” of men and desperately needed ammunition. In his commanding officer’s words, Garnet “ran forward fearlessly” and volunteered to join a squad moving downhill to replenish supplies from a nearby unit. Garnet made one successful trip and turned back for another run. He had not made it very far down the hill when a German sniper shot him in the head. Although the land is now covered in lush vegetation, it was excruciatingly easy to imagine the scene from that God-awful summer a century ago.
Late that afternoon, our final stop was the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery. As we approached the marble cross marking Garnet’s grave, a gentle breeze carried the smell of freshly cut grass. Looking around at the exquisitely manicured grounds, I tried to picture what it had been like for Anna Belle on the day of her visit. Had she cried? Had anyone held her hand? Surely, she had felt both comfort and pride in knowing her son was at rest among his comrades in such a grand setting. There is strength in numbers, and the multitude of American graves assembled together in that serene countryside is an awe-inspiring sight.
Among the graves at Oise-Aisne is that of the poet Joyce Kilmer, who is best known for the famous verse “I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree.” When we returned home to Virginia, I turned to Kilmer’s poetry, hoping to find words that would help me make sense of Anna Belle’s loss. Some of his work is painful to read with the hindsight of knowing Kilmer died in battle. And yet hope and inspiration abound. I was struck by Kilmer’s ability to intertwine the horror and majesty of war in lines such as:
There was a rain of blood that day,
Red rain in gay blue April weather.
It blessed the earth till it gave birth
To valor thick as blooms of heather.
Though Kilmer was writing of brave men killed in battle, it occurred to me that, in war, heather blooms on the home front as well.
Ellen F. Brown is a freelance writer and co-author of the book Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind: A Bestseller’s Odyssey from Atlanta to Hollywood. She lives in Richmond, Virginia, and is currently writing a book about Tennessee Williams. Follow her on Twitter @ellenfbrown.