Ahhh, Memorial Day: the beginning of summer, barbecues, long weekend, the swimming pool finally open…
Here in Belgium, the last Saturday in May is the commemoration of the end of WWII. This year, as every year, we were invited to the ceremonies at the American Cemetery at Henri-Chapelle, about 10 miles from our house. This is only one of the many cemeteries for Americans who died in the Allies’ drive through northern Europe into Germany and in the Battle of the Bulge. There are bigger cemeteries at Liege and Bastogne, but this one is big enough—7,992 Americans are buried here. 7,992 sons and brothers, fathers and fiancés, comrades and friends. 7,992 families not started, 7,992 lives of hopes and dreams lost so that the people of Belgium could have their hopes and dreams. Here, in the Ardennes, where the battle raged, where the occupation crushed so many lives, people don’t forget. Here, where people still remember seeing the GIs liberate their town or village, they don’t forget. There are those still living who remember bringing the bodies here for burial. They looked at the faces of the fallen, those who had died to liberate them. They don’t forget. Here, Memorial Day doesn’t mark the beginning of summer. It marks the end of hell.
This year’s ceremonies were moving, as always. Diplomats, politicians, soldiers from the US and Belgian Armies were there. Boy scouts, a motorcycle club from Liege, children from the local schools, families together. Hundreds of local people. WWII veterans, fewer every year. It’s the veterans who are the stars here. They’re swarmed by local people who want photos with them, who want their autographs, who want to hear them tell their stories.
Every one of the graves in this cemetery has been adopted by a Belgian family. The cemetery is cared for by the Battle Monuments Commission, of course, but what the adopters do is more personal—they write the families, they make sure that there are flowers on the grave on birthdays, anniversaries of weddings and anniversaries of deaths. If family members come, they’re welcomed with open arms and provided with all the hospitality they desire. Adopting a grave is serious business. There’s a waiting list.
Whenever I see a military cemetery, I am reminded of the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V on the eve of the battle of Agincourt:
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
…And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d…
NOTE: As I was researching the cemetery at Henri Chapelle, I came across this story about the veteran in the photos above. If you click on it, you’ll probably cry a little, as I did…