By Pamela Dozois
Since childhood, Doug Clark had always heard stories about his two great uncles who died during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in Verdun, France.
The battle was a major part of the final Allied offensive of World War I. It was fought from Sept. 26, 1918, until the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, when the fighting stopped at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.
It was the deadliest battle in American history and is also considered the largest; it involved 1.2 million American soldiers. It was the battle that brought the World War I to an end. Approximately 26,337 American soldiers died during the 47 days of fighting, defending France.
Clark’s great-uncle, Coleman Clark, who was in the French Foreign Legion, died in May 1918. Coleman’s brother Salter Clark was in the U.S. Army and died on Oct. 19, 1918, just three weeks from the end of the war. They were killed in different theaters but the two brothers are now buried side-by-side at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery about 20 miles outside of Verdun.
To celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in 2018, Clark and his wife Nancy went on a Viking River Cruise down the Seine River in France.
“During the eight days we spent on the Seine, I recalled that my uncles were buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery near Verdun, and I also knew that none of my family had visited the graves since 1920,” Clark said. “The idea of visiting them hadn’t occurred to me before, but we decided to go since we were relatively close by. We drove 150 miles into the middle of nowhere. When we finally reached the little town, we saw a sign that read ‘American Cemetery – This Way.’”
“When we arrived we were amazed at the size and the beauty of the architecture, the manicured lawns, and the 14,256 marble crosses that lay before us with a chapel at the top of the hill. There was no one else there,” he added.
“We drove in and walked up to a little guest house, which was deserted. There was a register book on the desk. We signed in, ‘Doug and Nancy Clark to visit the graves of Coleman and Salter Clark’. Suddenly, from around the corner came a young woman, Manon Bart, the interpretive guide for the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. She said ‘Hello’ and, looking at the register, she said, ‘Mon Dieu, you’re the Clarks. We’ve been waiting for you.’ At that moment, my wife Nancy punched me and said ‘See, now do you believe in God?’ Being a skeptic, I asked the woman if the man from the cruise line had called her in advance to let her know we were coming. She said ‘No.’ Then she said, ‘Come with me and let me show you something.’
“We went around the corner and there I saw eight interpretive displays featuring eight different people who have a special aspect to their stories — and there were both of my great uncles’ pictures on the wall with a write-up in English and in French about the sacrifices made by the Clark brothers in two different armies to help the French people,” said Clark.
They then went out to visit the graves and found the two brothers side-by-side. Clark noticed that there were two dead patches of grass on the graves and asked Bart about them. She explained that his two great uncles had been adopted by a school, College LaSalle in Pringy, France, and that twice a year the history teacher brought her class of students, with flowers for the two graves, on field trips to the cemetery, telling them how these Americans had died for France.
“I asked Manon for the teacher’s email address so I could thank her. The teacher was Brigitte Dunand, and we started corresponding. I thanked her for the love she had shown my family by honoring the graves. In one of her emails she mentioned that she and her husband, who was an Air France pilot, would be in San Francisco on Bastille Day, July 14th, and asked if we could meet at her hotel,” Clark recalled.
“We headed into the city and I brought with me the original collection of letters, written by my great-grandparents, when they visited their two sons’ graves at the cemetery in 1920. The letters are all written in specific letterhead from some of the hotels in Verdun, some of which are still there,” said Clark. “Brigitte brought preserves from her garden as a gift to me. There was a lot of crying that day.”
In the meantime, Clark had written a letter to the American Battle Monument Commission (ABMC) praising Bart for the superior way in which they were treated and how well the cemetery and his great uncles’ memories were lovingly cared for, which he felt was very special. Clark said he waited about two months then sent a copy of what he had sent to the ABMC to Bart asking her if her bosses had said anything to her. She thanked him and replied, “Yes. I was very proud. I took your letter home to show it to my mother and father.”
She then went on tell Clark that she had since been promoted to Assistant Director of Communications for the Paris office of the ABMC and she had moved to Paris. She now lives in a three-story walk-up in Paris, much to her parents’ chagrin.
“Manon asked if I had any memorabilia and I told her that I had the original book of printed letters that the boys had sent home during the war, which was published in 1919 by Caroline and Salter Clark, their parents. That book along with the brass plate that was on a Model T ambulance, which was paid for by the city of Westfield, New Jersey, the family’s hometown — which remarkably ended up in Verdun (That’s another story in itself.) — are now part of the cemetery’s interpretive display along with all the original letters that were handwritten by the brothers to their parents,” said Clark. “These family treasures now have a new home in perpetuity.”
In early 2018 Clark realized it was the 100th anniversary of the battle and asked Bart if there was a centennial ceremony planned. Indeed, there was a huge one scheduled for Sept. 23, 2018. He and Nancy attended, along with his three first cousins and their spouses.
“A centennial ceremony was held at the cemetery with numerous dignitaries such as General Curtis Scaparrotti, a four-star general and the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (now retired), along with the granddaughter-in-law of General John Pershing, the grandson of Sergeant York, and the grandson of General George Patton, along with 1,000 French and American military and dignitaries, and four of the Clark brothers’ descendants. We were the only DNA-carrying descendants of the 14,256 people who rest in the cemetery at this centennial event,” Clark said.
“Dunand, along with her class of students, attended the ceremony with us. We had a quiet moment laying flowers,” said Clark. “The French are very proud of their accomplishments in World War I and are thankful for the help our American soldiers sacrificed, not only for America but for France as well. After the ceremony we joined the kids on the bus back to Verdun for dinner. As we were leaving, the kids formed a phalanx, 25 students on each side, all shouting, ‘America, America, America!’ as we returned to our car to drive back to our hotel. It was an intimate, emotional, and remarkable two days.”
“If I hadn’t decided to take a trip to France and ultimately felt inspired to visit these graves, we wouldn’t have known this event was happening nor would I have found out about the celebrity of my two great-uncles by the French,” he concluded.