Travelers find value in different ways. It can come in seeing famous places you have always heard about, or just immersing yourself in another culture — seeing new faces, if you will. You can discover how people are alike, or how different we are.
I enjoy discovering something unexpected that leaves a lasting impression. Maybe I had never thought about it, or maybe I knew it intellectually without really understanding it.
Last year my wife and I traveled to France for the first time. Mainly it was to visit the D-Day beaches in Normandy where the Allied armies landed in 1944.
As an avid reader of history, I’m reasonably well versed on World War II, less so World War I. I did know that the slaughter of World War I had a devastating impact on Europe’s people. At the beginning of the war European armies were still employing 19th Century tactics made obsolete by the destructive power of 20th Century weapons, especially machine guns, artillery and poison gas.
About 1.4 million French soldiers died in the war. The figure is stark enough by itself, but it represents 3.5 percent of the entire French population of 40 million in 1914. That’s equivalent to the United States losing more than 11 million people today. This entire country would be shell-shocked.
When you add the 92,000 French civilians who died from war-related causes, it’s easy understand how the impact spread across literature, music, economics, politics, popular culture, you name it. The rise of Hitler in Germany, for instance, was rooted in the aftereffects of the war.
In France today you see little visible impact from either war. And while our guides often referenced World War II, the first war was hardly mentioned.
Our trip included a river cruise from Paris to Normandy, with stops along the way, usually at well known places. But one afternoon we docked at a small town called Les Andelys (don’t hold me to the pronunciation), which had a population of about 5,000 in 1914. The main attraction is a castle built centuries ago by Richard the Lion Heart. After a tour we were free to wander on our own.
On our walk we passed a modest monument in a small park. I’m always drawn to historical markers, so I walked over. It was dedicated to villagers who died in World War I, and looked much like the monuments you find here in Pensacola.
On one side was a long list of the dead from 1914; the next side listed those from 1915; that was followed by the list from 1916 and 17; and the last side was for those who died in 1918, 1919, 1920 and 21. I assume the later years marked deaths tied to war wounds.
I stood there, in this small town, looking at an extended list of names of the dead inscribed in long double rows on all four sides. Each soldier was tied to many others — parents, siblings, children, spouses. When you include the children who would never be, we were looking at several generations of townspeople gone.
Getting off the boat that day, I didn’t expect to see this. But I’ll never forget that I did.