The Most Important Classroom
On 8 August 2018, Lieutenant General Charles N. Pede delivered the following remarks at Somme American Cemetery near Bony, France, during a remembrance ceremony which was part of the World War I Centennial Commemorations:
Take up our quarrel with the foe
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep though poppies grow
In Flanders Field 1
The final words of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s famous poem echo to us from a different field of battle. But these words, charged with clear expectation, remind each of us of our enduring obligation—to remember, and to give their sacrifice meaning.
Good morning. Secretary Matz, Mayor Geeslank, fellow general officers, Commissioners of the Centennial WWI Commission, our French friends and neighbors, Mr. Craig—the superintendent of this inspiring cemetery—and officers and Soldiers of the United States Army, welcome to this morning’s formation with our fallen brothers and sisters. I am reminded of the old Army adage—that every formation is a family reunion, and that is indeed what we have this morning.
My name is Lieutenant General Chuck Pede and I serve as the 40th TJAG of the Army. On behalf of the senior leadership of the Army, Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, and our Chief of Staff, General Mark Milley, I am honored to participate in this ceremony today.
The stones that surround us this morning are filled with action, consequence, and yes, promise. Deceptively quiet and peaceful in pristine white marble, the years of careful tending of these stones have left them to us as a memory of a purpose-filled and consequential—albeit short—lived life. They were Soldiers of energy, faith, courage, fortitude, resilience, and devotion to their units and fellow Soldiers. And they were Soldiers whose lives ended too soon.
The parents of Sergeant Blisset, age 23, remind us on his headstone that “[y]outh had scarcely written his name on her page.”
No parent should have to bury their child. But nations will—we hope rarely—ask their citizens to bear such costs. When the summons comes, it is our task as professional Soldiers to do it well, and quickly, and to minimize the harm to both Soldiers and civilians. But it is the Soldier’s lot to suffer the hardships of war, which brings us to this sacred ground.
We know standing here that the parents of Captain Ben Franklin Dixon, 29 Sep 1918, of Private Anthony Ploharski, 31 Oct 1918, of Constance Sinclair, Nurse, 22 Feb 1918, and the parents of the other 1,841 Soldiers buried here—for the rest of their lives struggled with their loss and prayed for meaning and consequence beyond the trenches and the dangers endured. Those buried here won the battle of St. Quentin Canal, and as part of the American II Corps pierced that which could not be pierced—the Hindenburg Line. We know that the three Medal of Honor recipients buried among us, in their humility, share their recognition with every Soldier—row upon row in this cemetery.
As an Army, we have reinvested in our fallen Soldiers this week. We have walked the ground they walked, reimagined the challenges and horrors they faced, and walked the rows of stones they inhabit. It is for us as Soldiers, who now carry their legacy, to remember their sacrifice, to carry the torch they have passed to us, and to bring them back to life in a way that only Soldiers can do.
I imagine as we look out upon these rows of stones, proud Soldiers standing to, and smiling because you have called out their name.
It has been said that when you remember a fallen Soldier by uttering their name, their unit—they live again.
When you walk these rows, read a Soldier’s name; for the sound of their name may be the first time it has filled the air since they pushed out their last breath.
And so we should always remember first that each of these Soldiers represented promise, and that in their sacrifice of a long life, with a wife and children at their side, they gave us our futures—our lives with all the joys and sorrows that make for a full life. What they lost, we gained. Each cross represents an unpayable debt to them and their parents and families whose dinner table always held an empty chair.
Our first General-in-Chief of our American Armies, George Washington, once said “[t]he willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”
Your presence here today tells each of these Soldiers that while you may not have known them personally, they matter, and you recognize it.
These men and women that stand silently with us today also represent our Nation’s tribute—our payment on the altar of freedom. This is not melodrama. Armies and nations are sometimes criticized for fighting wars of aggression or conquest. These Soldiers truly fought for the purest of ideals—so that people may live in peace, speak their own language, and live free from aggression.
General Mark Clark said, “[i]f ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest, it could be found in this cemetery. Here was our only conquest; all we asked . . . was enough . . . soil to bury our gallant dead.”
And like the Soldiers who crossed the icy waters and marched on Christmas morning in the snow to attack the Hessians in Trenton, New Jersey, in brutal conditions—so did the American Soldiers at the Somme. They fought under truly unimaginable conditions. Thomas Paine inspired George Washington’s Soldiers by reminding them that they were neither summer soldiers nor sunshine patriots—they were indeed Soldiers who could be counted on when it was hard, and ugly, and cold. The American Soldiers of the Somme were not summer soldiers or sunshine patriots, either. The Soldiers of the Somme were the real thing. Tough, resilient, and determined.
So today, we remember that these men died for an idea as powerful as any on earth—the desire to be free and to determine one’s own destiny. They served a cause greater than themselves when their country called.
And finally, I would ask each of us today to think about the challenges the Soldiers of 1918 faced. I imagine that each of the men standing in the shadow of their stone today want each of us to learn from their deaths. Professional Soldiers reflect on the past for many reasons: most importantly, to understand the past deeply, so that we might better defend our country; and to better equip ourselves to keep the man and woman to our left and right alive in the future. It is why, frankly, the Center of Military History exists, and why your commanders have brought you here—to learn from the Soldiers who came before you.
Whenever we are tempted to describe our modern world as more complicated than in the past, we need only think back to 1918. All of these Soldiers spent most of their lives among horses and candle flames to light their way, and paper and couriers, runners and dispatch riders to communicate on the battlefield.
Imagine the speed of change and the agility demanded of the common Soldier and officer who now faced motorized vehicles, tanks, air delivered gas weapons, machine guns, radio and telephone, artillery on unimaginable scales, tunnels, mine shafts, and the inevitably challenging coalition operations, across languages and cultures, on a scale never before seen or again attempted. We talk today of multi domain operations. The Soldiers standing with their cross today breathe into us the wisdom of their day, so that we might learn from them and their experience. They adapted to a new battlefield that was clearly multi domain, fast evolving and ruthlessly lethal—just like ours today.
How they did this is our lesson. This cemetery is their classroom. We are their students. It is our task to take up the lessons and learn from them—and never allow ourselves to think that time lessens the importance of their teachings.
John Oxenham wrote of their sacrifice:
Tread softly here! Go reverently and slow!
Yea, let your soul go down upon its knees
And with bowed head and heart abased, strive hard
To grasp the future gain in this sore loss!
For not one foot of this dank sod but drank
Its surfeit of the blood of gallant men.
Who, for their faith, their hope—for life and liberty.
Here made the sacrifice—here gave their lives
And gave right willingly—for you and me.
God help us if we fail to pay our debt
In fullest full and all unstintingly!
To those fallen, we thank you for the example you have given us. We gratefully carry your legacy of determined victory on the battlefield, and we carry the torch proudly so that you may rest peacefully beneath the poppies. TAL
1. John McCrae, In Flanders Fields, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47380/in-flanders-fields.