The tomb of the unknown soldier

The tomb of the unknown soldier: Roxanne Nelson describes a poignant cemetery -- and an unforgettable encounter -- in southern France.


Roxanne Nelson
May 18, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

"J'en ai mar avec toi!" Martine's terse voice carried above the clamor of 4-year-olds. Thirty-two to be exact. With a lightning reflex, she yanked the arm of her daughter Tina, pulling her back in line.

Martine had the patience of a long row of saints. I wouldn't have lasted 15 seconds as a class maman -- I'd have jumped ship, figuring I had a better chance of survival swimming the Mediterranean. But if mothers didn't volunteer to assist on the school trip, then it would have been canceled. Martine had a keen sense of duty.

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At the time, the invitation sounded like the right thing to accept -- a day-trip to Ile Ste. Marguerite, nearly uninhabited, rich in nature and history, a cool green spot in the arid terrain of the Maritime Alps. That all 90 pupils from the Icole Maternelle, ranging in age from 3 to 5, would be accompanying me didn't sink in at the time. Or that such an invasion was enough to make D-Day look like amateur's play.

Tina tugged at my arm as we disembarked from the ferry. In the month I had been staying with them, she already saw me as a member of the family. A permanent member, a second mother of sorts, one who was teaching her this strange new language, English.

Martine unhooked her from my sleeve. "Leave Roxanne," she said. "She's never been here. She wants to see the fort."

Yes, there was a grand fort to behold, the sinister Fort Royal, where the infamous Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned before being shipped off to the Bastille. His mask was actually velvet and not metal, his identity never revealed although speculation had it that he was the illegitimate brother of King Louis XIV, or even his twin. I'd lived and breathed French culture, history and language for the past three months and my circuits were overloaded with museums and cultural pursuits.

I had accepted Martine's invitation to visit her in the south of France when school ended, looking forward to surf and relaxation on some of the world's most famous beaches. But by the time my feet touched down on the Ctte d'Azur, summer was in full swing, with throngs of tourists crowding and trashing the beaches under a relentless July sun. Record-breaking heat broiled the fabled Riviera without mercy, and by 10 a.m., it was too uncomfortable to be out of doors.

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The heat will break, Martine promised. And in the meanwhile, I found nirvana on Ile Ste. Marguerite. The dense forest of enormous eucalyptus trees and parasol pines provided blessed shade and solitude, and I longingly looked upon a trail leading away from the picnic site. It beckoned me, a dark passageway with only speckles of sun supplying the needed light.

I escaped after lunch, alone. My footsteps were the only ones along the dirt path; the woods were silent save for the wind rustling through the leaves and the occasional chatter of an unseen bird. Aside from the schoolchildren, visitors were scarce.

Ten minutes into my walk, the trees partially cleared, and a square stone structure stood before me. It was like a giant box, only it had no lid. I strolled around it, locating a door on the opposite side. Heavy and ancient, it creaked as I pulled it open, the old hinges unhappy over the intrusion. I gingerly peered in, not sure what to expect to find within the confines of this odd little structure.

Before me was a cemetery in miniature, with only a few lone headstones neatly lined up, completely tucked away from the outside world. Amazing, I thought, that someone would go to the trouble to wall in a cemetery in this fashion, and then for so few gravestones.

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One of my idiosyncrasies is a fondness for cemeteries, especially old ones. These headstones were not particularly antique by European standards, but they were puzzling. All belonged to young men, soldiers, who had died in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian war. Why would someone bother to ship bodies all the way down to the southern coast, then take them out to this tiny island and create a cemetery all their own? The mystery of the unknown soldiers intrigued me more than the aristocrat hiding behind his plushy velvet mask.

I returned to the picnic and questioned Martine. It was a public cemetery, she said simply, completely ignoring the perplexity of the situation. I pressed further, and she asked another mother, and then one of the teachers. All knew of its existence -- "a public cemetery" -- but nothing of its history. Why it was here, on Ile Ste. Marguerite of all places? And the grave sites walled in, like nuns cloistered in a convent.

"We're going now to the Maritime Museum," she told me. "It's very nice, you will like it."

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The school assembled to lay siege to the museum. I preferred one last walk through the eucalyptus trees and told Martine I'd meet her back at the ferry dock. Inhaling the trees' fragrance, I contemplated the indifference I had encountered. Of course, how could one care about four lone soldiers when this was the land of Verdun and Normandy Beach, where the white crosses loomed out over the battlefields like endless acres of billowing wheat? In France, cemeteries and war dated back to Roman times, so my discovery, in the realm of things, was very insignificant.

But I returned to the clearing. And this time I wasn't alone. A dark-haired woman wearing red terry cloth shorts had just placed a multi-colored bouquet of flowers on one of the graves. In my best French, I asked her about the cemetery.

She didn't know, only that it was a public cemetery. And anyway, she was from Arles, in Provence. Then she laughed, reading the question in my face.

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"My father, he died in Dien Bien Phu," she replied, suddenly switching to stilted English. "France's mess in Vietnam. He died three months before I am born." She sighed and brushed off her bare knees. "His body, it disappears. You know how things are in war. So one day I find this cemetery. These men, they have no one. I don't have a grave for my father. So we help each other. I bring flowers when I come."

I returned to Ile Ste. Marguerite three weeks later, the day before I boarded my train to Paris. A fine drizzle blew through the trees, and I laid a small bunch of wildflowers by each headstone. For the father at Dien Bien Phu, I decided, and all of the others long forgotten, who need to be remembered every so often.


Roxanne Nelson

Roxanne Nelson is a writer who lives in Northern California.

MORE FROM Roxanne Nelson

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