We duck out of the chilly rain into the welcoming warmth of the restaurant, where we’re greeted with an upbeat ambiance and friendly smiles. The sandwich bar at Romagne 14-18 is clearly a popular spot for locals and tourists alike, and we happily dig into family-style salad, charcuterie and cheese, washed down with soft drinks and delicious local beer. A pair of young men dressed in war uniforms, presumably part of some kind of reenactment, are seated at the back of the restaurant on their phones. I quip to one of my dining companions that the illusion has been broken after seeing them with modern technology, not knowing that they were only one of the first signs of how much World War I impacted this area even a century later.
Post-meal, full and content, we push through the door to the adjoining museum and are transported back into 1914.
Containing over 200,000 objects, the collection spans 3 floors in the converted barn. As cold as the air outside, the temperature creates a stark contrast between the museum and the restaurant. In the middle of it all stands Jean Paul de Vries, the Dutch-French man who, for over 40 years, has personally collected 95% of the objects that make up the museum from within a 5 kilometer radius of his home there in Romagne-sous-Montfaucon. At 7 years old, he found his first WWI-era object while playing outside and was hooked on the thrill of finding these forgotten items. It was when he discovered that the items weren’t the only things that were left behind and forgotten that his collection took on a larger significance. The bodies of 18 forgotten soldiers came across Jean Paul’s path; one, the only one he spoke of specifically, was only 19 years old, the same age as he was at the time. There is a profound sadness to the way he describes finding these lost young men, and it is the first time I truly begin to feel the humanity of the war.
Every object is interesting. Canteens. Boots. A rusty, mangled typewriter. Though Jean Paul keeps them in the open to allow them to be touched, I keep my fingers on my camera for fear of furthering the aging process. We ask him if these things are difficult to find, and he tells us that if he goes for a walk around his house, within an hour his backpack is full. He wears boots with metal-reinforced soles for his searches to prevent being stabbed in the foot from below by items hidden by dirt or leaves, such as leftover caltrops, which are multi-pronged metal spikes arranged in such a way that when sitting flat on the ground, one is always pointed upwards. The ones he has found are hung on the wall opposite the entrance, where no one could be injured by one. The majority of the items found outdoors are on the lower levels, which has been set up to resemble the types of facilities in the forts and underground tunnels in which the soldiers dwelled. The floor is covered with dirt, a decision that Jean Paul made only recently to add to the authenticity of the set. It’s likely one of the most authentic recreations in existence, especially given the uniqueness of the collection.
None of the objects have ever been cleaned, because his goal has always been to show the war as it was- dirty, rusted, and real. The collection shows not only the war as a whole but focuses particularly on the daily life of the soldiers in the trenches. Most of the personal pieces found- silverware, lighters, flasks- would have been used by German soldiers, as at the time the village was on the German side. Knowing this, and yet having this collection in a museum in France, could seem strange, but it helps reinforce Jean Paul’s point that at the core, soldiers from either side were men like any other.
Upstairs, Jean Paul shows us the pieces that he finds the most moving. Letter, photographs and personal effects are kept in glass cases to protect against the wear of time. When he finds identifiable personal effects, such as dog tags, he does what he can to find the family, and asks in return a photograph of the man to which the item belonged. One such item sits in the case next to a photograph of its owner. I peer at the picture, and Jean Paul shakes his head.
“He was seventeen in that photograph,” he tells me. “Look how happy he was. That was taken two years before the war. Now the family is fighting over who gets to keep the tags.”
Some of the individual artifacts were gifted, others traded in exchange for items of higher value. For Jean Paul, there is nothing in the collection more valuable than these intensely personal pieces, small windows into the past and who these men were before the war. For me, it is what begins to make the war more tangible. Though time has filled in the indentations in the ground from the shelling and grass has grown where once death reigned supreme, a century disappears in an instant in front of a photograph of a black American soldier goofily sticking his tongue out, of shoes made out of soldiers’ old boots for the poor children of the village, of typewriter keys used to write words perhaps no different than those I now write.
A few hours later, I find myself walking through the white crosses at the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery with a palpable sense of the humanity of the war. I pause at a few, reading their names, calculating their ages. Eighteen. Twenty. Thirty-six. Twenty-eight. Wondering if they were married, if they had joined voluntarily, what kind of lives they had left behind. 14,246 crosses stretch as far as the eye can see. The chapel at the top of the hill bears the names of 954 more, the missing, with rosettes marking those who have since been recovered.
The night falls on the 11th of November, Armistice Day, and the top section of the cemetery is aglow with the light of 3,500 candles. People speak only in hushed tones, so that the soft patter of the rain and the voice reading out the names of the dead are the only sounds that cut through the night. The tranquility makes it hard to imagine the sounds of battle that would have been crashing around us just over 99 years ago, and the men upon whose final resting place we now trod. But if only for a brief moment, they become more than numbers memorized from a textbook for an exam and then promptly forgotten. Their names ring out through the night, in solemn memory of each soldier who lay down his life to bring this bloody war to its bitter end.