Triumph of the Dead
American World War II Cemeteries, Monuments, and Diplomacy in France
Kate Clarke Lemay
University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 2018, 232 pages
Book Review published on: October 18, 2019
When our family was stationed in Germany in the early 2000s, we took photographs of our boys at famous places all over Europe. We have photos of them in front of the Brandenburg Gate, the Eiffel Tower, this castle and that castle, Big Ben and Parliament … and yes, in front of white marble headstones from American military cemeteries in France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Perhaps this is the same for many others. From the iconic stand-alone grave of Gen. George S. Patton, positioned to look over “his men” assembled before him, to those that are marked with the sacred “Here Rests in Honored Glory a Comrade in Arms Known but to God,” one cannot help but to stand in solemn silence and see the price of victory in war.
If you love the beauty and tranquility of the American military cemeteries in Europe, as our family does, then Triumph of the Dead, Kate Clark Lemay’s book about American World War II cemeteries in France, should take its place on your bookshelf. It could act as a companion piece to General of the Army John J. Pershing’s magnificent book about World War I, American Armies and Battlefields in Europe. But while Pershing’s book dedicates only a chapter to the Great War’s American military cemeteries in Europe, Lemay’s book is a tour de force on only the military cemeteries and their role in American World War II lore, as well as their impact on French society and war remembrance.
In this easy-to-read text, Lemay describes the impact of the dead soldiers at Normandy and the design of the World War II cemeteries, uniquely different from those of World War I. You learn about the loving care that the women of Normandy bestowed on the temporary graves of the fallen Americans and how the establishment of permanent cemeteries impacted the French ability to grieve and heal from the tragedy of war on their home soil. You also learn about the distinguishing differences in British Commonwealth, French, and German military cemeteries and the ways in which those nations have memorialized the fallen from their countries.
As mentioned, World War II cemeteries are uniquely different than those that contain the graves of our World War I fallen. Lemay painstakingly points out the differences in the architectural layout of the two different styles of war cemeteries. The World War II layout features a threshold design in which the visitor enters the chapel, sees battle maps of the local area, or views bas-relief sculptures before viewing the graves. Whereas, when a visitor enters a World War I American cemetery, they are greeted by the graves first with a chapel, monument, or statue towards the back or sides of the cemetery.
Lemay describes in detail the iconic headstones, the white Carrara marble cut into either the Latin cross or the Star of David. She describes the controversy behind their selection, their symbolism, and even the lack of personalizing the fallen by not including a birth date. Lemay even explains the engineering of the markers so each row in the landscape of the cemetery is perfectly aligned due to an interlocking infrastructure buried six feet underground. The reader also learns about the Americans buried not under the standing white headstone but rather under a small square sunk into the ground—those soldiers convicted of crimes and executed. These individuals, buried in a location known as Plot E, are hidden away at the World War I Oise-Aisne American Cemetery.
The only flaws in this book are editing errors with incorrect figure identifications, typos, and misspellings; but these should not take away from the strength of this book, which is to provide the reader a holistic view of how our fallen are honored in perpetuity on French soil. If your travels take you to France, and you choose to visit one of the five World War II American military cemeteries located there, this book by Kate Clarke Lemay will give you a greater appreciation for the beautiful landscape and meaningful art and architecture that honors the valor and sacrifice made by those resting in peace there.
Book Review written by: Col. Robert A. Law III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, U.S. Army, Retired