Found, and lost


September 30, 2006

Army Pvt. Francis Lupo is no longer among the missing. His bones were found in the French soil and identified; last week, 88 years after he died, he was lowered into a grave at Arlington National Cemetery. Now there are only about 3,300 to go - 3,300 American soldiers and sailors who vanished in World War I.

The term "missing in action" brings to mind a pilot crashing into the sea, or perhaps a soldier in shock simply walking away from the lines. That's not the way it happened on the Western Front. For four years, the Germans and the Allies pulverized villages, towns, each other and the earth itself. World War I introduced the industrialization of death - mass-produced killings that in their intensity and concentration and totality far outweigh those of any armed conflict today. They were acts of obliteration.

Private Lupo was one of 12,000 Americans who fought on the Marne; the casualty rate was close to 70 percent. But American losses were a small fraction of those suffered by the other warring nations.

There's a town in Belgium called Ypres; it was on the front but stayed in British hands throughout the war. It was utterly demolished, though today, replicas of the Gothic Cloth Hall and most of the medieval town center have been rebuilt. The British, who called the place Wipers, hired Chinese workers to do the support labor behind the trenches; their soldiers stayed in the lines and most of them died.

When you come into Ypres today, there's a war cemetery behind every curve of the road. Here lie the known dead. Built into the old town wall is a memorial called the Menin Gate, inscribed with the names of those who went missing in the relatively few miles of trenchworks that bulged eastward from the city. Actually, the list is incomplete, because there was room for only the 54,896 names of men who went missing before Aug. 15, 1917. That's equal to the number of Americans killed in Vietnam. Outside town is a memorial to the other 34,984 who went missing in Ypres, in the last 15 months of the war.

"Missing" - in this case it means they were ground into the churning sea of mud, mostly by artillery bombardment, and never seen again. Almost 90,000 people, swallowed up by the earth, lost in Flanders fields.

It's amazing that after 88 years, Private Lupo, killed in similar fashion, would be found, identified. Few enough would even remember stories about him, or about his life before the war, delivering newspapers in Cincinnati; his closest living relative is a niece who is 73, born 15 years after he died.

Yet every evening at the Menin Gate, a bugler plays, and every evening there are visitors there, most of them English or Scottish or Irish or Canadian. They are keeping, as best they can, a memory of a memory alive. If you approach the gate from its south side, the first name you will see, at eye level, has a curiously contemporary resonance: It is that of a sergeant from an Indian regiment, Mohammed Khan.

Time plays tricks. Private Lupo seems to have lived in an impossibly remote era, yet baseball historians recently tracked down an exact contemporary of his, born in 1895, who turns out to be living in Florida. His name is Silas Simmons, and he was pitching curveballs as a professional while Francis Lupo was still chucking newspaper bundles. As a boy, Mr. Simmons would have known elderly people born about the time Fort McHenry was bombarded. Children who have met Mr. Simmons will carry the memory of him into the 22nd century.

But memory doesn't bring the past alive. Walk around a World War I battlefield today, and you'll be impressed by the neat green grass in the graveyards and the meticulous reconstruction; you can look out at the ridges where the Germans were, across the smooth and verdant fields. You can try to imagine what it was like. But you can't. You can't picture death on such a scale, in such a small place. You cannot know what Private Lupo knew on a summer's day along the Marne, in 1918. In a world full of folly and heartbreak, some memories are lost and it's good that they are.

- Will Englund

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