A traveler's faux pas
One of my “most embarrassing travel moments ever” came during a family trip to Germany. In a beer garden in Stuttgart, a woman sitting alone at the next table overheard our struggles to order dinner in German and asked (in English) if she could help. As the conversation developed, she moved to our table and asked where we were from.
We said we were living in Clermont-Ferrand in the middle of France, and she brightened. “Oh, my father was there during the war!”
“Wow, that’s great!” I said, trying to make awkward small talk…realizing seconds too late that if her German father had been posted to Clermont-Ferrand it probably was not a reason to celebrate our commonalities!
Walking among the tombstones
This incident came to mind again as I wandered recently through the huge cemetery of Les Carmes in Clermont. It’s something I’ve done often – the walled gardens lie directly between two of Michelin’s largest installations in the middle of the city, so I often walked through the cemetery from one site to the other on my way to meetings. I always enjoyed seeing the ornate family tombs and little sculptures, finding familiar names (Marcel Michelin, for example, and the name of the architect for whom our street was named) and speculating about the history behind some of the monuments.
An ancient abbey, re-purposed
This was originally part of an abbey belonging to the order that gave the place its name: the brothers of the “shoeless Carmelites” (Carmes Déchaux in French). They took over the site in 1637, although there had been a convent here since at least the 8th century A.D. After the religious site was “nationalized” during the French Revolution, the city of Clermont-Ferrand acquired it in 1816 and began turning it into the town’s main cemetery, using the opportunity to close several other burial grounds and transfer their “occupants” to this site. For the past 250 years, it’s been the last resting place for many of Clermont’s families, great and ordinary.
It’s an interesting place to walk any day, an oasis of quiet in the city’s center. This time, though, I went with a purpose: I’d heard from a friend that a corner of the plot was taken up by graves of German soldiers. I assumed – wrongly, as it happens – that they were combatants in World War II, when a German Panzer division swept through the occupied city and set up command posts downtown.
A surprising find
The “German corner” was at the back of the cemetery. I found it when I saw a German flag hanging limply from a pole in the summer heat, surrounded by about 40 simple stone crosses. The names were plainly German – names like Scholz, Hermann and Bohm. Some of the crosses bore two or three names, representing a total of 172 burials here…
… and then it registered for me: the dates on these tombstones were not from World War II, but from the FIRST “Great War” ! Now my curiosity was really piqued, and I had to go searching for the story behind the story as soon as I got back to the internet connection in my hotel room. How on earth did German soldiers come to their mortal ends here in the deep heart of France? All the great battlefields of World War I were far removed from here, in the northeastern regions of the country -- so how did these soldiers end up in the Auvergne?
How they came to Clermont-Ferrand
The explanation of this “German quarter” turns out to be prosaic: as German soldiers were captured at the battle fronts during the First World War, the wounded among them were sent as far away from the front as possible for treatment. In this case, most of the soldiers entombed here were taken from the battles at the Marne in 1914 and 1915.
“They came, whole trainloads at a time,” according to one historian, to Clermont-Ferrand, where they were sent to local hospitals and convalescent centers for treatment. Some of them died of their wounds here, and were buried in this section at Les Carmes.
When the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, it included a clause binding the mutual enemies to respect the burial grounds of their adversaries. Charles DeGaulle, as President of France, reinforced his country’s commitment to this respect in 1966 when he signed an order granting a permanent, free concession to these spaces in French cemeteries.
Still, I found it supremely ironic, given what happened over the following 30 years, that these Germans so far from home were interred immediately next to the Jewish section of the Carmes cemetery. I wondered what the families of Clermont’s Jewish community must think when they visit the graves of their ancestors and see this solemn “honor” given to German soldiers. This irony is multiplied, I think, by the presence of so many markers in the Jewish section in memory of those who were deported to concentration camps during World War II, as well as the number of monuments in other areas of the cemetery dedicated to members of the French Resistance who died trying to throw their German occupiers back out of their homeland.
A contemporary restoration project
There have been many complaints over the years about the general level of maintenance of the cemetery at Les Carmes – lots of overgrown bushes weeds pushing up between family monuments. On the day I walked through, though, it was obvious that the city of Clermont-Ferrand is making some efforts to rectify that situation; crews were cutting back brush and hauling away truckloads of garden waste most of the time I was there.
The restoration had already been extended to this “German quarter” of the cemetery. On a rainy afternoon in 2014, the city’s mayor was joined by a joint military company of French and German soldiers as well as representatives of Souvenir Francais for a “moment of reconciliation and peace” in anticipation of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Marne. Mold that had grown over the stone crosses was scrubbed away, a cubic ossuary with the remains of unknown soldats allemands was installed, and grass was replanted over the graves.
A conscious effort at reconciliation
I think the thing I found most encouraging about this little corner at the cemetery of Les Carmes is that it represents a feeling of fundamental decency, or respect for those who died because of (and in spite of) the horrible aggressions demanded by their government. One of the 10 members of the Franco-German military unit that worked on this restoration told a local reporter, “I don’t know how you can reproach these soldiers for doing their duty to their country – they were themselves the victims of history. The work we’re doing together here is meant to show that all that is in the past – terminé! From now on, we’re working on the future.”
In your own travels, have you come across anything like this “German quarter” at the cemetery of Clermont-Ferrand? Have you visited a war memorial site you found particularly moving or interesting? Please share your experience in the comments section below – and take a second, please, to click on one or more of the social-media buttons to pass this post on to someone else who might be interested.