Veterans Day Journey Ends Near WWI Trenches

Curt Gaertner was 26 when he died in February 1915. i

Curt Gaertner was 26 when he died in February 1915. He was killed in action during World War I. Courtesy of Elsbeth Gaertner Lewin hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Elsbeth Gaertner Lewin
Curt Gaertner was 26 when he died in February 1915.

Curt Gaertner was 26 when he died in February 1915. He was killed in action during World War I.

Courtesy of Elsbeth Gaertner Lewin
The elaborate, decorative cemetery for Americans in the village of Thiaucourt. i

The elaborate cemetery for Americans in the village of Thiaucourt holds more than 4,000 graves. Naomi Lewin hide caption

itoggle caption Naomi Lewin
The elaborate, decorative cemetery for Americans in the village of Thiaucourt.

The elaborate cemetery for Americans in the village of Thiaucourt holds more than 4,000 graves.

Naomi Lewin
The cemetery for German soliders in Thiaucourt. i

The more sober cemetery for German soldiers in Thiaucourt holds Lewin's great-uncle, whose grave is marked by a stone tablet in the foreground. Naomi Lewin hide caption

itoggle caption Naomi Lewin
The cemetery for German soliders in Thiaucourt.

The more sober cemetery for German soldiers in Thiaucourt holds Lewin's great-uncle, whose grave is marked by a stone tablet in the foreground.

Naomi Lewin

As Americans mark Veterans Day, the origins of the holiday are often lost.

At the eleven o-clock hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice went into effect that ended what was then known as the "War to End All Wars." It was an optimistic moniker that, in light of all that followed, has been replaced with the more sobering "World War I."

Almost 10 million solders died in the trench warfare of "The Great War," so vividly described in Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front. Remarque, who was a WWI veteran, wrote, "At the front there is no quietness ... Even in the remote depots and rest-areas, the droning and the muffled noise of shelling is always in our ears."

One of the last battles of that war — and one of the first victories of the American Expeditionary Forces — was over the St. Mihiel Salient. A salient is a bulge in a battle line; the St. Mihiel Salient was a German front that bulged into the Lorraine of France region for four years.

This summer, reporter Naomi Lewin and her friend Brad Wolcott, an American living in France, made a pilgrimage to that part of the French countryside to find the grave of Lewin's great-uncle, Curt Gaertner, a lawyer who was killed in action in February 1915.

Their search brought them to Thiaucourt, a village that is home to two major WWI cemeteries. One holds more than 4,000 Americans, the other holds 11,000 Germans.

Lewin recounts her journey to the cemetery, and how her family's loss still reverberates today.

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