from A Cemetery in France

by Dr. Mary Ellen Brown


My grandfather, Louis Carmel Brown, was killed in World War I on October
the 18th, 1918, almost the last day of the war. There, the three of us stood with our
hastily bought bouquet of flowers on that summer day in June 1990—my son, Chris,
my Aunt Marjory and me—three generations who lived on after his death. Louis
Carmel’s grave was one of only a few to be visited by direct descendants. Most of
the American dead in this war were sons, not fathers.

Trees had grown in the battlefield. Homes had been built where the field cemeteries had been. Seventy years after the event, the battlefields had lain fallow long enough for the forest to take hold again. The ground around the trees, uneven with gulches and mounds, all now covered in vegetation marking the remains of foxholes and trenches. This is Argonne Forest, the site of the last major offensive of World War I, the site of The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

With us we had the letters saved by my grandmother. They were letters she had written to Louis Carmel, but he never got to read them. By the time they reached him in France, he was already dead.


It was October 14 1918.
Louis Carmel was alive on this fresh morning.
It was the densest part of World War I.
Near the little village of Cunel, about 25 kilometers northwest of
Verdun near where now lies the cemetery.

Marion, my grandmother, wrote letters to him, always
signing them
Often Sally Brown.

As I read these letters
for the first time in many years,
I realize that I had never heard her called


Did she have a middle name?
I thought not.

Now the cemetery seemed
somehow, with its white crosses and Stars of David and
rolling, green undulations
all carefully manicured.

In a way, like the letters Sally received from the various Generals
War Department officials.


Lost in the detritus of the battlefield
after peace had been declared,
after the peace celebration in Bridgewater, Massachusetts

attended by Sally
behind her

the small blue wagon
Emery 4,
Marjory 2
and Baby Love
11 months.

Louis, aged 32
died at 6 a.m.
one fresh morning
near Cunel, France
24 days before peace was declared
and all the young men
faced home.


November 16, 1918, a Saturday

I had such a vivid dream
about you last night.
You had on your

And looked so natural.

I could almost

You seemed
so natural.


November 24, a Sunday

Angels watch you.
my own dear love.
It is so long
Since I have heard from you.
I know you are very busy
& probably write too.

If anything happens
to you,
I think I will know it.


The Brown Coat

Like a partially read book
it calls me back.

Don’t leave me here yet
to go back.

I have only a moment left.
don’t want to go back.

I am so far back that
it will take a month or

For you to know me not

It’s not said but
gently felt like a cloak
of brown wool for your back.

I would know if something
happened to you—come


Passing Through

She may have heard a
whisper in the night.
With each breath the pungent smell
of life and death.

The part of her that
was missing may
have been the part of him that
passed her.

Head down and looking
to the right and
to the left.

Checking to see if those
in his command were there,
who, like him, died in the discharge of their

I think they met above the battlefield—
white spirits—
gathering for the trip across the ocean,
reaching out to give each other strength.

Hoping to drop some small
pieces of hope and help
upon the other shore…

To fill the cups
that before had over flowed,
and now—nothing.

But sometimes it is possible
to hear spirits as they
And to grasp the tail end of a string
wrapped around another land,
another century.

Ready to give again,
to pour love once more into cupped
small hands.

Who knew it and then
who knew it and knew they knew.


A grave, a small piece of land, a plot.
Plot. Strange word, like the plop, plop, of soldiers walking in mud.
When the trenches flooded—
some men drowned in them.

Others charged into no-man’s land, lost their lives
tangled in barbed wire coiled beyond trenches.
Too risky to retrieve, bodies left to hang
on the devil’s rope.
Called The Dance of Death, Claggett Wilson, painted the scene after the war.

Chemicals were used—arsenic, phosgene, mustard gas.
The Zone Rouge in Verdun, earth poisoned beyond habitation, still sealed off today.
As a work commissioned in 1919 to represent World War I,
John Singer Sargent produced Gassed.

Horace Pippin, painter, served with the famous Harlem Hellfighters,
the all-Black 369th infantry, where he lost the use of his right arm.
Painted his dark, first painting about the war 12 years after it ended.


Field Report

I was in a shell hole when I noticed Lt. Brown lying a short distance away.
Shortly I noticed him move his hand slightly. I picked him up and carried him back to a shell hole on the crest of the hill.

On the evening of October 14, 1918, while interviewing Lt. Brown who was being taken to field hospital 17, I found him conscious. He remarked that he was feeling fine.

I learned afterward that he died the morning of October 18th.


They say this war laid the groundwork for World War II…


My grandmother wore her wedding ring until the day she died in 1978.

Mary Ellen Brown, a former academic who studies women and culture, writes in the gap left by a certain peculiar vision in hopes that whoever reads it will see something they have never seen before. She put down roots in Asheville, North Carolina, almost twenty years ago and has called Asheville home ever since.

About from A Cemetery in France—I have been thinking and writing about this World War I event, enormous for my family, for years. Every war has particular characteristics. Every life lost has a story. This prose poem captures a piece of ours.