Friday, September 5, 2014

Over There...Over There...Why'd They Put All the Words Over There?

Today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First Battle of the Marne, the week-long bloodbath that marked one of the first major clashes of World War I. Fought just east of Paris, this Allied victory prevented the Germans from reaching the French capital and making quick work of the war. Unfortunately, with more than half a million casualties laying dead or carried off the battlefield, the First Battle of the Marne also set the pattern for the devastating trench warfare that turned much of France and Belgium into killing floors over the next four years—a pattern of seesawing advances and retreats so futile that, nearly four years later, witnessed another major clash along the River Marne.

Known, of course, as the Second Battle of the Marne (above), this smaller, but still murderous battle halted the German advance in the summer of 1918 and hastened the Axis’ surrender. More than 132,000 Allied soldiers were killed or wounded in this three-week struggle, including 12,000 Americans.

County Route 537, which passes less than a mile from my home in its long trek across the breadth of New Jersey, is known within the limits of Mount Laurel, Hainesport, and Mount Holly as Marne Highway. Commemorating the great sacrifice of American doughboys in that second sanguineous battle, a blue historical marker is mounted on a Marne Highway road sign just west of the intersection with Larchmont Blvd. The problem is that the marker—a small-fonted, two-paragraph explanation of the Second Battle of the Marne—stands approximately 150 feet from the stop-lighted intersection. There is no shoulder in which to pull over (and if one did, one’s car would dangerously—and illegally—obstruct the right-turn-only lane that begins a few feet beyond the sign). Furthermore, there is no hope of gleaning more than a sentence of the marker even while decelerating toward a red light. (Imagine trying to read the sign above while moving at anywhere from 25 to 50 mph—hell, try reading it right now!)

Thus, the only possible practical way of actually reading this small acknowledgment of American contribution to that pivotal battle is to be stopped in traffic backed up from the intersection, which, although a line of traffic often does form there, hardly ever backs up that far.

Or one could simply walk over to the sign and stand just a few feet from the roadway to read it—a monumentally inconvenient and not-entirely-wise option, especially on that stretch of non-residential road flanked by daily-active railroad tracks. (This is exactly how I took this photo, walking home from the auto-repair shop a quarter-mile down the highway from this intersection.)

Sure, one could keep driving around the block, hoping to glean the entire message a line or two at a time with each drive-byand this might just be most in the spirit of Great War stupidity, as driving around this block entails an approximate 2.2-mile trek, including three traffic lights, because none of the streets within this block exit to another side of it. I guess a family could make a day of this by driving down Marne Highway, spying a line or two, turning right onto Larchmont Blvd., eventually merging onto Route 38 West, making another right onto Hartford Road, taking it back to Marne Highway, turning right, and again driving by the sign at approximate 7-minute intervals until the reading is complete (there is an Italian restaurant, Chinese takeout, and a 7-Eleven on the opposite side of the Marne HighwayLarchmont Blvd. intersection should a family wish to stop for lunch during their reading). I suppose a savvy couple or family could pre-plan for each member to simultaneously read a different section of the marker, which, if performed and recited correctly and in order, would drastically cut down on the time, effort, and gasoline expense involved. But this is not an easily executed strategy and could backfire catastrophically—like many a World War I offensive. 

Thus, to say that this historical marker was poorly planned and futilely placed is an understatement—also very much in keeping with World War I, itself, given the many atrocities perpetuated by idiotic generals who, time and again, ordered regiments of men “over the top” and into the waiting graveyards of no-man’s land.

So Im torn...

If the State of New Jersey (or perhaps Burlington County) allocated the expense and effort to commemorate the battle at all, then why not do it right and set the sign where it could actually serve its purpose instead of in a place where its words would surely go to waste? It seems certain that the genius employee of the state/county/township responsible for the placement of this historical marker was the great-grandson of one of those World War I generals who so asininely sent their men off by the thousands to certain death for a few dozen muddy yards...

Did the war to end all wars teach us nothing about historical-marker placement? You can bet the Flemish sited their markers in readily accessible, easily readable locations.

And yet for all of its seeming idiocy, perhaps the Marne Highway historical marker is perfectly placed, ideally echoing the utter absurdity of the Great War, as if it were a modern-day, metal-plated Zimmerman Note.

Only Americans possess such a sense of irony...

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