Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Meet World War One Centennial Commissioner Monique Seefried, PhD, Part I

Monique Seefried on a 2008 C-Span Presentation

Over the next two days, I would like to introduce our readers to someone who has been a dynamic and effective leader of America’s commemoration of our nation's effort and sacrifices in the First World War.  World War One Centennial Commissioner Monique Seefried, PhD, was born a French citizen in Tunisia.  Her father was highly active with the French Resistance in the Second World War and with Charles de Gaulle's government after the Liberation. Monique's godfather was the first officer to join in 1940 the Free French Forces of General Leclerc in Africa.  As a child, she met General  de Gaulle at the Elysée Palace several times and sat next to him when he visited her parents' Paris apartment for dinner. Monique studied history at the Sorbonne and has received many international honors as an educator. She has taught ancient archaeology and Islamic art, as well as serving a museum curator, at Emory University in Atlanta. She became a U.S. citizen in 1985 and eventually developed a deep interest in America's role in the First World War. For her work in honoring the service and sacrifice of her adopted land in the Great War Monique Seefried has been  decorated as a Chevalier of France's Legion d'Honneur and is a recipient of the U.S. Secretary of Defense Medal for Outstanding Public Service.

In this issue of Roads to the Great War, we are going to ask her how she came to be so focused on the events of 1914–1918.  Tomorrow, we will discuss her work as a Centennial Commissioner with Monique. MH

Interview Part I,  
Monique Seefried's Own Road to the Great War

A. MH:  Thank you for agreeing to this interview Commissioner Seefried. With your broad ranging background and scholarship, how did you come to focus your interest in the First World War and America's part in it?

MS:  Indeed, my original interest in history didn’t focus on WWI.  Born in Carthage (Tunisia) and raised in Rome (Italy), I decided very early on that I would become an archaeologist.  And this I did, specializing in ancient Mediterranean archaeology and completing my PhD in history at the University of Paris Sorbonne before moving to Atlanta with my Austrian husband in 1977. We settled permanently in the United States, our three children were born there, and we became U.S. citizens. My passion for archaeology was unabated and quickly found a raison d’être in Atlanta when I discovered a museum at Emory University with a wonderful Near Eastern collection brought back to the university after WWI.  The museum was probably one of the most creepy museums in the country, so much so that John Huston had chosen it to film the movie Wise Blood from the Flannery O’Connor novel. I had come home telling my husband that I couldn’t raise my children in a city where such great archaeological treasures were so little appreciated and that I wanted to return to Europe.  His reaction, typical of the entrepreneur he is, was, “Instead of complaining, why don’t you try to change it.” I undertook to do so and was fortunate enough to be able to participate actively in the transformation of this museum into one of the best university museums in the country, known today as the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University. The core of its collections goes back to the American Scientific Mission to the Near East, when William A. Shelton, a professor of theology at Emory University accompanied the Egyptologist James Henry Breasted (the founder of the Oriental Institute in Chicago) to Egypt and the Near East in 1920 and brought back the collection of Egyptian and Mesopotamian antiquities that formed the core of the collection of the Emory Museum.

Curator Monique Seefried Discussing an Assyrian Relief for the 
Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University, Atlanta

Apart from what I learned in school and college about 20th-,century history, my knowledge of WWI was the knowledge of an average French person, growing up in a family with relatives who fought, were wounded or died in WWI and seeing WWI memorials on the main square of every French village or town.  My Austrian husband’s family was also very much touched by WWI, and the memory of WWI is still very present in many aspects of Austrian life.

Upon arriving in the U.S. and cataloging the Near Eastern collections of the Emory Museum, I felt like going back to the aftermath of WWI while looking at photographs and reading letters and travel diaries from American archaeologists traveling through the Near East in late 1918 and 1919. Dust and Ashes from Empires, from W.E. Shelton, the founder of the museum, depicted the insecurity that reigned in the region at the time. It was utterly fascinating for me to be reading firsthand descriptions by Americans of sites I had studied in French and British excavations reports, but this was the first time I read about the impact of WWI on these places. It made me feel as if I was traveling in the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia.

In the following years, as president of the board of the International Baccalaureate Organization (IB), many of my speeches on education and the creation of the IB would go back to WWI, as it is a school curriculum born out of educators who, after having seen generations of men decimated by WWI, wanted to create an education that would promote peace and international understanding. 

Nimrod Frazer and Monique Seefried at a World War I Event

B. MH:  My first awareness of you was with your collaboration with Mr. Nimrod Frazer on his history of the Alabama (167th) Regiment of the Rainbow (42nd) Division and the subsequent project of building a memorial to the unit on the site of their first major action at Croix Rouge Farm north of the Marne river. Tell us how you came to work with him and how the decision was made to proceed with creating and installing a major monument that was essentially a private affair.

MS:  Amazingly enough, I met Rod Frazer through my curatorial work at the Carlos Museum.  In that capacity, I was asked to serve on the board of the Albright Institute, one of the branches of the American School of Oriental Research. Like many not-for-profit boards, it had scholars but also philanthropists interested in its mission to contribute to American archaeological studies in the Middle East. Some of the board members traveled to Syria, Jordan, and Israel. During this trip, in 1995, Rod told me about his childhood with an alcoholic father but also added that his father had been wounded in WWI. I was well aware of the traumas suffered by the men who fought in this terrible conflict and helped Rod realize the impact WWI may have had on his father’s addiction. Later, I was to learn that Rod himself was a decorated veteran of the Korean War.

Subsequently, he asked me to help him find the place where his father had been wounded. Digging out information was an easy task for an archaeologist! After going over books and maps, I told him I had found the battle site of the Croix Rouge Farm.  And as only an American would do, he wanted to buy this historical battlefield.

C. MH:  What was your role in completing the Croix Rouge project and what were your biggest challenges?

Dedication of the Croix Rouge Memorial

MS:  My role was in fact all encompassing except for what we call in French “le nerf de la guerre”, literally the nerve of war, the financial means needed to create this memorial. Rod provided the incentive and the funds to purchase the property and to commission the sculpture. Challenges were many, the first one was to find the three owners of the property and then to convince them to sell. This took several years, especially for one of the owners, who lives in Tripoli, Lebanon, and who only agreed to sell his parcel to an American when I told him it was to honor his father.

The second step was to find a sculptor, and finally Rod settled on the second artist I introduced him to, the first being Calyxte Campe, a young sculptor who is great nephew of the famous French sculptor Camille Claudel, a pupil and the mistress of Rodin. Rod’s choice settled on James Butler, a member of the British Royal Academy, today its oldest serving member. Rod and Jim were of the same generations and each had a military background. Rod has served in combat and earned a Silver Star in Korea, while Jim served two years in the Royal Signals of the British Army. 

From the start, their bond was visible and it gave birth to incredible works of art, one which is still in the making, a sculpture to be inaugurated in Montgomery, AL, on 11 November 2020, entitled The Return from the Argonne, which will complete both men’s relationship as artist and patron. My own role will have been to chair the Croix Rouge Farm Battle Memorial Foundation, and to navigate the practical hurdles such projects entail, from the various contractors, to obtaining permits and getting the necessary endorsements from a variety of political and administrative bodies: military, local, and national. I can only here briefly recognize the extraordinary support I received from the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the French authorities, from the elected local level to the French national administration and army, as well as the Federal and State (Alabama) governments. I want to insist on how supportive France and the United States were in this journey to honor the men of the Rainbow Division in France during WWI. One example should suffice—the French regional authority in charge of building and maintaining roads erected and sponsored more than 30 road signs to indicate the direction to the U.S. 42nd division Memorial for visitors to the region.

D. MH:  My understanding is that the sculptor of the Croix Rouge statue, James Butler, has created another version of the statue that stands now in front of Union Station in Montgomery and that another will be dedicated in Alabama soon. Please tell us about that.

MS:  On the hundredth anniversary of the departure of 3677 Alabama National Guard soldiers from Montgomery on 28 August 1917, a second casting of the Rainbow Division Memorial standing in France on the Croix Rouge Farm battlefield since November 2011 was inaugurated. It stands in front of Union Station, from where they boarded trains for training at Camp Mills, NJ, and combat in France.

A few months earlier, on 6 Apri 2017, another sculpture by James Butler, the Daedalus, had been inaugurated at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, to commemorate the role of the air service in WWI.

Artist James Butler with Daedalus at Maxwell AFB

A new sculpture by James Butler, honoring the Rainbow Division but also the state of Alabama service in WWI, will be erected in front of Union Station. It will feature a dead man, picked up from the battlefield after the capture of the Côte de Châtillon in the Argonne by Alabama and Iowa soldiers of the 84th Brigade. They were under the leadership of Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, gaining a strong point on the Hindenburg line, a decisive victory of the AEF and the Rainbow Division.

E. MH:   I understand you now have a continuing role in remembering the Rainbow Division.  More than any other American formation it had a cross-section of America, almost uniquely including units that had fought on both sides of the Civil War.

MS:  Yes, I have been honored by the Rainbow Division and have become an honorary member of the division. I plan to continue to serve this division in any way I can.  It has undergone several iterations since it was created in 1917. Now the New York National Guard, the 42nd “Rainbow” division was made up during WWI of National Guard units from 26 states and the District of Columbia, and there was originally indeed a certain amount of tension between the children of Alabama Confederates and New York Union soldiers. As Father Duffy, the chaplain of the New Yorkers, wrote, they soon learned to rely on each other and to become first and foremost Americans and members of the Rainbow.  

Monique Seefried (foreground) at a 42nd "Rainbow" Division Commemoration 
Held at Croix Rouge Farm

In WWII, the division served in Europe and was also made up of units from all over the United States. After 9/11, the Rainbow Division was one of the first responders, and several of its units have been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the following years, with other National Guard units from different states serving under Rainbow command. The Rainbow will again be deployed overseas in 2020 and stationed in the Emirates.

Part II of this interview, on Monique Seefried's work as Commissioner for America's Commemoration of the Great War, will be presented tomorrow, 24 October 2019. Part II can be read HERE.

1 comment:

  1. What an admirable and fascinating person!