The Epinal American Cemetery and Memorial lies at a curve in the Moselle River as it winds through the Vosges Mountains. Epinal is the final resting place of 5,255 American military dead, most of whom lost their lives in 1944 and 1945 as my old unit, the Third Infantry Division pushed across north-eastern France, from the Vosges into the Rhineland.
Such an end as we have here seems indeed to show us what a good life is, from its first signs of power to its final consummation. For even where life’s previous record showed faults and failures, it is just to weigh the last full measure of devotion against them all. There they wiped out evil with good and did the City more service as soldiers than they did her harm in private life. There no hearts grew faint because they loved their riches more than honour; no poor man shirked his duty in the hope of future wealth. All these they put aside to strike a blow for the City. Counting the quest to avenge her honour as the most glorious of all ventures, and leaving Hope, the uncertain goddess, to send them what she would, they faced the foe as they drew near him in the strength of their own manhood; and when the shock of battle came, they chose rather to suffer the utmost than to win life by weakness.
So their memory has escaped the reproaches of men’s lips, but they bore instead on their bodies the marks of men’s hands, and in a moment of time, at the climax of their lives, were rapt away from a world filled, for their dying eyes, not with terror but with glory.
Such were the men who lie here and such the City that inspired them. We survivors may pray to be spared their bitter hour but must disdain to meet the foe with a spirit less daring. Fix your eyes on the greatness of Athens as you have it before you day by day, fall in love with her, and when you feel her great, remember that this greatness was won by men with courage, with knowledge of their duty, and with a sense of honour in action, who, if they failed in private life, disdained to deprive the City of their services but sacrificed their lives as their best offerings on her behalf. So they gave their bodies to the commonwealth and received, each for his own memory, praise that will never die, and with it the grandest of all sepulchres, not that in which their mortal bones are laid, but a home in the minds of men, where their glory remains fresh to stir to speech or action as the occasion may require.
For the whole earth is the sepulchre of famous men; and their story is not graven only on stone over their native earth but lives on far away, without visible symbol, woven into the stuff of other men’s lives. For you now, it remains to rival what they have done and, knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, not idly to stand aside from the enemy’s onslaught. For it is not the poor and luckless, the ones who have no hope of prosperity, who have the most cause to reckon death as little loss, but those for whom fortune may yet keep reversal in store and who would feel the change most if trouble befell them. Moreover, weakly to decline the trial is more painful to a man of spirit than death coming sudden and unperceived in the hour of strength and confidence.