The war’s fi­nal days,

A cen­tury af­ter the Armistice that marked the end of the first World War while sow­ing the seeds of the next one, France pre­serves Eu­rope’s painful mem­o­ries

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - ■ Lara Mar­lowe:

The for­est of Com­piègne opens onto a des­o­late glade, blan­keted by fog on a re­cent au­tumn morn­ing. Work­ers were drain­ing the soaked earth and cov­er­ing it with gravel, so French and Ger­man lead­ers would not have to wear ga­loshes when they visit the place where the first World War ended 100 years ago.

“Here on the 11th of Novem­ber 1918 the crim­i­nal pride of the Ger­man em­pire was van­quished by the free peo­ples they tried to en­slave,” reads the “sa­cred slab” at the cen­tre of the clear­ing. The new plaque to be un­veiled by French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron and Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel on Satur­day will doubt­less be more fra­ter­nal.

A quo­ta­tion from Win­ston Churchill hangs over the en­try to the war mu­seum, in French and in English: “A na­tion that for­gets its past is doomed to re­peat it.”

Bernard Letemps, a re­tired en­gi­neer and re­serve ar­tillery of­fi­cer, is pres­i­dent of the As­so­ci­a­tion of the Armistice Me­mo­rial. Though he was born in 1945, the year the sec­ond World War ended, both wars have haunted Letemps’s life. Eu­rope’s great achieve­ment has been to prevent war for the past 73 years, he says. “That is a record on this con­ti­nent. If it hadn’t been for the wis­dom of [Charles] de Gaulle and [Ger­man states­man Kon­rad] Ade­nauer, it would have started all over.”

Letemps has been al­lot­ted 90 sec­onds t o re­count t he events of Novem­ber 8th- 11th, 1918, to Macron and Merkel. He will tell them about two trains parked on par­al­lel rail­way lines on op­po­site sides of the clear­ing, 150m apart, with a plank walk­way span­ning the mud be­tween them.

The Ger­man del­e­ga­tion had stopped at field mar­shal Paul von Hin­den­burg’s head­quar­ters in Spa, Bel­gium, en route to Rethon­des. As the coun­ter­part of French mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch, com­man­der- in- chief of the al­lied forces, Hin­den­burg should have led the del­e­ga­tion. “But Hin­den­burg washed his hands of it, like Pon­tius Pi­late,” Letemps says.

In his stead, Hin­den­burg dis­patched Matthias Erzberger, a 43 year- old politi­cian from the Catholic Cen­tre Party, and min­is­ter with­out port­fo­lio in the Ber­lin gov­ern­ment, with the words, “Go with God and try to get as much as you can.”

Mar­shal Foch re­fused to shake Erzberger’s hand, at the be­gin­ning and again at the end of the talks. There was noth­ing to ne­go­ti­ate, Foch said. He had lost a son and a son-in-law in the first year of the war. The Ger­mans could take it or leave it.

While the 34 ar­ti­cles de­tail­ing the terms of the Armistice were read out, Foch smoked cigars and tugged at his wal­rus- l i ke mous­tache. British ad­mi­ral Ross­lyn We­myss toyed with his mon­o­cle. When the French oc­cu­pa­tion of the Rhineland came up, a Ger­man naval cap­tain called Vanselow shed tears.

Ger­many had lost 800,000 men in the pre­vi­ous four months. All along the west­ern front, the Im­pe­rial Ger­man Army was be­ing driven back. Red flags flew from build­ings in Ber­lin as the coun­try teetered on the brink of a Marx­ist rev­o­lu­tion. As then cap­tain Charles de Gaulle wrote, “Ger­many snapped all at once, like a spring wound too tightly.”

Kaiser Wil­helm II ab­di­cated on Novem­ber 9th. Mar­shal Foch tele­graphed von Hin­den­burg’s head­quar­ters to make sure Erzberger still had the au­thor­ity to sign the Armistice.

French, British and Ger­mans ar­gued for an hour in the early hours of Novem­ber 11th over the block­ade, which Erzberger said was hurt­ing women and chil­dren most. Ad­mi­ral We­myss in­ter­jected: “You didn’t worry about women and chil­dren when you sank our ships.”

When the fi­nal text was agreed, Erzberger in­sisted on adding his own ad­den­dum: “A peo­ple of 70 mil­lion suf­fers but does not die.” The Ger­man del­e­ga­tion left Rethon­des when the Armistice took ef­fect at 11am.

Con­spir­acy the­ory

The Nazi con­spir­acy the­ory, that the Ger­man army had been “stabbed in the back” by de­featist civil­ians, was born. Erzberger would be as­sas­si­nated by for­mer naval of­fi­cers three years later.

“It has been signed”, Ge­orges Cle­menceau’s mil­i­tary ad­viser, Henri Mor­dacq told the French prime min­is­ter and min­is­ter of war when he burst into Cle­menceau’ s Paris apart­ment at 6 am on the morn­ing of the 11th. Cle­menceau, who was 77, had not slept. Over the pre­vi­ous year, the two men had vis­ited poi lu sin mud- filled trenches and re­or­gan­ised the mil­i­tary to make bet­ter use of avi­a­tion and Re­nault tanks. Cle­menceau, “Le Ti­gre” and “Fa­ther Vic­tory”, wept speech­lessly in Mor­dacq’s arms.

At 11 am, Cle­menceau or­dered 1,200 canon vol­leys to sig­nal the vic­tory. He en­tered the na­tional assem­bly that af­ter­noon to a stand­ing ova­tion. “All eyes filled with tears at the sight of this old man who, through this epic strug­gle, had em­bod­ied France,” Mor­dacq wrote.

Though it was clear the war was end­ing, Gen François Mar­joulet had or­dered his troops to pur­sue the re­treat­ing Ger­man army across the Meuse river in the Ar­dennes. “The en­emy is hes­i­tat­ing to sign,” Mar­joulet said. “You must strike at their morale, through an act of dar­ing.” The last bat­tle of the war con­tin­ued ab­surdly for nearly six hours af­ter the Armistice was signed, un­til the end of hos­til­i­ties at 11am. Dis­patch rider Au­gustin Trébu­chon was the last of 1.38 mil­lion French sol­diers to die, shot in the fore­head at 10.50 am.

A French bu­gler sounded the cease­fire at 11am. Ger­man bu­glers re­sponded. Across the bat­tle­field, men stood up in their fox­holes, in bright sun­shine. As re­counted in Le Monde, thou­sands of voices, French and Ger­man, burst into La Mar­seil­laise.

The army doc­tor Ge­orges Duhamel and his wife Blanche, an ac­tor, had writ­ten to each other ev­ery day they were sep­a­rated by the war – 2,405 let­ters which are now kept at the His­to­rial de la Grande Guerre in Péronne, in the Somme. A month af­ter the Armistice, Duhamel would win the prix Gon­court for his book Civil­i­sa­tion.

From his field surgery on the night of Novem­ber 11th, Duhamel wrote: “It is over, my heart. Men have stopped mas­sacring each other . . . This evening, the camp is lit up and the bar­racks are dec­o­rated with pine branches . . . Bells rang in all the vil­lages. We gave cham­pagne to the wounded. Some of them will not sur­vive, and it breaks my heart to look at them.”

When the Wehrma­cht in­vaded France in 1940, they were de­ter­mined to erase ev­ery ves­tige of Ger­many’s hu­mil­i­a­tion. Hitler de­manded that France ca­pit­u­late in the same rail­way car where Foch and Erzberger signed the 1918 Armistice. “Then he razed the clear­ing, leav­ing only Foch’s statue to look over the de­struc­tion, and he had the scene made into a post­card with the words ‘The hon­our of the Ger­man army is re­stored,’” Bernard Letemps re­counts.

First-hand tes­ti­mony

The His­to­rial at Péronne pos­sesses one of the most com­plete col­lec­tions of first World War uni­forms, posters and arte­facts. But none are as pow­er­ful as the first-hand tes­ti­mony of Do­minique Frère, who works at the mu­seum.

As a child in the Somme, Frère re­mem­bers be­ing fright­ened by old women in black who came out of their houses at sun­set. “My grand­fa­ther told me they were in mourn­ing their whole life. They could never re­marry, be­cause there were no men left.”

Frère, now 60, was 13 when his grand­fa­ther died. Louis Frère had been wounded on the first day of the ter­ri­ble bat­tle of the Chemins des Dames in in 1917, where France lost 100,000 men.

“My grand­fa­ther was in an as­sault tank, on the first day the French army used them,” Frère re­counts. “The tank fell in a trench and my grand­fa­ther was or­dered to dig it out. He heard ma­chine- gun bul­lets ping­ing off the ar­mour, and he thought he had only a few min­utes to live. He felt some­thing hot on his shoul­der and lost con­scious­ness. He woke up in hos­pi­tal. He was never able to lift his left arm again. For years, bits of bone would work their way to the sur­face. Dur­ing the sec­ond World War, a Ger­man doc­tor called Krug saved him when it got in­fected.”

Frère shows me a pho­to­graph of his fa­ther Louis and un­cle Émile, in uni­form with medals. Émile lost his left arm and left eye when he wrested a grenade from the hands of a child. Close to half of the 8 mil­lion French­men who fought in the first World War were wounded.

In 1944, the Ger­man Feld­gen­darmerie or mil­i­tary po­lice was round­ing up French­men around Péronne, to send them to Ger­many as forced labour. Do­minique Frère’s fa­ther An­dré, now 94, hid in the fam­ily’s at­tic with two other youths.

The young men heard Ger­man boots on the stairs and thought they would be found. Then the Ger­man of­fi­cer spot­ted a pho­to­graph of Louis Frère wear­ing his first World War medals. The of­fi­cer stopped the search and sat in the kitchen with Frère for half an hour, dis­cussing their ex­pe­ri­ences in the pre­vi­ous war, the three youths all the while lis­ten­ing from their hid­ing place.

At Rethon­des and Péronne, I no­ticed that mu­seum-go­ers were mostly older peo­ple. The young, it seems are no longer in­ter­ested. The world marks the cen­te­nary of the end of the first World War as its mem­o­ries and les­sons re­cede as time marches on.

Cle­menceau en­tered the na­tional assem­bly to a stand­ing ova­tion. ‘All eyes filled with tears at the sight of this old man who, through this epic strug­gle, had em­bod­ied France’

Clock­wise from left: Louis and Émile Frère from the Somme who were both wounded in the first World War. Louis’s grand­son Do­minique now works at the His­to­rial de la Grande Guerre; post­card fea­tur­ing the rail­way car­riage in which the Armistice was signed in 1918; Au­gustin Trébu­chon, the last of 1.38 mil­lion French sol­diers to die in the war; and French pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron at an event mark­ing the cen­te­nary near Ver­dun.


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