French, U.K. lead­ers mark ar­mistice

Times Colonist - - Canada - RAF CASERT

Paris, the City of Light, al­ways was the grand­est prize of the First World War, ei­ther to con­quer or de­fend.

So it is only fit­ting that when vic­tors and van­quished meet to mark the cen­ten­nial of the ar­mistice this week­end, the big­gest cer­e­mony should be on the famed Champs-Élysées at the Arc de Tri­om­phe.

On Fri­day, some lead­ers be­gan re­mem­brance events in a wide cres­cent of ceme­ter­ies and trench-rut­ted bat­tle­fields north of the cap­i­tal.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May laid wreaths for the first and last Bri­tish sol­dier killed in the fight­ing — the two were buried across from one an­other near Mons in south­ern Bel­gium. One grave holds the re­mains of Pvt. John Parr, killed Aug. 21, 1914. The other grave is of Pvt. Ge­orge El­li­son, who sur­vived some of the war’s worst bat­tles but was shot on Nov. 11, 1918 — the war’s last day.

French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron con­tin­ued his pil­grim­age of war sites and caught up with May, as the two present day lead­ers of the Al­lied forces that de­feated Ger­many walked past graves at the Thiep­val memo­rial.

“Each ceme­tery and memo­rial across the world is a unique and poignant re­minder of the cost of the First World War,” said May.

Sixty-nine heads of state and gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau, will un­der­score that mes­sage at the Tomb of the Un­known Sol­dier in Paris on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month on Sun­day, ex­actly a cen­tury af­ter the ar­mistice.

To­day, Trudeau is to first mark the an­niver­sary at Vimy Ridge, where he will meet with vet­er­ans and tour the mon­u­ment built to memo­ri­al­ize the “War to End All Wars.”

About 60,000 Cana­di­ans died and 172,000 were wounded dur­ing the First World War, be­tween 1914 and 1918. About 10,500 of those deaths hap­pened at Vimy Ridge as Cana­dian troops cap­tured the strate­gi­cally im­por­tant spot from the Ger­mans.

Such was the sym­bolic im­por­tance of Paris that vic­to­ri­ous U.S. Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing said it was his “de­sire that ev­ery man in the Amer­i­can Ex­pe­di­tionary Forces should be given the op­por­tu­nity to visit Paris be­fore re­turn­ing to the United States.”

Alan Seeger, the Amer­i­can poet whom Macron lauded in his speech to the U.S. Congress last year, al­ready cap­tured the seeds of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion in 1916 when he wrote, as a sol­dier in the French For­eign Le­gion, that “I never took arms out of any ha­tred against Ger­many or the Ger­mans, but purely out of love for France.”

France, Bri­tain and its empire, Rus­sia and the United States had the main armies op­pos­ing a Ger­man-led coali­tion that also in­cluded the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian and Ot­toman em­pires. Nearly 10 mil­lion sol­diers died, of­ten in bru­tal trench war­fare where poi­son gas added a cru­elty in war­fare that the world had never seen.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands from all cor­ners of the world died in Eu­rope, many of them on the West­ern Front reach­ing from Bel­gium’s Flan­ders Fields al­most up to the Swiss bor­der.

Car­ry­ing the her­itage of de­feated Ger­many, Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel will be vis­it­ing the site in the woods north of Paris where mil­i­tary lead­ers agreed in a train car­riage to the ar­mistice at 5 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, six hours be­fore it took ef­fect.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May and French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron visit the Thiep­val ceme­tery in north­ern France Fri­day as part of this week­end’s cer­e­monies to mark the cen­te­nary of the 1918 ar­mistice that ended the First World War.

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