As the centenary of the end of World War I approaches, Adam Ruck delves into the past to find that despite the passing of generations, remembrance is as strong as ever.
A guide to where to go to mark the 100 year anniversary of Armistice Day.
A “t the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.”
And so we do, on the second Sunday of November every year, pinning on a poppy, tuning in to the Cenotaph to watch the veterans march past, or simply stopping what we are doing for a few moments to think about war and ‘them’ – the millions who died in World War 1, or friends and family who served and suffered ‘in defence of freedom’, as we always say, although for many it may have been more a case of just doing their job.
Remembrance can catch us by surprise, in front of a family photograph or a stone plaque on a coastal footpath in Cornwall, marking the spot where Laurence Binyon composed his poem For the Fallen soon after the first massacres of the Great War.
Every generation wonders if the next will forget, but remembrance goes on. At school, children study the war poets and go on coach trips to the Somme, exploring reconstructed trenches and gasping at the numberless names, gravestones and crosses. Book clubs read Pat Barker and Sebastian Faulks; choirs sing Wilfred Owen’s poems in Britten’s War Requiem. By different routes we find ourselves wanting to know more and understand the Great War, and pay our respects to the fallen. Such a cost, for no obvious reason and no gain. How could it happen? How would we – personally and collectively - have performed?
The four-year centenary will be over by Christmas. This year Remembrance Day falls on 11 November, 100 years to the day since the Armistice was signed at 5.15am in a railway carriage parked in a forest clearing near Compiègne, to the north of Paris.
Before the opening of President Macron’s three-day Peace Forum in Paris, to which the leaders of all nations involved in the First World War have been summoned, there will presumably be some sort of remembrance moment at this historic place.
“We think Macron and Merkel will put in an appearance in the morning, probably around nine,” says the curator of the Armistice Museum. “They don’t give us much detail in advance – for reasons of security.” It is a reminder of the fragility of the peaceful life we enjoy.
The war to end all wars?
Anything but, as it turned out. As the French commander Ferdinand Foch among others at the time foresaw, the terms of the Armistice and the later peace Treaty of Versailles sowed the seeds of future conflict, which in some respects followed a similar course, with Germany retaking land it had acquired in 1870 and lost in 1918.
It was in a spirit of revenge that Hitler selected that same forest clearing near Compiègne for the signing of the next armistice, on 22 June, 1940; the same seating plan around the same table in the same railway carriage, with Herr Hitler in Foch’s chair.
A stone tablet bearing the inscription “Ici succomba le criminel orgueil vaincu par les peuples libres qu’il prétendait asservir” was of course removed, along with the luxurious (although lavatory-free) railway carriage, which went on display in Berlin, later to be destroyed. Replicas of both are in place now.
Remembrance and discovery
Touring the museums, monuments and memorials of the Western Front is a great education, but you do need to be selective or risk battlefield fatigue. Once it stabilised in late 1914, the Front extended for 700km from the Channel to the Alps, but there is no need to travel far or devote weeks to the whole thing. Within an hour of the Channel Tunnel, the nearby towns of Saint-omer and Arras are good bases for a remembrance weekend.
Overlooking the coal fields and industry of the Douai plain, Vimy Ridge is an introduction to the geography and geopolitics of the war. It is also a beautiful hilltop space, popular with joggers and cyclists, with a sculptural monument to the thousands of Canadians who died in the four-day battle for the ridge in April 1917. The recently opened visitor
centre has trenches and a tribute to a Canadian officer whose bid for remembrance was to pick a flower and send it in a letter to his young daughter, every day without fail.
Looking west, you can see the dome and tower of the Neo-byzantine basilica of Notre Dame de Lorette, the largest of all French military cemeteries. Recently erected on the south side of the ridge, the Ring of Remembrance (L’anneau de la Mémoire) is an elliptical walled enclosure with half a million names of soldiers from 40 nations who died in the Nord-pas-deCalais region during the First World War, listed alphabetically with no further detail. They include John Kipling (son of Rudyard), Joseph Standing Buffalo (grandson of Sitting Bull), Wilfred Owen and more than a dozen Rucks, many of them German.
To the south of Arras, the Somme was a British and Commonwealth theatre and sees the majority of battlefield tourism for that reason. The first day of the Somme Offensive, 1 June, 1916, has gone down as the worst day in British military history; 12,000 dead. Every school trip includes a visit to Thiepval where the facets of Lutyens’s massive memorial arch are inscribed with the names of more than 72,000 British and South Africans killed in the sector. There is a museum on site, but for a one-stop World War I museum experience covering the Somme, the Historial de la Grande Guerre at Péronne is the one to choose.
Gardens of rest
Remembrance travel started early, with Michelin publishing its first illustrated guide to the battlefields in 1917. Two years before that, a Red Cross medical orderly called Fabian Ware had founded the Graves Registration Commission out of concern that the dead should be properly honoured. That led to the Imperial and then the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), whose work around the world goes on, from a base at Beaurains near Arras, which will open its doors to visitors next year.
Visiting cemeteries may not sound the most compelling holiday activity, but it is impossible not to be impressed and moved by the CWGC’S work.
From the outset, strict design rules were laid down; all headstones the same size, stone and design, with tributes limited to a few words and no distinction between ranks. There would be monumental features by Lutyens and other leading architects, as well as words - ‘A soldier of the Great War known unto God’ and ‘their name liveth for evermore’ – chosen by Kipling. Roses and flowering shrubs were chosen and tended with great care, grass was mown to English country garden standard. No poppies, no weeds.
Most cemeteries have a register in a niche near the entrance. These books are worth consulting, not only to locate a specific grave, but to read the story of the battles that provided the graveyard with its dead.
Fields of black German crosses beneath a canopy of mature trees express a different vision of the last resting place as a mythic Wagnerian Valhalla. French graveyards are more
modest affairs, laid out and maintained in a spirit of economy. The road that leads north from Arras towards Souchez has examples of all three at Neuville-saintVaast, with an interesting ‘fraternisation monument’ commemorating the day in December 1915 when soldiers from both sides spontaneously emerged from their flooded trenches and drank tea together.
The poetry is in the pity
There has never been a war to compare with The Great War for producing great literature and, for many, Wilfred Owen has the last word on the experience of this war in particular and war in general. Largely unpublished in his lifetime, Owen is a complicated and elusive character, but the poems he wrote in 1917/18 have an immediacy and honesty that resonate down the years with no mediation required. There is special poignancy in the circumstances of the poet’s death in the last days of the war. The ‘deeply regret’ telegram is said to have reached his parents in Shropshire while the bells were ringing on 11 November.
In 1918, the long stalemate of trench warfare gave way to a final ‘War of Movement’ phase, as the German spring offensive was rolled back towards the Belgian border in an endgame held up – fatally for Owen and many others - by rivers and canals.
At the end of October, Owen’s battalion of the Manchester Regiment reached the village of Ors, on the Sambre-oise canal near Le Cateau. The ‘forester’s house’ he described in a letter to his mother on 31 October was a place of literary pilgrimage before the local mayor commissioned a British artist, Simon Patterson, to transform the building into a contemporary work of art. The result - a space where Owen’s words and verses are carved, etched, projected and spoken - opened in 2011. Although off the beaten track, it amply repays the journey, for a more intimate experience than places like Thiepval.
A curving ramp leads from the low-vaulted brick cellar, where Owen slept and wrote his last letter, to the house, which is shuttered and empty, with his scribbled verses on the wall. At each level recordings of his words are played in French and English (Kenneth Branagh reading the English versions).
“It is a great life. I am more oblivious than alas! yourself, dear Mother, of the ghastly glimmering of the guns outside and the hollow crashing of the shells. There is no danger down here, or if any, it will be over before you read these lines.
“Of this I am certain. You could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me here.”
The contrast between the mood of the letter and the anger of the poem on the walls upstairs, describing a gas attack in gut-churning detail, could not be sharper.
A marked trail leads through the woods to the canal where Owen was killed early in the morning of 4 November, in what would seem to have been a suicidal mission to cross a narrow stretch of water with German machine guns camped on the other side.
The poet’s grave is in Ors’s communal graveyard - not its military cemetery - alongside those of two men who were posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for their parts in the same unsuccessful action. Lt James Kirk paddled across the canal on a raft with a Lewis gun. Lt Col James Marshall was a much-decorated and often wounded commanding officer described by Owen as ‘bold, robust, dashing, unscrupulous, cruel, jovial, immoral, vast-chested, handsome-headed and of free coarse speech.’
The words on Owen’s gravestone – ‘All death will he annul, all tears assuage’ - may seem surprising. They are from his poem ‘ The End’ and I am grateful to Dr Andrew Palmer of Canterbury Christ Church University, co-author of a new book, The Remembered Dead, for pointing out that Owen’s mother omitted a question mark, to put a more confident spin on the quotation. Dr Palmer and his co-author Sally Minogue will be presenting their work at Ors on 4 November, as part of a day of Wilfred remembrance, starting (as Owen’s own last battle did) at 5.45am.
Verdun, sacrificial city
If you have time to go the extra mile, continue east to Verdun, the focus of French remembrance. The longest battle in the war saw 163,000 French and 143,000 German soldiers die, and entire villages disappear, in 10 months of 1916. A day in the hills around Verdun should include the Douaumont Ossuary, the Fort de Vaux and the lost village of Fleury.
As well as being an excellent presentation of the battle of Verdun and more broadly the war, the Memorial Museum at Douaumont has a temporary exhibition (until Christmas) devoted to the crucial intervention of America, which tipped the balance and made German victory impossible. Marine Captain Lloyd Collins is remembered for a remark worthy of John Wayne, capturing the vital injection of energy: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” Collins was killed soon afterwards.
In Verdun itself, the tour of the underground citadel in a funfair wagon is a Son-et-lumiere-style presentation of animated scenes of wartime life under siege. It makes a change from the dry museum experience.
The memorial trail continues south and east, through Lorraine and over the Vosges. For me, the time has come to beat a retreat; my remembrance tour ends, as the First World War began, with a race to the sea. Before checking in with Eurotunnel, I have time to squeeze in a visit to the graveyard at Wimereux, last resting place of John Mccrae, author of the most
popular of all war poems (‘In Flanders Fields where poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…’).
The Canadian medical officer died in January 1918, an early victim of the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic which would claim many more victims than the war itself. In this exposed and sandy location near the sea, gravestones are placed flat on the ground. A century on, they might easily be overgrown by now, but all is neat, as if freshly dug. Remembrance goes on without end.
OPENING PAGE: Douaumont National Necropolis and Ossuary, Verdun; MAIN: Thiepval, the cemetery and memorial at to the missing of the Somme; BELOW: British and French military cemeteries at La Targette, Neuville Saint-vaast; RIGHT: Wilfred Owen’s grave in the communal cemetery at Ors
BELOW: Railway carriage with seating plan for the signing of the Armistice, 11 Nov 1918. Armistice museum, Rethondes