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.

France - - Contents -

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

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