When I spend time in France, occasionally, some profound emotion takes hold, often when I’m least expecting it.
When I was growing up in England, “The War” came up regularly, if fleetingly, especially when my parents’ friends came to visit. It was more of a mention, a reference in passing, whispered in the same tone then accorded cancer.
As a small boy, I used to visit my grandmother in London, in Moorgate. She lived right in the heart of The City proper, not far from The Guildhall and St. Paul’s. Across the street the area was still an open pile of rubble from the Blitz.
It gave me nightmares.
I used to imagine what it would have been like to live through that time. And today, as someone of a certain age and place, it still resonates.
My father was a gunner with the Middlesex Regiment who served in the North Africa campaigns and finished the war, after surviving Monte Casino, in the occupation force in Italy. My mother worked in the Land Army—which people today tend to forget, in some ways, was just as crucial a war effort as the fighting overseas. She milked an entire herd of cows by hand every day—and even in later life had a handshake that could bring a grown man to his knees.
I know my parents lost many friends along the way. My father never talked in detail to me about the war, except once, when he was in the late stages of Parkinson’s. Those experiences in his early 20s haunted him for the rest of his life.
When in Paris this past spring, I re-visited l’Arc de Triomphe. As usual, it was packed with visitors from around the world, all trying to get the right shot of the remarkable monument. But most were mainly visiting it because, well, it’s just there.
A voluminous, 50 metre high structure, it is, indeed, impressive.
However, the two things that move me the most are on the ground.
One is the substantial, bronze plaque that reproduces General de Gaulle’s famous June 18, 1940 Call for Resistance, which he made (from the BBC in London) the day after Petain announced the infamous armistice with Hitler. Even though few heard it live, De Gaulle’s speech proved pivotal, as he succeeded in mobilising the Resistance at home and abroad—a turning point for France.
The other is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, from the 1914-1918 war. It’s roped off (on the less busy side) and, except for a few who do pay tribute, all but ignored by the crowds in favour of the overwhelming presence of Napoleon’s grand scheme.
At what point did l’Arc de Triomphe shift from being a monument to the glorification of war to one that adopted, at least in part, a more sombre tone? The short answer would be during the dark days of First World War, in which one and a half million French soldiers and civilians died. The British lost almost one million; and the German Empire some two and a half million. Canada and Newfoundland’s still small populations also suffered relatively huge losses.
In all the “Great War” accounted for the deaths of a staggering almost 17 million people, although some sources put that number at nearer 20 million.
On November 11th, 1920, the body of an unidentified British soldier was carried ceremonially from its makeshift French grave and interred at London’s Westminster Abbey.
The previous day the remains of eight unidentified French soldiers had been brought to a chapel near l’Arc de Triomphe. One coffin was randomly chosen and ceremonially carried to the archway’s interior, on the first floor, later to be interred in its current resting place on January 28th, 1921, under the inscription:
“Ici repose un soldat Français mort pour la patrie 1914–1918” (“Here lies a French soldier who died for his fatherland 1914-1918.”)
Two years later the Paris Memorial Flame was lit and has never been extinguished.
Those burials and surrounding ceremony mark the genesis of Remembrance Day (or Armistice) ceremonies.
Perhaps more than most, the French never forget their heroes. Paris is filled with plaques of every kind. But many pay tribute to the fallen, military, civilian and otherwise, from the revolution onwards. Their inscriptions are detailed—and occasionally jarring with candour and unapologetic bitterness that reflect the times.
“To the memory of the pupils of this school, deported from 1942 to 1944 because they were born Jewish, innocent victims of the Nazis’ barbarism and of the Vichy Government”
Some years ago now, on Remembrance Day, I found myself driving through a tiny village in France. It was close to 11 a.m. and I noticed a small group of people, some in uniform, and the tri-colour at the local cenotaph. I parked the car and walked over to join the ceremony. It was among the most moving I’ve ever witnessed. And remains indelible in my memory.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
(From Laurence Binyon’s poem “Ode to the Fallen”, written in part at Polzeath, Cornwall.)