Calendar of Great War commemorations hails military heroism at pivotal battles
Many first World War ceremonies are already mapped out but national roles can raise some historical questions
Wounded soldiers arrive at Rheims station from the western front during the first World War. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Joseph Zimet, director general of the Centenary Mission, has spent three years organising French and international commemorations of the beginning of the first World War. The project is, he says “a very big machine” involving seven French government ministries, the Biblothèque Nationale de France, the Association of Mayors, and the governments of 80 countries.
The first of five major events will take place in Sarajevo on June 28th, the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand. The EU has financed the undertaking by the governments of France, Austria, Britain and Germany. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will play in the Bosnian National Library, which was destroyed by shellfire in 1992, renovated and reopened last month.
Five thousand Bosnian Muslim and Orthodox youths will compete in a bicycle race sponsored by the Tour de France. A theatrical production will be staged at the scene of the assassination, and more than a dozen films on the history of Sarajevo will be screened.
Eighty countries that were involved in the first World War will participate in France’s Bastille Day parade on July 14th. Three soldiers from each guest country will march down the Champs-Élysées, followed by 320 children from the same 80 countries. The fireworks show and Radio France Orchestra concert at the Eiffel Tower that evening will be titled War and Peace.
On August 3rd, President François Hollande will be joined by his German counterpart, Joachim Gauck, in Alsace for a Franco-German ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of Germany’s declaration of war against France.
Taxis for troops
Commemorations of the Battle of the Marne will converge in Reims on September 12th. British prime minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel have been invited. “I’m trying not to have any taxis, because they were completely anecdotal,” Zimet laughs. Hundreds of Paris taxis were requisitioned to ferry troops to the front in the Marne. “The strategic impact was minor,” he continues. “But I’m afraid I’ll be forced to include them, because they’re part of the legend.”
The Battle of the Marne was “the break-off point between 19th- and 20th-century warfare,” Zimet says. “There was a before and an after. France might have collapsed in six weeks, as in 1940. But there was a sudden burst of national feeling. It was the beginning of mass death, and of the long war that no one expected.”
Armistice Day, November 11th, will begin with traditional ceremonies in Paris, then move to Nord-Pas-de-Calais, on the Belgian border. The region’s president, Daniel Percheron, originated the idea of a “ring of memory” recording the names of all 600,000 men killed in the area, in alphabetical order, regardless of nationality, rank or religion.
The names are engraved on granite slabs arranged vertically within a large oval ring reminiscent of Stonehenge. The engraved names remind one of the Vietnam and September 11th memorials in the US.
Zimet says these five events comprise “act one of three”. The French government has not yet decided how to commemorate the most important battles of the war, or its
end in 1918.
New French presidents usually scap all plans drawn up under their predecessor. Not so with Hollande, who preserved the project elaborated by Zimet under Nicolas Sarkozy. The only change requested by Hollande was to raise the profile of 70th anniversary commemorations of the landings in Normandy and Provence and the liberation of Paris.
The values of sacrifice and national unity exemplified in 1914 make it the preferred commemoration of the French right. 1944, on the other hand, speaks to leftist reverence for insurrection, rebellion and the refusal to accept established order. This was shown by Hollande’s decision in February to transfer the remains of four second World War heroes – but no one from the first World War – to the Pantheon. Gen Charles de Gaulle was on the right, but today the left too claim him as part of their heritage.
“I’m surprised at the absence of controversy surrounding the commemorations,” says Zimet. “There are very few debates. In France, no one even talks about those who were shot [for desertion or other crimes]. In Britain, there’s a little talk about whether we’re being too nice to the Germans. In Germany, Christopher Clark’s book Sleepwalkers has sold 200,000 copies. It exonerates Germany and lays blame with the Serbs, which has outraged the latter.”
But the commemorations have stirred questions of relations within countries and empires during the war, says Zimet: “Britain and Ireland discuss it. French Canadians recall their 1917 revolt against conscription. Flemings say they were mistreated by Walloons in Belgium. Colonial questions too have come to the surface. French school manuals long taught that the tirailleurs Sénégalais died for France. In reality, they were kidnapped in villages and pushed on to boats. The Germans and British also used forced labour from their colonies.” Tomorrow: Serbia & Bosnia