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

Wounded soldiers arrive at Rheims station from the western front during the first World War. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Thu, Jun 19, 2014, 01:00

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.

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