This post will be about the end of our latest trip to Europe. Since we were flying back home on 12 November, our last two days were spent in Paris. We did not remember that Wednesday 11 November was Armistice Day and a national holiday in France. The night before as we were returning to our hotel we wondered why all the parked cars had been removed from the streets but soon realized it was to make room for cars of the officials attending the ceremony. Next morning from our window we saw a row of cars parked below and could hear music coming from the Arc de Triomphe area.
We walked up the 2 blocks to the Place Charles de Gaulle where the Arc de Triomphe stands at the top of the Avenue des Champs Elysées in central Paris. It was erected in 1835 to honor the army of Napoleon. It was a cool, grey morning but quite a large crowd was already assembled. A huge screen near the Arc had been erected and I was able to take photographs of the screen for close ups of the ceremony.
Click on pictures to enlarge themhe also said “…Cela fait presque un demi-siècle qu’ensemble nous construisons l’avenir, chacun d’entre nous aimant son pays d’un amour sincère et profond mais refusant désormais de confondre l’amour de son pays avec la haine de l’autre.” (For nearly half a century we have together been building the future, each of us sincerely and deeply loving our country, but now refusing to confuse love of our country with hatred of the other’s.)
The Great War, also called World War I and The War to End All Wars ended with the armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, i.e. November 11 at 11:00 AM. Armistice Day (a French word from New Latin armistitium, from Latin arma + -stitium meaning suspension of hostilities by agreement between the opponents) also known as Remembrance Day has been observed on 11 November in many countries since. Here, in the United States, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day on 11 November 1919. It was observed here until President Dwight Eisenhower signed a law changing its name to Veterans Day to expand Armistice Day to celebrate all veterans. The reason this Armistice Day was an historical event in France was because Angela Merkel was the first German Chancellor to attend this commemoration in France which marks the moment the guns went down on the Western Front. While the national anthems of the two former enemies were being sung by the choir of the French Army Chancellor Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe . They rekindled its flame and signed the commemoration book.
Pictures are not clear because taken at a distance from the large screen
Then the two leaders went to a small lectern where each gave a short speech. French President Sarkozy said: “…en ce 11 novembre nous ne commémorons pas la victoire d’un peuple contre un autre mais une épreuve qui fut aussi terrible pour l’un comme pour l’autre. Je veux dire que les orphelins allemands ont pleuré leurs pères morts au combat de la même manière que les orphelins français.” (…this 11 November, we aren’t commemorating the victory of one people over another, but an ordeal as terrible for the one as for the other. I mean that German orphans cried over the deaths of their fathers in combat just as French orphans did.)
Chancellor Merkel said: "Both dates, the end of the First World War, and the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall, remind us that we must always fight for the invaluable goods of peace and freedom, that we need to defend our values, of democracy and human rights, and that we keep working for European solidarity and partnership with America. That is our task."
she also said: “The Germans and the French, once bitter enemies, now stand united as neighbors in a way that nourishes hope and confidence that elsewhere in the world, too, deep trenches can be bridged and overcome” “I know that what has gone before cannot be erased, but there is a power, a power which helps us and which can help us bear what has passed: reconciliation.”
Then while the choir sang Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony the two leaders came close to the barriers to shake hands with the crowd. They came near us but in trying to move closer we forgot to take pictures! Then they joined their spouses and drove back down the Avenue des Champs Elysées.
I arrived home in Georgia with a bad cold which turned into an infection. My stay in bed allowed me to go through several library books on the Great War, such as The Great War Illustrated by Winter and Bagget, The First World War by Jack Keegan, The First World War a Complete History by Martin Gilbert and I also purchased the newer paperback A World Undone by G.J.Meyer which I am still reading (752 pages.) I’ll mention some facts that I gathered there for the benefit of my younger blogging friends who may not have studied this war too closely. I’ll also scan several vintage postcards from the 3 dozen postcards on this subject in my card collection.
On 28 July 1914 Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Then from 1914 until 1917 major powers entered the war. France entered the war and subsequently was joined by 600,000 troops from Algeria, Morocco, Senegal and Vietnam (then called Indochina.)
Below is a postcard of the French infantry corps called French Zouave from French North Africa
Britain fought alongside its troops from the British Commonwealth such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Newfoundland and its Colonial Empire such as troops from India and other colonies. China, Japan, Russia were fighting with the Allies against Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Many more countries joined the conflict – click here to see all the participants in World War I.
Postcard below shows Britain Sir Douglas Haig introducing Sir Pertab Singh of India to Gen Joffre of France.
Great War Illustrated book says: “What Gettysburg is to America, Verdun is to France and the Somme is to Britain. These legendary battlefields are still today sacred ground.” (page 156.) The Battle of the Somme lasted 5 months - from July to November 1916 – it produced no strategic gain but over 1 million casualties. The Battle of Verdun in north-eastern France was gruesome and a carnage. It was the longest battle of the war lasting 10 months (Feb to Dec 1916.) The German artillery fired over 21 million rounds and the French artillery 23.5 million. The French won but sustained more casualties (372,000) than the Germans (337,000.) Like the Battle of the Somme it produced no strategic gain but “Above all it normalized collective violence, the signature of our century [20th century.] – The Great War Illustrated, pg 361.
US President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had vowed to keep America out of the war and had been re-elected because of that pledge. But after Germany sank three American ships in March 1917 the United States declared war on Germany on 6 April 1917. Many Americans were eager to serve and the first troops arrived in France in June 1917. By March 1918 General John J. Pershing had 500,000 troops under his command and he told French General Ferdinand Foch: “We are ready and anxious for a chance to do our part in the fight.” The Germans were very surprised when the fresh American replaced the exhausted French. Violent American attacks stunned the Germans and by November 1918 the Kaiser’s armies had been crushed and were retreating toward their German homeland. Turkey surrendered on 30 October 1918 and Austria-Hungary on 3rd November. At 5:30 am on November 11, 1918 Germany signed an armistice document. The fighting was ordered to end at 11:00 A.M. on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.
to the American Forces: “Your high spirit, your faith, made decisive victory sure for us.”
The destructiveness of the First World War (WWI) exceeded that of all other wars known to history. In four years the number of military and civilian casualties came to more than 40 millions: 20 millions dead and 21 millions injured. This number includes 9.7 million military deaths and 10 million civilian deaths. As point of reference, in four years the American Civil War had 600,000+ killed. As another point of reference: since June 2003 and up till 20 September 2009 there has been 4345 troops killed in the Iraq war – during World War I over 7500 troops were killed each week. The scale of destruction of WWI was enormous – whole generations were wiped out. Every town in France has a WWI monument with many names inscribed on it. Most French families have a member of their family who died or was severely injured in this war (mine included) and I suspect that it is the same in Germany. Whatever was achieved was not worth the human blood it spilled. People now are interested in World War II but, in truth, WWII had its foundation and roots in WWI.
So to see the leaders of France and Germany standing side by side by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe, on this formal ceremony of remembrance, while both country flags were fluttering in the wind and their anthems were being sung, was a poignant and powerful gesture of reconciliation.
This was indeed an historical Armistice Day celebration and we are glad that we could attend it.
“Calm fell. From heaven distilled a clemency;
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky….”
- Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)
There was peace on earth, and silence in the sky….”
- Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)