Remembering World War I; it'll surely break your heart

The French embassy in Beirut held a gloomy ceremony to mark the killing of its 58 paratroopers in a suicide truck bombing 30 years ago. Just one survivor of the attack was persuaded to come back to Lebanon; he spoke movingly of his living, wounded comrades and their all-too living trauma. The Americans lost 241 servicemen a few seconds earlier in another suicide lorry bombing, but no ceremonies for them last week.  I guess the fires of Afghanistan and Iraq still burn too brightly.

Or do the Europeans care about these dark anniversaries? Unlike the Brits — and I suppose we must wait till that awful date of  4 August to get round to it — the French are already commemorating the First World War, the hundredth anniversary of which falls next year.

Perhaps they lost too many men to wait: perhaps 1,385,000 against Britain's 744,000.
In Ireland, one of the late Seamus Heaney's last poems, published  for the first time this weekend, is inspired by a reading of the British First World War poet Edward Thomas, who was killed at the battle of Arras in April 1917.

In France, they are already reopening ancient tunnels where German and French soldiers spent months blowing each other up. French papers carry full page articles on the need to preserve the memories — the letters and documents and photographs and memorabilia of the war which was supposed to end all wars — along with pictures of long-dead poilus in their odd firemen's hats.

A digital library called Europeana has collected 500,000 mementos and personal archives in 10 countries — its campaign for memorabilia in France begins in just over a week's time — and some of the items could break a heart of stone. Among them is a cluster of white, black and brown figurine farm animals sculpted by French soldier Charles Grauss for his daughter Ghislaine. They attest to love and a longing for home.  But Grauss "fell on the field of honour" — as they say in France — on 29 April 1918.

A snapshot shows the Peiffer-Weber family outside their smashed home in Reims in 1918, the building torn apart by a German shell. Madame Peiffer can be seen in a white smock, sitting on the rubble with her tiny daughters, Juliette and Elisa.

The very elderly sisters gave the photograph to the digital library which allowed Le Figaro to print it, along with other ephemera of war.

Some of the letters are from children. Marguerite Hosmalin wrote to her father in April 1915 ("Mon cher papa...") with her own drawings of the British, French, Belgian and Russian flags. And there is — was there not bound to be? — a Bible which saved the life  of one Kurt Geller in a trench in north-eastern France. Geller — French, despite his name — was sleeping when shells fell around  his trench and a chunk of shrapnel struck the Bible beneath his head, almost cutting the volume in two. The Bible still exists, its back and pages torn but its front cover not quite broken. Geller's head was untouched.

British troops sent thousands of postcards home from the trenches, many of them showing destroyed French towns and villages. My father — of whom I have sworn not to write more, although it will be difficult next year — was in the King's Liverpool Regiment and sent back cards of the destruction  of Cambrai which he had helped to liberate along with Canadian troops in 1918. For some reason he was never able to explain, his mother — my grandmother — gave him not a Bible but a tiny steel model of the Buddha to keep him safe. My dad was not a Buddhist. But he survived and the little Buddha is now in my safekeeping, along with his service medal, "The Great War for Civilisation" inscribed on the back. I used to hunt for postcards of  the First World War myself and I well remember buying — at a Paris flea market — a card sent home from the trenches by a French soldier in 1914. One after the other, he listed the names of his neighbours who had already been killed. I put the card in a place of safety, and now — to my great sorrow — cannot find it.  

Eugene Herbet, who fought at Verdun, kept all his 1914-18 papers in the loft of his home. The family house was and still is on the Somme, where his grandson, also Eugene, found them when Eugene Senior died. He had been a stretcher-bearer but also a musician and had persuaded his colonel to let him start his own orchestra in the trenches. His musical note-taking and concert papers are still intact, along with a special march he wrote for his French unit, the 411th Infantry Regiment.

In France, they've even printed for the first time a French translation of Company K, a novel written by US Marine William March and first published in America in 1933. He fought from November 1917 until the last day of the war, 11 November 1918, after crossing the Meuse under shellfire the previous day. "If men  of rank from each army could simply find themselves beside a river where they could talk calmly," March wrote — and I am re-translating him back from the French — "no war would last more than a week."

One serviceman in the novel reads Shelley and Wordsworth.  And another, beside him, says to himself: "When the war's over, I'm going to learn to read."

The Independent


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