France Agonizes Over How To Remember World War I Veterans

Roundup: Talking About History

Jo Johnson, Financial Times (London, England), 1/15/05

They are known as the ders des ders, the last of the last, and they will soon be gone. Aged between 105 and 110 and with a life expectancy measured in months not years, 14 soldiers are all that remain of the vast French armies of the first world war. In the hills above Verdun, the fortress town near the German border, a sense of impending loss is palpable as the last guardians of living memory of the fighting that scarred this area disappear one by one.

Just how they will be remembered is a question troubling Jean-Louis Dumont, who represents the Verdun area in parliament. The Socialist deputy has provoked debate by proposing a law to turn the funeral of the last poilu (French infantryman of the 1914-18 war) into a"solemn national homage" to all who fought in that conflict. This memorial service for an entire generation could, he suggests, be held at Verdun or at Douaumont, where Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl held hands in 1984 and said"Never again."

"Paris may prefer Invalides and of course we can't ignore the claim of the Somme, but Verdun has a special resonance. It is the universal battlefield," says Mr Dumont as he drives past white posts that mark where houses once stood in Fleury-devant-Douaumont, one of the nine villages in the area that he says"gave up their lives for France".

"Next year, the 90th anniversary of our victory, would be ideal for Verdun, but may be too soon of course. Many, thankfully, are in good health."

The doyen of poilus is Maurice Floquet, a Somme veteran who still keeps fit on an exercise bicycle at his home in the Var. He turned 110 on Christmas Day and was this month promoted by President Jacques Chirac to the rank of officer in the legion d'honneur. Most, though, are in wheelchairs and live either in nursing homes or with 24-hour care. Last year, for the first time, none made it to the Remembrance Day service in Paris.

Some countries have already bid farewell to this generation. When Alec Campbell, the last Anzac and a survivor of Gallipoli, died in 2002 at the age of 103, Australian flags around the world flew at half-mast. The prime minister cut short a visit to China to attend a state funeral. In the UK there are 19 veterans left, aged 105 to 108, eight fewer than the start of 2004.

The politics of wartime memory are ever sensitive in France, and Mr Dumont's proposal has yet to win government approval. Pierre Mayaudon, cabinet director at the Ministry for Veterans' Affairs in Paris, says it is difficult to know whether the last poilu will be emblematic of the first world war spirit of soldiers charging out of mud-filled trenches into merciless machine-gun fire. Some of the veterans who were awarded the legion d'honneur en masse in the mid-1990s refused to accept it, he recalls.

"For the last poilu, France must organise something exceptional," Mr Mayaudon says."But it's not simple because it could be that the last man is someone who cannot be used to illustrate a generation. Perhaps among those that remain there are one or two who refused the legion d'honneur, whether because they opposed the war or felt that if they hadn't been given it earlier they didn't deserve it. And there might be others who only had a small role behind the lines for just a few weeks at the end of the conflict."

For Dennis Goodwin, who runs the UK's First World War Veterans Association, the French debate is unnecessarily morbid."There's still a lot to play for and the game's not over yet. I can't believe the French are saying, 'What shall we do when they're all dead?' They should do something for them when they're all alive to give them the will to live. I hope I can continue to take our lads places and keep alive the compassion and debt that we owe this unique generation."

Historians say they will miss the living link. Nigel Steel, head of research at London's Imperial War Museum, which has an archive of around 16,000 personal papers and recorded oral histories from the Great War, says that archaeology and the study of archives will become more important:"You can't ring people up and see them. People can't turn around and say, 'No, it wasn't like that.' It's always important for historians to be reminded that they're dealing with real people."

Yet the technological breakthroughs allowing oral history to develop in the 1960s mean historians have a representative cross-section of experience from the first world war.

"From an evidentiary standpoint, there's enough to supply historians for some time to come and, in terms of our understanding, the loss of what is left of this generation is not going to be great," says Mr Steel."But even if you don't learn much, meeting them is so powerful it's a great shame it will no longer be possible."

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