Focus on human tragedy of war, not the grim statistics
Every single person who was militarily involved in World War I is now dead. That is some 65 million people, including 10 million who were killed at the time.
France’s sacrifice was particularly enormous: 1.4 million soldiers fell during the conflict – an average of almost 900 a day. The worst slaughter took place on French battlefields such as the Somme and Verdun – names that to this day signify the futility of war. More than 1 million lost their lives or were wounded during both horrific confrontations.
The figures are as stark as they are chilling, but it is right that they are highlighted as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the 1914-18 fighting on November 11.
We need to do more than that, however. When an event is no longer in living memory, there is a danger that its true impact will disappear into myth.
Heads are bowed at commemorative gatherings that have been planned for years, stock clichés are reeled out, and there is a woeful disconnect with what really happened.
The way to prevent glib recollections on this year’s Armistice Day is very simple. Beyond the grim statistics, all of us should focus on a few of the individual stories of those who were mobilised.
Look far enough down your own family tree and you will learn about ordinary lives being plunged into lethal chaos.
If there is nobody close to you, spend a bit of time researching the easily available war records of those with whom you have no blood ties, who perished in normally tranquil and beautiful parts of rural France.
This might range from a famous war poet – Wilfred Owen or Edward Thomas – to those whose history is sparsely archived: maybe one of the thousands of Algerian or Indian infantrymen killed in action while serving far away from home with front line units from the colonies.
The final World War I survivor who could tell her own story was Florence Green, who joined Britain’s Women’s Royal Air Force in September 1918. She died in 2012, aged 110.
In France, Pierre Picault was the last poilu – the affectionate slang word for the “hairy” Great War French fighters.
He breathed his last in 2008 in Bou, the village in the northern Loiret department where he had been born 109 years earlier.
One of the best places to learn about such individuals in France is the Great War Museum (le Musée de la Grande Guerre).
It was inaugurated on Armistice Day 2011, and is situated in Meaux, in the Marne countryside, where hugely significant battles were fought at both the beginning and end of the war.
Cemeteries surround the purpose-built museum, while inside nearly 50,000 objects and documents help illustrate personal stories.
They trace the history of France from the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, into the industrialised carnage that characterised 1914-18.
Fittingly, there is no attempt at Meaux to celebrate victory.
The period is instead presented as a terrifying prelude to the absolute disaster of the Second World War.
The illusion of triumph against the Germans was, within a little over two decades, wiped out by yet another invasion, this time followed by capitulation, Occupation and alliance with the Nazis.
Marshal Philippe Pétain – the “Lion” of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 who was reduced to a wretched collaborator leading the wartime Vichy regime in the 1940s – personified a nation’s shame.
Despite such ignominy, France and her allies, including Britain, will this month concentrate on those who, in the main shared an unquestioning loyalty – to their country, their leaders, their God, and perhaps solely to what they considered best for their families’ futures.
This is what comes over when you read the most moving documents from the time – personal letters.
Beyond any sense of patriotism, or other ideology, the majority of participants were simply caught up in an appalling human tragedy.
Whatever our own backgrounds, our politics, or our faith, this is what we should really be thinking about on Armistice Day 2018 – and in the years to come.
Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist who specialises in French politics and the Arab world. Her articles feature in the French national press as well as internationally. She is a regular columnist in The Connexion