Published at 11:11 a.m. on 11/11
Armistice Day — first celebrated on November 11, 1919 to commemorate the end of World War I — officially became Veterans Day in 1954, when President Eisenhower signed legislation that ensured that American veterans of all wars would be honored every November 11. In France and Belgium, Armistice Day (Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale) is observed on November 11 as well. (British Commonwealth countries refer to Armistice Day as Remembrance Day, or Poppy Day.) This year, special events are planned in Europe because 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Today, French President François Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will inaugurate the International Memorial of Notre Dame de Lorette, a “Ring of Remembrance” at Ablan Saint Nazaire in northern France, near the Belgian border. The stunning new memorial is located on a plateau overlooking France’s largest military cemetery.
In September, Jeff and I visited Verdun, site of one of the longest and bloodiest battles in World War I. To this day, many areas where the ten-month battle took place are off-limits because of unexploded munitions. Trenches and huge bomb craters define the landscape, and ruined villages have been left as memorials. Our knowledgeable tour guide provided an interesting French perspective on World War I and arranged for lunch at the informal museum of Jean-Paul de Vries, a charismatic local resident who has found more than 30,000 World War I artifacts in the countryside near his home.
Richard Rubin, author of The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War, explored the battlefields with M. de Vries and visited his two-story garage:
I call it a garage because it had a vehicle door in front and sat in the midst of a village, but inside it was much more like a barn with a large loft. Whatever it once was, it is now full of locally found bayonets, rifles, grenade launchers; trench knives, “persuaders”, entrenching tools; helmets, gas masks, wristwatches; mess kits, eating utensils, pots, pans, jugs; horseshoes, saddles, harnesses, ammunition crates, wicker shell carriers; Bibles and religious statuettes; enough bottles to supply several bars and pharmacies; and many, many photographs . . .
It’s a museum . . . haphazard and compelling, wondrous and sad. M. de Vries accepts donations but does not charge admission. Everything he has here was offered up to him, for free, by the earth. Experts say France’s World War I battlefields will continue to regurgitate artifacts of that war for another two or three centuries.
I’ve read a lot of historical fiction about World War I, but my husband is the expert when it comes to actual history. In addition to The Last of the Doughboys, his collection of World War I nonfiction includes the following (and many more):
Poilu: The World War I Notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker, 1914-1918 — A new translation of the actual wartime diaries of a French soldier. Barthas spent four years in almost constant combat, fighting in every major French battle. Somehow he managed to chronicle his experiences in a series of notebooks. When he arrived home, he added information (letters, official reports, clippings, etc.), eventually filling 19 volumes. (By the way, “poilu” means “hairy one” in French and is the French version of the American “doughboy” — an infantryman.)
The Missing of the Somme (Geoff Dyer) — Dyer, the grandson of a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, has written what the Wall Street Journal calls “a lyrical meditation on memory and the meaning of World War I”.
To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918 (Adam Hochschild) — The New York Times describes Hochschild as “a historian ‘from below’, as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one” and adds that “this is a book to make one feel deeply and painfully, and also to think hard.”
The Pity of War: Explaining World War I (Niall Ferguson) — Controversial British historian argues that World War I was not inevitable, as other historians have claimed, but can be almost entirely blamed on the actions of Great Britain.
I enjoyed Stanley Weintraub’s Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce. In 1914, 100,000 soldiers on the Western Front took part in a temporary cease-fire on Christmas Eve. The last survivor of the truce, Sgt. Alfred Anderson of Scotland’s Fifth Battalion Black Watch, died in 2005 at the age of 109.
There are no living World War I veterans today . . . but there are plenty of other veterans to thank for their service.