If you went to any French village today you will have seen the commemoration of Armistice Day. At 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns finally fell silent and, after a brief eruption of euphoria, the world started to count the cost. This day has come to symbolise the sacrifice of French citizens in all wars. Next year, of course, is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the ‘war to end wars’. The centenary commemorations (you can hardly describe them as celebrations) have already started in France, launched by President Hollande last week.
The crushing weight of the casualties marked French society throughout the 20th century. Out of a total 40 million population, 1.4 million French died, equating to 900 deaths for each day of the war. More than a quarter of the 18-27 age group lost their lives. 600,000 widows and one million orphans were left behind. Two-thirds of French families lost a close relative.
Numbers on a page don’t signify much until you realise what the losses must have meant to individual French communities. Not far from us, the tiny commune of Espinas counted 508 inhabitants in 1911. Ten years later, it had 436. The monument des morts (war memorial) is a grim litany of loss. The same family names recur over and over again. It’s a similar story throughout the French countryside.
Is it any surprise, therefore, that French women are given medals for bearing huge numbers of children? After 1918 the imperative was to build up the numbers again – as fast as possible. The epidemic of Spanish flu at the end of the war intensified the need for replacement. A century on, despite the huge changes that have taken place in French society, the necessity for replacement still hangs on.
The countryside took the brunt of the fatalities. Agricultural workers were massively conscripted into the infantry. By contrast, part of the cohort of industrial workers was drafted into the manufacturing effort necessary to keep the war machine running. As a result, they were partially shielded from the cataclysm.
Women played their part in keeping things going. I wrote a while ago about a letter that turned up by chance, written by a farmer’s wife in Espinas during World War I. She tells her husband what crops she has been sowing and how the farm is doing. She expresses some pride in her ability to run the farm.
Despite their efforts, French women didn’t get a lot out of it. Britain granted women the vote in 1918, partly in recognition of their war work. In France, women’s place in society reverted to its pre-war state in 1918 and they had to wait until 1944 for the right to vote.
By many accounts, fictional as well as factual, those who returned from the front lines did not speak of their ordeals. They simply wanted, if possible, to forget. The next generation was brought up against the backdrop of this silence. And then it started all over again in 1939; the 20 years in between were just a truce. It’s only the third generation after World War I that has enough distance to question and investigate what happened.
But I fear that the forthcoming blizzard of books, films, documentaries, exhibitions, visits to the battlefields etc. – not to mention the tacky commemorative items – risk turning the war into a Disney-type tourist attraction and thus satiating our appetite for understanding. Inevitably, history moves on and our perception of it is distorted accordingly. Nobody is alive today who fought in the so-called Great War. The last French poilu (colloquial name for ‘soldier’, lit. hairy one) died in 2008. By an unfortunate irony, Lazare Ponticelli was a naturalised Italian. A few thousand very elderly people are still alive who would have lived through the war. But they would have been too young to know or understand much about it at the time. Now, the only records we have are documentary or secondary.
Even the place of World War II in modern history is becoming hazy to its own third generation. Not long ago, a young person asked me if the massacre by Das Reich at Oradour-sur-Glane (1944) happened recently.
Perhaps one of the tragedies of history is that those who were there would prefer to forget while those who weren’t there have only a partial or distorted view.
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