This is 2018, one hundred years after the end of World War I (and 74 years after the end of WWII). I realized how little I knew about this war that changed the course of history, redrew the borders of Europe and the Middle East, advanced technology and women’s status and made great strides in medicine. This war marked a distinct change from the past and was the real beginning of the 20th century. Thinking that it was time to improve my knowledge of this time period I decided that a kid’s book would be a good place to start. The book 50 clés pour comprendre la grande guerre (Castor Doc, Flammarion) written by a French junior high teacher named David Dumaine is an excellent summary of the war. The level of French is for junior high and so it easily readable for those with imperfect French. Dumaine gives a clear overview in 50 key points each on a double page with images and side bars. He covers causes, results, battles, the trenches, women and children. I finally understood the rivalries and pacts between European empires and nations which led to such tension that the assassination of the Archduke in Sarajevo was all the excuse that was needed to launch into war. Within two weeks – July and August of 1914 – six countries declared war. Dumaine’s book brings forth themes such as how the war turned into a stalemate in the trenches making it last years rather than the expected months. He also lists key people, monuments, films and museums about the Great War for further learning. The book is a great way to get started understanding this piece of history. One of the things that struck me was the images – many of the photographs and paintings made me think of the United States Civil War showing cannons, swords and horses – in the course of four short years those images evolved showing changes in helmets, arms, vehicles including tanks, and airplanes as warfare moved from the 19th century to the 20th.
I read Dumaine’s book while also reading the Goncourt prize winning book of 2013: Au revoir là-haut by Pierre Lemaitre. This story, made into a film in 2017, of two former World War I infantrymen trying to reconstruct their lives after the war brought the facts and figures of Dumaine’s account to life. It was fascinating to have the fictional characters come alive and walk through this period of history as I was trying to understand the facts. Au revoir là-haut focuses on the end of the war, the tragedy of death and life and how the nation is more interested in taking care of the dead rather than reintegrating the former, sometimes disabled, often traumatized, soldiers back into daily life. The story takes place mainly in Paris where the heros take the metro, visit the Bon Marché and Hotel Lutétia. Another focus of Lemaitre’s story is how to honor the dead (or in this case how to dishonor the dead) which lead me to research the ubiquitous Monument aux Morts found in every French town.
The church, town hall, the school and the monument to the dead are the four things you are sure to find in every town in France. From the largest cities to the tiniest villages, each has their monument aux morts, which makes 36,400 monuments of which the large majority were created between 1920 and 1925 as France (and the rest of the world) tried to put the First World War behind them. In fact many of the monuments do not celebrate victory, but are more introspective dealing with the pain of loss of so many fathers and sons. The monument (see top photo) sculpted by Paul Landowski (3) in Boulogne-Billancourt was originally planned to evoke bravery, glory and patriotism and to be placed in a busy central location, but as a few more years past the plan was revised and the monument was tucked into a peaceful corner of the cemetery where mourners could spend quiet time with their memories. The final sculpture changed from a military monument to a funereal monument. There are no mentions of the republic, the nation, glory or patriotism just the phrase “A ceux qui sont morts pour nous. La ville de Boulogne-sur-Seine (4) pleure 2996 de ses enfants”. Many other monuments were erected by groups such as the Comédie Française honoring the “Comédiens mort pour la France” or “La Leçon d’histoire” sculpture at the Lycée Carnot in Paris which recognizes teachers and students who died. One of the largest monuments in Paris is in the 15th arrodissement near the Town Hall (middle photo). This monument sums up a large swath of Parisian history integrating the nobles of the 17th century, revolutionaries, a poilu (5) and a mother and child. While many towns have a simple obelisk, perhaps crowned by a rooster, there are over 10,000 sculpted monuments from all over France on the very thorough site http://www.monumentsauxmorts.fr/. In France alone there were 1.4 million killed and 3 million wounded (les invalids et mutilés de guerre) of a total of 8 million who were mobilized. The population of France was 40 million at the time and it took until the 1950s to start population growth again.
Incidentally The Arc de Triomphe, although erected by Napoléon, became the tomb of the unknown soldier after World War I in 1920. The eternal flame was first lit in 1923 and is rekindled each day at 6.30pm during a short ceremony which is open to the public.
The Musée de la Grande Guerre du Pays de Meaux in Meaux is just 40 minutes from Paris by train or car. It’s modern building is spacious enough to include a general introduction, numerous vehicles, a display of uniforms of all participants, reconstructed trenches and thematic rooms.
Take a weekend and travel to the Somme where you can still see trenches on the former battlefields. The Somme department is just 2 hours north of Paris. See the article “Get out of Town to the Somme”.
Selected books – there are seemingly and logically hundreds coming out this year.
- 50 clés pour comprendre la grande guerre de David Dumaine, Castor Doc, Flammarion
- L’encyclopédie de la grande guerre 1914-1918, Editions du Chêne
The Children’s War, an analysis of the effect of the war on the children of Britain by Rosie Kennedy, Palgrave Macmillan
- La Première Guerre mondiale, Les Yeux de la découverte, Gallimard Jeunesse
- Paris at the End of the World: The City of Light during the Great War 1914-1918 by John Baxter, Harper Perennial
Cinema: Revisit classic films such as
- La Grande Illusion de Jean Renoir
- War Horse by Steven Spielberg
- Capitaine Conan de Bertrand Tavernier
- Un Long Dimanche de fiançailles de Jean-Pierre Jeunet
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Lewis Milestone
- African Queen by John Huston
Documentaries: World War I – Top Gun Revealed The story of how a small band of pioneering aircraft designers and engineers invented modern warfare in the four years between 1914 and 1918, turning the aeroplane from an eccentric novelty to the decisive weapon of modern conflict.
There are also many television documentaries being presented on television, so keep your eye on the listings.
Versailles during WWI – photos and videos
1 La Der des ders: is an expression that is derived from dernière des dernières (guerres) the last of the last, the War to End all Wars. It can also refer to the poilu.
3 Paul Landowski is the sculptor of the Christ of Rio and the fountains at Porte de Saint Cloud. His atelier/ museum is in Boulogne-Billancourt
4 Boulogne-sur-Seine was renamed Boulogne-Billancourt in when the two towns merged in 1926.
5 poilu: a nickname for the French fantassin or infantry soldier, referring to their unshaven faces. British soldiers were Tommies, Americans Sammies or Dough Boys (apparently due to the shape of the buttons on their uniforms), Australians and New Zealanders were Diggers, Germans Landsers and the Turks Mehmetcik.