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Europe Remembers One of Deadliest Conflicts in Human History


French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony in tribute to French soldiers killed on Aug. 1914 during border battles, in Morhange, Eastern France, Nov. 5, 2018 as part of a World War I commemoration tour.

Their pain has long gone. No odor from the gas warfare they endured remains. There are no echoes of the thump of artillery, no reverberation of the clash of arms, no sound of fusillades or the rat-a-tat of the machine guns. The trenches have long been filled; the entanglements of harsh wire gone, too. All is quiet on the Western Front.

FILE - A World War I trench and artillery piece remain in the dark interior of Belleau Wood in France, June 5, 1948. The Battle of Belleau Wood, between U.S. Marines and German troops, was fought here between June 1-26, 1918.
FILE - A World War I trench and artillery piece remain in the dark interior of Belleau Wood in France, June 5, 1948. The Battle of Belleau Wood, between U.S. Marines and German troops, was fought here between June 1-26, 1918.

But the memory remains of the industrial slaughter that was World War I. It echoes for later generations in fading black-and-white photographs, letters home stained with foxing and the poems of war poets like Wilfred Owen. And it echoes in the thoughts of the few surviving sons and daughters, frail and aged themselves, of the fathers who never came home.

And this week in the days leading up to November 11, the centenary of the end of World War I, one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race, testimonies to the carnage are being pored over, discussed and debated.

French President Emmanuel Macron poses with history enthusiasts, dressed with vintage army uniforms as Poilu (French World War I soldiers), after a ceremony at the Memorial to the Battle of Morhange, Eastern France, Nov. 5, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron poses with history enthusiasts, dressed with vintage army uniforms as Poilu (French World War I soldiers), after a ceremony at the Memorial to the Battle of Morhange, Eastern France, Nov. 5, 2018.

On Sunday, hundreds of mourners turned up in the French village of Ors — some from as far away as the United States and New Zealand — to retrace the fateful last steps of Wilfred Owen, who died a week before Armistice Day along with hundreds of his fellows trying to cross a canal. They heard the plaintive notes of the Last Post being played on a bugle Owen retrieved from the battlefield.

His last letter home, written while he and his men rested before battle, included this final line: “You could not be visited by a band of friends half so fine as surround me.”

How best to commemorate the "band of friends"? Was it so sweet and fitting to die for one’s country in World War I? Should the victors of the war strike triumphant tones or downplay military victory in order to avoid offending vanquished European neighbors who are now allies?

French President Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte Macron, obscured, welcome German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife in front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Strasbourg, France, as part of the celebrations of the centenary of World War I.
French President Emmanuel Macron, and his wife, Brigitte Macron, obscured, welcome German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his wife in front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Strasbourg, France, as part of the celebrations of the centenary of World War I.

Some 80 leaders from around the world, including U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will fly into France this week to attend remembrance events marking a century since the guns fell silent on the Western Front. The culmination of the commemorations in France will come with a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on Monday.

FILE - The French flag flies under the Arc de Triomphe during a ceremony to commemorate the end of the World War I in Paris, Nov. 11, 2013.
FILE - The French flag flies under the Arc de Triomphe during a ceremony to commemorate the end of the World War I in Paris, Nov. 11, 2013.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been keen to avoid any triumphalism. The tone of Macron’s speech at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will be respectful of the millions, regardless of nationality, who died in the four-year conflict, say his officials.

That order has sparked disgruntlement from some military veterans, including Michel Goya, a historian and former colonel, who accused Macron of “insulting the soldiers of 1918.” Military historian Bénédicte Chéron told France’s French Le Figaro newspaper recently that Macron and his ministers misunderstand “the continuity between the engagement of 1914-18 soldiers, and that of soldiers today.”

FILE - A view shows the replica of the wagon where the Germans signed the armistice in 1918 that ended the World War I at the Armistice Museum in the Clairiere de Rethondes in Compiegne, France, Aug. 30, 2018.
FILE - A view shows the replica of the wagon where the Germans signed the armistice in 1918 that ended the World War I at the Armistice Museum in the Clairiere de Rethondes in Compiegne, France, Aug. 30, 2018.

Nearly 37 million soldiers and civilians are estimated to have been killed in World War I and Macron’s aides say that many people view the 1914-1918 war as an unnecessary slaughter rather than a victory that should be celebrated with too much military pomp. Many in France and across Europe seem to agree with him.

They include veterans like retired British general Richard Dannatt. “Triumphalism, victory, those sort of notions are inappropriate.There is no need for jingoistic reaction at all.” Britain will also mark the centenary with a week of commemorations, small and large. including a display of 10,000 flames illuminating the moat at the Tower of London and a remembrance at Westminster Abbey.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has also struck a note of reconciliation in the run-up to the centenary. “The killing fields of France and Belgium are scarred by the horrors of war, but the strength and closeness of our relationship today is a testament to the journey our countries have traveled together,” she said last week.

Poppy flowers are seen at Koenigsplatz in Munich, Germany, Nov. 3, 2018, as Europe prepares to mark the centenary of the ending of World War I.
Poppy flowers are seen at Koenigsplatz in Munich, Germany, Nov. 3, 2018, as Europe prepares to mark the centenary of the ending of World War I.

How to remember the Great War and its war dead have long been issues, going back even to the conflict itself and its immediate aftermath. The issues have been debated heatedly not only in France but the allied countries of Britain, Belgium, Italy and Russia as well as in the vanquished nations of Germany and Austria.

The sheer scale of the casualties meant that hardly a European household was left untouched by the war. The industrial nature of the killing, which saw young men scythed down by machine guns and obliterated by artillery barrages as well as being poisoned by clouds of noxious fumes, prompted rising despair and, as more men were hurled into the killing machine, accusations of massive miscalculation by national leaders and the senselessness of the fighting mounted.

FILE - A U.S. Army 37-mm gun crew man their position during the World War I Meuse-Argonne Allied offensive in France, Sept. 26, 1918.
FILE - A U.S. Army 37-mm gun crew man their position during the World War I Meuse-Argonne Allied offensive in France, Sept. 26, 1918.

As the war unfolded in all its horror, many wondered why they had been thrust into such a consuming, barbaric conflict by an assassination in a far-flung country in the Balkans. They questioned what the war was about. For some it was a case of imperial rivalry that had got out of hand. Others countered that right or wrong, one had to defend one’s country.

In Russia, World War I triggered the Bolshevik revolution. In other European countries fury over the carnage fueled the post-war rise of organized labor and parties of the far right and far left. The memory of the war was one of the prompts for Oxford University’s influential debating Union to approve the famous 1933 motion “that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.”

People look at a temporary sculpture installed to mark the centenary of the Armistice which ended the First World War, in the Canary Wharf financial district of London, Britain, Nov. 1, 2018.
People look at a temporary sculpture installed to mark the centenary of the Armistice which ended the First World War, in the Canary Wharf financial district of London, Britain, Nov. 1, 2018.

And there were disputes about the plans for formal remembrance of the conflict. In Britain, the authorities decided that there should be "equality of remembrance," a revolutionary idea, and that all the men should be buried where they fell in war cemeteries on the battlefields of France and Belgium, ordinary soldiers laid to rest beside officers. Other nations followed suit.

FILE - A U.S. Marine Corps soldier holds hands with a small girl as they walk among headstones of World War I dead at a Memorial Day commemoration at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, May 27, 2018.
FILE - A U.S. Marine Corps soldier holds hands with a small girl as they walk among headstones of World War I dead at a Memorial Day commemoration at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau, France, May 27, 2018.

Many applauded the idea. But many grief-stricken wives, inconsolable in their bereavement, “disagreed with the decision not to repatriate,” says historian Alison Fell. They wanted their husbands to be buried near to them in their local cemeteries at home and they organized a letter-writing campaign.

They pointed to the offer by the U.S. government to bereaved Americans to bear the costs of shipping bodies back to America, if families so wished. More than 300,000 of France’s dead were returned to their families. In Britain the government ignored repatriation demands.

One British widow wrote that perhaps it is not everyone’s wish to have their dead husbands repatriated, she noted, but I do. She wrote: “The country took him and the country should bring him back.”

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