A Celebration Four Years in the Making
November 11th 2018 was an important date. One hundred years since the end of the war to end all wars (cough cough). There were many ceremonies planned. But in the French Ardennes, it all started a little earlier.
The Ardennes are the only French département to have been occupied by the German army both during World War One and World War Two1.
In November 1918, the German troops retreated North, leaving behind the villages they had been occupying for several years. Those four years were harsh for soldiers, of course, but they were also far from easy for the civilians, between the restrictions, requisitions, forced labour, taxes and hostage taking. The consequences even lasted long after peace had been reached, as the soil had been exhausted by the intensive cabbage growing.
But in November 1918, the Germans left. In a lot of villages, they blew up the bridges just before leaving, the blast often strong enough to collapse the buildings on either side. Then the French army arrived, sometimes as soon as half an hour after the Germans' departure2.
And so it was that, after a little over four years, the Ardennes were liberated. In the years after that, most towns and villages built war memorials. They then added to them in 1945, but that's a story for another day.
And so it was that several villages decided to celebrate their liberation a hundred years on. They got together and organized a joint ceremony: the Relay of Victory.
There was the Flame of Freedom, symbolised by a petrol lamp, carried from village to village for each official ceremony.
There were reenactment people, in period costumes (French soldiers and a nurse). One of them was even wearing an actual 1917 coat. There were also modern-day members of the Army, as well as veterans.
There were officials , the local MP, the Mayor, and others (it wasn't raining, but we still didn't get to see the President...). There was a parade of sorts, from the wash-house to the village square. There were speeches and flowers.
There were school children who sang the Marseillaise after the speeches (it was a Friday, mid-morning).
The older ones read letters from (and to) the Front. A soldier was telling his sister about the mud, and the rats, and the death. A mother was telling her son that when he got back from the trenches she'd cook his favourite soup for him, pot-au-feu. A young man was telling his fiancée that he was to be shot at dawn the next day for fleeing before the enemy.
There was also a replica of one of the very first battle tanks in history, the Renault FT17. The replica was built by the students of the metalwork class at the local vocational high school. Five years' work, but it's not quite perfect, as they were not allowed to make it properly armoured.
This war memorial is very typical in two ways. Firstly, it stands bang in the middle of the village, right between the Mairie and the church. Secondly, although it has only nine names on it, three are the same family.
This ceremony was about peace, not about heroism or self-sacrifice. Most of the soldiers would have been happy to stay and work on the family farm instead of donning a uniform and charging at guys just like them. They never wanted to be heroes. They didn't have a choice.