My grandfather never told me about La Grande Guerre. I was merely eight-years-old when he died and my memories of him gravitate toward the joyous moments shared with a doting grandpa: plucking cagouilles from the bushes behind his house in Royan, watching him prepare his collapsible wired nets before heading to the creek to catch crayfish, or uncovering the Easter eggs that he hid among the vegetables of his meticulously kept potager.
When the Ordre de Mobilisation Générale was posted at the mairie on August 1st, 1914 he was a little bit too young to be sent to the front. With 800,000 French soldiers in active duty, three million reservists, and the expectation of a short war, it seemed doubtful that he would ever be involved. Optimism waned quickly: by the end of 1918 eight million Frenchmen had served in the war, around 40% of the male population. So, Pépé René became a poilu. He walked and crawled in muddy trenches. He dodged bullets and obus at the battle of Verdun. He was among the lucky ones: he came back from the war with “only” some exposure to toxic gases and a life-long addiction to cigarettes, a soldier’s comfort liberally distributed in the trenches. Like all veterans, he kept tokens of the war inside himself: in his case, lung cancer.
As France gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, TV viewers are overwhelmed by a slew of documentaries serving archives, old photos, and silent black-and-white reels. A newscast shows a group of pre-teens in Indre-et-Loire brushing and scraping their village memorial to expose the names of those who died for la patrie. Another group of youths at the necropolis of la Doua near Villeurbanne sets up a candle at the foot of each cross in the military cemetery (6500 of them!) In Champagne and Pas-de Calais, men clad in uniformes d’époque roam the trenches, the shelters, the observatories like their ancestors did; some are even spending several nights there this week.
Far from Paris where some sixty heads of states will join President Macron, my small village is also getting ready for Sunday’s commemoration. There will be a special mass (dominical services are no longer held in our church except on Palm Sunday and Assumption) and a wreath will be placed at the monument aux morts. Because we are in France, the ceremony will be followed by a vin d’honneur, a pre-lunch aperitif served to all citizens.
After dropping Rick off to French class this morning, I stopped by the village and parked in front of the school. I could hear the voices of ebullient, care-free toddlers playing in the courtyard. Fifty meters away, everything was peaceful and the lake gleamed like a mirror. Birds occasionally flew out of the golden catalpas nearby. Our grey WWII concrete memorial is nestled into this serene shrine of greenery. The names of the fallen are listed alphabetically, engraved on two slabs of marble. Thirty-eight names. One of the soldiers, first name Justin, shares my maiden name: a distant cousin, no doubt. Four others bear the same last name. I picture an anguished woman whose family was annihilated, her husband and sons reduced to red letters carved in marble. Red like their blood.
She, too, was promised that war would be “la der des ders…”
The official website for the Centenary: http://centenaire.org/fr
La Grande Guerre: the mighty war; refers to WWI
La cagouille: snail; colloquial French from the Charente region
Le potager: vegetable garden
La mairie: city hall
Le poilu: a hairy man; refers to WWI soldiers in the trenches who could not wash or shave; prior to that, men who were “poilus” were thought to be especially strong and brave.
L’obus (m): mortar shell
La patrie: homeland
L’uniforme d’époque (m): period uniform
Le monument aux morts: war memorial
Le vin d’honneur: celebratory event where wine or other libations are offered
La der des ders: abbreviation for “la dernière des dernières”, the last of the last, WWI. It was so horrible, it seemed inconceivable that it wouldn’t be the last war, ever.