Remembering

Wednesday was Armistice Day. The lockdown meant that its public observance was significantly reduced compared to previous years. Here in Poitiers, the usual military parade and service in the main square were replaced by a small ceremony at a First World War memorial, attended by the mayor and a small group of public officials.

On TV we watched the events at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Again, the lockdown meant that this was a much scaled-down event. Attendance was limited to just thirty people, including the heads of the armed forces and previous heads of state, François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. Everyone present wore bleuets (cornflowers), the French equivalent of the UK poppy. As tradition dictates, President Macron laid a wreath in front of the statue of Georges Clemenceau, President of the Council during the First World War.

Nearby is the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, on which a flame is lit every day. It is exactly one hundred years since the buried soldier made his journey to Paris. At three o’clock in the afternoon on 10 November 1920, in a makeshift chapel at Verdun, a young infantryman was asked to lay a bouquet of flowers (gathered from the battlefield of Verdun) on one of eight identical coffins brought back from different battlefields of the Front: Flanders, Artois, the Somme, Île-de-France, Chemin des Dames, Champagne, Verdun, and Lorraine. The following day, a gun carriage bearing the chosen coffin was taken in procession to the Arc de Triomphe. Behind it was a decorated chariot bearing the heart of Léon Gambetta, an eminent republican (the event celebrated both victory in the war and the fiftieth anniversary of the Third Republic). The coffin lay in state, with a military guard, for three months. On 28 January 1921, in the presence of Lloyd George, Marshal Foch, and Marshal Pétain, the Unknown Soldier, along with the Legion of Honour, the Military Medal, and the Military Cross, was placed in the tomb, where he remains. On Wednesday, as President Macron lit the flame, the names of the nineteen French soldiers who have died this year were read out. It was low-key but effective.

On Wednesday evening in Paris, another much more elaborate ceremony took place when the writer Maurice Genevoix was admitted to the Pantheon, the grand temple in the centre of Paris and the last resting place for France’s most esteemed citizens.

A student at the École normale supérieure in August 1914, Genevoix signed up and joined the 106th infantry regiment. He took part in the Battle of the Marne and the march on Verdun. On 25 April 1915, in Rupt-en-Woëvre near Les Éparges, he was seriously wounded, losing the use of his left hand. Hospitalised for seven months, he began writing the first of a series of five books based on notes recorded in the trenches. They described in vivid detail the daily lives of les poilus (un poilu, literally ‘a hairy one’, is the French equivalent of the British ‘Tommy’). These were collected together and published in 1949 as Ceux de 14 (Those of 14),now regarded as one of the greatest testimonies of the First World War.

The Pantheon investiture was the result of a commitment made by President Macron when, two years ago, he visited Les Éparges during a tour of wartime Eastern Front sites to mark the Armistice centenary. Describing Ceux de 14 as ‘incomparable’, he said, ‘When the voices of the poilus have died away forever, it is incomprehensible that “Those of 14” do not appear in the Pantheon. They will all cross the threshold with their megaphone that was Maurice Genevoix.’ He was as good as his word. Genevoix, only the seventy-ninth person to enter the Pantheon, now rests alongside Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, and Pierre and Marie Curie.

The event itself was impressive, despite again being restricted to thirty people. At 6 p.m., the president and his wife, Brigitte, joined with members of the Genevoix family on the forecourt of the Pantheon, where there was an arrangement of 101 illuminated glass cubes, each containing a handful of soil from one of the 101 French départements. On the 101st cube, students from the École normale supérieure placed a handful of earth from Les Éparges, where Genevoix was injured.

Images were projected onto the Pantheon façade while a specially commissioned musical piece was played. Inside, standing next to a new artwork by German artist Anselm Kiefer, the president made a speech, paying tribute to Genevoix and his fellow poilus. As we’ve discovered from watching his lockdown broadcasts on television, Macron is an excellent speaker, calm, dignified, and authoritative.

There is a YouTube video of the entire service. It’s nearly an hour long in total, but there is a very moving segment, starting at five minutes in and lasting for about five minutes, which shows the display projected on the front of the Pantheon. It is well worth seeing.

Maurice Genevoix (1890-1980)

***

The Times recently posted a list of twenty-five suggestions for things to do during lockdown. These include: learn Swedish, become a social media influencer, make your own cheese, brush up on your survival skills, get a head start with scuba diving, and learn to samba. All laudable, no doubt, but a little energetic for my taste. Instead I’ve set myself the more realistic task of browsing on Twitter till I learn one interesting new fact each day. Here are the pick of the last week.

In medieval chess, each pawn had its own role: Gambler, City Guard, Innkeeper, Merchant, Doctor, Weaver, Blacksmith, and Farmer.

Alexander Graham Bell suggested that telephones should be answered with the word AHOY. HELLO was Thomas Edison’s suggestion.

During the 1980s, Birds Eye sold more than 25 miles (40 km) of Arctic Roll every month.

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