(Published in The Malay Mail on 17 November)
Lively reminders of dark side of human nature and the fragility of peace are a good thing. Even for children. Two generations of my family have enjoyed life without the blight of a world war, and the idea that something so awful and so wrong could have happened feels very remote. For my children, with the passing of 70 years since World War II, and 100 since the first, I think it is too far removed for them to even imagine.
This is why I decided to mark Armistice Day properly this year, helped along by the fact that my children were off school. France is one of the few countries to have made this day — marking the end of World War I — a national holiday.
Tuesday 11 November was a perfect autumnal morning, air crisp and skies blue. We made our way to the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris to join others that had gathered in a large ring around the famous arch. I think many had decided to watch the two-hour ceremony led by President François Hollande from the comfort of their homes, as it was not too crowded, allowing us to catch glimpses of President Hollande laying sprays of flowers on the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”. The tomb was placed under the arch after World War I and is marked by a flame that burns year round in memory of those soldiers which, in the chaos of war, were never identified.
Armistice Day celebrations attended by President François Hollande on Tuesday 11 November at the Arc de Triomphe, Paris.
President Hollande wore a blue fabric cornflower on his lapel known as “Le Bleuet de France”. Like the red poppy in the UK, this is the French symbol of remembrance of those killed during the two world wars.
The ceremony was very dignified, relaxed and with the traffic restrictions, respectfully quiet. Afterwards, we watched the servicemen and women attending the ceremony, impeccably dressed in their uniforms emblazoned with badges of honour, slowly making their departure. There were no veterans from La Grande Guerre (the Great War as the first world war is known here) were present, the last remaining French soldier Lazare Ponticelli died in March 2008 aged 110.
The range of different uniforms showed that attendees came from many countries, not just France. As the name implies, world wars involve the world at large and more than 50 countries were drawn into World War I and II. Collectively they form the most deadliest of conflicts in the history of the human race, which paid a high price — an estimated 16 million died during the first and 60 million in the second.
Tony Antonioli,“Médaillé militaire” attended the Armistice Day celebrations in Paris. He fought for the French resistance during World War II which started its efforts on 11 November 1940, and so 11 November holds additional significance for him.
And how easy it is to reduce a world war to facts and figures, the preserve of musty history textbooks. Which is why, after the ceremony, I took the children — who started to get a bit restless after an hour — for a short visit to Musée d’Armée. They rolled their eyes when I mentioned a museum visit, but I persevered; and it paid off. Both world wars are brought to life by this military museum. I watched the children pore over a miniature model of a frontline trench, a soldier’s personal effects, German and allied helmets, one punctured with bullet holes, and a French soldier’s blue felt cloak worn in 1917, still caked in trench mud. You literally walked through the years that WW I spanned — marked in bold brass numbers embedded in display room floors — “1914” to “1918”, catching the eye of my youngest.
Very visual. And for the children, it was the quietest day I have experienced with them for some time. They, like me, were absorbed by the poignant reminders of past sacrifices. Just as epithets etched on gravestones of fallen soldiers implore us to be — “Lest we forget.”