WW1 Centenary

Great War Centenary 2014-2018 website by Paul Reed

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Verdun Centenary

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This week will mark the centenary of the Battle of Verdun; the longest, and perhaps arguably one of the most terrible battles of the Great War. From February to December 1916 there were an estimated 770,000 French and German casualties and it became known to the Poilus who fought there as the ‘mincing machine’ or the ‘mill on the Meuse’ in the way it chewed up men, with killing almost on an industrial scale.

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Poilus at Douaumont 1916 (Paul Reed)

The landscape at Verdun also struggled to survive: conservative estimates on the amount of shells fired from the huge quantity of artillery used at Verdun – everything from the French 75mms to the massive German 420mm Big Berthas – state that more than 1,000 shells fell for every square metre of the battlefield. This turned Verdun into a lunar landscape of shell holes; a smashed and tortured landscape still visible beneath the trees of the National Forest today.

The smashed Verdun landscape at Fort Douaumont (Paul Reed)

The smashed Verdun landscape at Fort Douaumont (Paul Reed)

But more than the casualties, and the number of shells fired, is what Verdun came to mean, and still means. After the Great War Verdun was seen as a warning: that warfare on this scale should never happen again. This is what the ossuary at Douaumont was built for: a massive monument with the fragmented remains of those who had died in 1916 on display: look at war does to man, it must never happen again. The memories of Verdun were still fresh in the minds, the subconscious of the French nation when it found itself at war with Nazi Germany a generation later. Blitzkrieg shattered France’s armed forces and those left were faced with the cold, hard truth: fight on and face another Verdun, or capitulate. Even that hero of Verdun was wheeled out to unify France after the German victory: Marshall Philippe Pétain.

Kohl & Mitterrand at Verdun 1984 (©Wolfgang Eilmes/DPA/MAXPPP)

Kohl & Mitterrand at Verdun 1984 (©Wolfgang Eilmes/DPA/MAXPPP)

In the 1980s, at the height of a Cold War almost gone hot, Verdun surfaced once more as a way to bring France and Germany together: Chancellor Helmut Kohl and President François Mitterrand met, hugged and kissed each other’s cheeks at Verdun, even holding hands, during a time when an even more terrible conflict seemingly loomed close. The symbolism was obvious: Verdun was a warning once more.

Verdun today: Mort Homme 2016 (Paul Reed)

Verdun today: Mort Homme 2016 (Paul Reed)

A century on from 1916, Verdun emerges once more in France as the nation’s byword for the Great War. French people are remembering the Poilus of the Great War in a way that has not happened before, with superb projects like 1 Jour 1 Poilu, war memorials are being researched and the generation of the Great War is not some distant part of France’s past. The war touched all of France, and a century later it touches the nation once more: what modern France makes of Verdun today remains to be seen.


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The Vosges & Alsace Battlefields: New French Magazines Review

Guest Post by Gwyneth Roberts : www.thebluelinefrontier.wordpress.com

Alsace Great War magazine covers 2014

Two magazines currently on sale in hypermarkets and bookshops in Alsace are very useful for anyone who is considering visiting this beautiful and interesting region to explore the impact of the Great War and the vestiges of warfare in the Vosges.

La Grande Guerre en Alsace (7,50€)

The cover of this magazine shows two brothers shaking hands next to a frontier post near Metz before the Great War. One is wearing a German uniform, the other a French one. This illustrates one of the themes of the magazine:  with a clear focus on Alsace, it looks at the ways in which the traumatic outcome of the Treaty of Frankfurt, 1871, resonated through the world wars of the twentieth century and, as the 14-18 Centenary approaches, how the psychology of the region was affected. It includes some of the issues particular to Alsace and Lorraine, such as the question of nationality, the effects on families of this very specific internal conflict, and the dilemmas faced by Alsaciens-Lorrains who liked the Germanic character which had developed in the region or those who yearned nostalgically for France.

Sections look at life in the trenches, the poet Ernst Stadler who was born in Alsace to German parents, served as German soldier and was killed by a French shell, prisoners and deserters (with a particular reference to Feldgrau-Alsaciens), Alaskan sled dogs, air warfare, civilians, religion at the Front, the post-victory problems of being initially neither German nor French and the predicament of families whose sons had died in German uniform. It’s well illustrated with contemporary photographs and images.

Published in November 2013 by DNA – Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (dna.fr) -number 58 in the series called Les Saisons d’Alsace. (dna.fr)

Web: www.abo-online.fr/saisons-d-alsace-n-58-la-grande-guerre-en-alsace.html

Sentiers de mémoire de la Grande Guerre (7,00€)

The Massif des Vosges is especially interesting because it was the only mountain Front on French soil between 1914 and 1918. The difficulties of logistics, transport, construction of military buildings, managing an infrastructure and maintaining remnants of civilian life alongside the constraints of mountain terrain, altitude and climate were particular to this area.

This magazine is devoted to 31 walks which take in sites connected with the Great War in Alsace, underpinned by the theme of tourisme de mémoire. They include unexpected sites and lesser known places, vestiges and traces of the men’s presence, plus some unexpected museums. Indeed, some places are almost open-air museums themselves. The walks range from 2.5 km to 90 km and vary in difficulty from gentle strolls to serious hiking, for families or for energetic enthusiasts, from Kilomètre Zéro in the south (official inauguration 20.7.2014) to the sentier des casemates in the north. I have done a lot of exploring myself well before this publication appeared and I’m particularly enthusiastic about getting away from the crowded sites. I found some useful suggestions in this magazine.

It starts with some well-illustrated introductory articles and has a useful appendix with lots of exhibitions listed.

Published in May 2014 by DNA – Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace (dna.fr) – # 6 in the series called Passion Vosges.

Web: www.abo-online.fr/passion-vosges-memoire-grande-guerre.html
This link is also worth a visit:

14-18 Alsace, le centenaire:


Strasbourg publisher le Nuée Bleu ( a partner of DNA) has some current offerings:

 La bataille des Frontières Vosges 1914-1915 (Jean-Paul Claudel) on promo in bookshops and on their website at 3€ instead of 18€

Les Alsaciens-Lorrains pendant la Grande Guerre (Jean-Noël & Francis Grandhomme)

Web: http://boutique.nueebleue.com/epages/NueeBleue.sf/fr_FR/?ObjectPath=/Shops/NueeBleue



New French IGN WW1 Map


The Institut Géographique Nationale, the French company that produces high quality maps of the whole of France, has produced a new map for the WW1 Centenary. The map covers a major portion of the Western Front battlefields in France.

A press release states:

This map features the main front lines in 1914, 1917 and 1918. It proposes a series of circuits in vehicles or on foot, and of course, the location of the main sites of memory (cemeteries, memorials, forts, places of battle, destroyed villages …). A complete legend relates the dates and locations of major battles (1914 to 1918). A “zoom” target main front lines and battles (Reims-Soissons, Verdun, Paris-Lens). This map was published in partnership with “Mission Centennial 14-18.” The scale is 1:410 000 (1cm represents 4.1 km). It is in three languages ​​(French, German, English).

The map cost 7.90€ and it is available in French bookstores, newsagents and many sites on the WW1 battlefields or via the IGN website.


France May Pardon Executed WW1 Poilus

French Executions Memorial, Suippes (©Paul Reed)

During the Great War France is reported to have executed more than 600 soldiers for military crimes on and off the battlefield. A number were shot in response to the French Army Mutinies in 1917. France 24 reports a move to have these men pardoned:

A report delivered to France’s Ministry of Veteran Affairs on Tuesday has suggested the country officially review the history of First World War soldiers who refused to fight and were executed by the hundreds as an example for other troops.

As France prepares to mark the 100th anniversary of the “Great War” next year, the new text highlights the double injustice suffered by many soldiers who were killed by firing squad and went down in history books as “cowards”.

One century after the start of the bloody conflict, “there is a large consensus in our society that the majority of them were not cowards, but decent soldiers, who performed their duties and did not deserve to die,” the report read.

It said that between 600 and 650 French soldiers were executed by their own side after disobeying orders from commanding officers, while around 100 others were put to death for espionage and other crimes.

It said that with 100 years of hindsight about the “dreadful circumstances” at the frontline, it was understandable that some men “broke down”.

The report discourages case-by-case probes to uncover the guilt or innocence of each executed WWI soldier, a process it said would have “disproportionate costs” and produce uncertain results.

Rather, it recommended a “formal declaration” by the state with perhaps a subsequent educational programme meant to clear the soldiers of dishonour.

“To declare that these soldiers also, in a certain way, ‘died protecting France’, would serve a sort of moral and civic pardon,” the report concluded.


Centenary Website: French Government Portal To WW1 Centenary


In the past couple of weeks the French official Government website which will act as their portal into the WW1 Centenary went live. Mission Centenaire 14-18 is a well designed and slick site, with good images, graphics and text, although of course at the moment the entire site is in French only. This is not that surprising as most British Centenary sites are in English only. However, I have a feeling that some aspects of the site will have English options as we move nearer to 2014-18. At the moment the translate option in browsers like Google Chrome can help with translation.

Even if you don’t have French, the site does give us an immediate insight into what other countries feel about the centenary and what they want to commemorate. This is not a site where you will find much on the Somme or Flanders, but one of it’s first articles covers the amazing La Main de Massignes site on the border of the Champagne and Argonne. This was a site which saw heavy fighting, tunnelling and mining, and has an extensive area of battlefield remains and incredible reconstructed trenches; yet it is largely unknown to English speaking audiences. Hopefully web portals like this one will enable such sites to get better known during the 2014-18 period.

Mission Centenaire 14-18 is a great site and easy to use. At the moment their only Social Media outlet is their Facebook Page but I would hope they consider a Twitter feed in due course.


News: French Plans To Commemorate WW1 Centenary

The year 2014 will mark the beginning of the centenary of the First World War. In view of this great international memorial event, a report written by Mr. Joseph ZIMET, Directorate of memory, heritage and archives at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs, was presented on November 11 2011 to  the President of the Republic.

The report offers a foreshadowing division of laboor between the state and local authorities, with public policy that focuses on the beginning (2014) and the end (2018) of the commemoration. The Official Centennial commemorative program for the year 2014 will be organized around six major events taking place between June 28 2014, the European opening of the Centenary, and November 11 2014, when the writer and Great War veteran  Maurice Genevoix could enter the Pantheon [note: this is the direct translation: it relates to a desire for Genevoix’s ashes to be transferred to the Panthéon cemetery].

Organized as a true co-production between the state, foreign partners, territories and associations, the program proposed for the Centenary Memorial also suggests an effort to scan and put online the archives of eight million individual veterans of the First World War, the adding of World Heritage status to key landscapes and sites of memory of the Great War, and the creation of a commission to consider the issue of executed soldiers of the Great War.

An interministerial taskforce will be created at the beginning of the year 2012, to implement the program of commemorative centenary of the First World War.

Source: French Plans For 2014

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On 2 August 1914, France mobilized four million men. In Lorient, nearly 1,400 Poilus did not see the end of the war. Patrick Bollet undertook painstaking research to try to clarify this figure and thus honour the memory of all those men.

It sought to develop a biographical sketch for everyone but for 61 of them, he has no information, hence the call in our columns. In addition, the prospect of publishing and exhibition, he seeks any documents that illustrate the work.

Therefore, there will be a regular meeting at the Archives for Wednesday and Friday from February 27 to March 8, 2013 from 10 am at 12 h and 14 h to 17 h to collect information on the dead of the war in France 14-18: booklet, photographs, correspondence …

Contact: (+33) 02 97 02 22 42

A list of 61 Poilus (pdf – 45 KB)