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First World War centenary

Published on November 14, 2014
Speech by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic, at the inauguration of the Ring of Remembrance (excerpts)
Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, November 11, 2014

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FIRST WORLD WAR/HUMAN TOLL/RING OF REMEMBRANCE

At precisely 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918, the bugle sounded. In a few seconds, it put an end to the First World War, which had lasted 50 months and killed 18 million people.

On France’s behalf, to mark the centenary of the outbreak of that tragedy, I wanted us to gather on 11 November at a site symbolizing that terrible slaughter. The hill at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette was the choice. It’s actually the largest French military cemetery. Buried here are 40,000 poilus [French First World War infantrymen] in 20,000 graves and eight ossuaries – in other words, for many of them it was impossible to trace their remains.

Once enemies, those men are now reunited in death as if they belonged to a single family, thanks to the Ring of Remembrance. I want to pay tribute here to the architect of that Ring of Remembrance, who has managed to achieve what we wanted: to open a 500-page book of stone and steel in which 580,000 names could be inscribed – those of 580,000 soldiers of all origins, nationalities, backgrounds and religions. What unites them on these pages is having died – having died on these battlefields between 1914 and 1918.

I want to congratulate the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region on this initiative. I understand its motivations and considerations, because northern France was particularly ravaged by war – by war in general, but by the Great War in particular.

I’m from this region. My grandfather was a soldier and left Arras to go to the front. He left his family, a farming family. The eldest child was also a soldier. Only his mother and his sister remained, and they were forced to flee because, in the first days of August 1914, the northern towns experienced the first destruction, the population the first exodus and the territories the first occupation.

The fighting was bloodiest in the north: Le Cateau, where 7,800 British soldiers died in the space of a few days; Maubeuge, crushed under bombs for 11 days; Valenciennes, Lille, Lens and so many others hit in turn between September and October as the front extended west towards the sea and south towards Paris. After four months of fighting in what’s been called “the war of movement”, another horror came, that of the trenches – those lines on maps that were taken or lost depending on each offensive, without the front moving more than a few kilometres.

The hill at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, where we are, was the theatre of these bloody clashes. A small chapel had once stood here. It bore the name of the Sanctuary of Loreto in Italy. Before the war, people had come here on pilgrimages to pray and to hope; and then, for a year between 1914 and 1915, this hill, Lorette, was the scene of terrible butchery. Louis Barthas related in his World War I Notebooks what life – or rather, death – was like at Lorette. “Lorette, a sinister name evoking horror and the terror of dark woods, paths, plateaux and ravines that we retook 20 times and where, for months, day and night, we slashed each other’s throats, massacred without respite, transforming this corner of the earth into a mass grave.”

SOLDIERS/CIVILIANS/NAMES/NATIONALITIES/RELIGIONS

One hundred thousand fell here, and now they, like others, have their names inscribed on the Ring of Remembrance.

Roland Dorgeles, in Wooden Crosses, wrote the sentence I want to utter here: “To say those soldiers’ names, only to say their names is to defend them, to save them.”

Because there’s nothing more terrible for an already anonymous soldier than to die unknown. To say their names is to give them an identity, an origin, a nationality, almost a face.

I want to thank the young people who, all the way round the ring, have recreated the lives – or rather the untimely deaths – of a Frenchman, a German and a Briton, now united forever.

I’m not going to read out the 580,000 names, but I in turn will mention a few of them.

The first on the list: A Têt from Nepal. What was he doing in this inferno? He had been brought here because the British Empire had ordered him to be; brought here to show his bravery.

I want to say other names. The name of Paul Soulier – he was born in New Caledonia; he was killed in Noeux-les-Mines Pithead 5 in Barlin on 13 October 1915.

I want to say the name of Katherine Maud MacDonald. She – and I mean she – was born in Canada, recruited as a nurse and buried in a bombardment on 19 May 1918.

I want to say the name of Arton Muller, born in Germany and killed in combat near Arras on 24 March 1918. The name of John Bitten, born in Scotland and reported missing in the Battle of Aubers Ridge on 9 May 1915. Another man, Andrey Petkov, was a Russian taken prisoner of war by the Germans; he died in Saint-Nicolas-lez-Arras.

Why name all these people? Quite simply to point out and recall the global nature of the Great War. It gives us an idea of the human sacrifices made by the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and so many other nationalities represented here. I’m also thinking of Vimy, Quesnoy and Fromelles – so many places whose cemeteries are known all over the world.

In them, we see people from all continents whom Europe dragged with it into the abyss. I was proud that their flags could parade with those of the nations of 1914, on the Champs-Elysées on 14 July this year. It was only fair that peoples who have since managed to gain their freedom could also be thanked for liberating us. Indeed, we find that Africa and the Maghreb contributed.

Amid all the graves surrounding us, there’s a Muslim section, because all religions are respected here, and it’s also painful for me to recall that that section has been desecrated several times. Those acts were much more than insults to the memory of those men: they were attacks on the principles and values of the French Republic.

From France’s then overseas territories came not only fighters but also tens of thousands of workers from the Far East to support the war effort in Europe. They make up a long cohort of anonymous people who gave their youth because they had been called up, who endured everything, underwent everything, tolerated everything, including the intolerable.

I don’t want to forget those who were shot to set an example, soldiers who, in the inhuman chaos of war, showed an all-too-human weakness and paid for it with their lives. I wanted them to be reintegrated once and for all into the nation’s memory. So their cases have been digitized too, and will be accessible on the Mémoire des Hommes website. And as I asked it to do, the Musée de l’Armée today includes them in its Great War section.

Finally, we must remember that the Great War was also about millions of civilians: women and children whose existence was turned upside down in the occupied lands, particularly here in the north. The Great War was the grief of all families of all nationalities who lost a father or a husband. It was the labour of the women mobilized in the fields and the factories. The Great War transformed our whole society.

GREAT WAR CENTENARY/COMMEMORATIONS/REMEMBRANCE TOURISM

The commemorations – which have been particularly numerous this year and which I wanted to be exceptional each time, to bring together all nations –, these commemorations are held not only to honour the dead and highlight the suffering but also to reconcile peoples. They’re also held in order to pass on [memories] and to mobilize, particularly the new generations.

These commemorations are also held to remind us of our duties – as world leaders and world citizens – our duties to peace, security, human rights and democracy. Whenever there’s a resurgence of nationalism, whenever ideologies of hate resurface, whenever separatism is exacerbated, we must remember the infernal spiral of summer 1914 and where it led humanity.

Remembrance isn’t for the past, it’s for the present and the future, and it’s symbolized by this ring delicately balanced on the hillside. Why balanced? Because peace is always fragile, because it can waver at any moment, because it’s at the mercy of extremism, fanaticism and egoism. Peace needs activists, defenders and diplomats to seek compromises – and we need them in Ukraine, Syria and Iraq –, but it also needs soldiers to prevent the worst. And it’s our soldiers who are still fighting in Mali and preventing massacres in the Central African Republic, and our airmen who are fighting fanaticism in Iraq and enabling the population, who have already suffered so much, to regain their sovereignty.

Today, 11 November, my thoughts are with those 580,000 dead who now feature on the ring, the ring of friendship, but my thoughts are also with all the soldiers who have died for France in every conflict, with the bereaved families and with the children who are now war orphans.

The Great War centenary – and I thank the organizers of these ceremonies, the committee that has been formed – has been an opportunity for French people to reunite around their shared history, around the values of the Republic, and for every generation to come together.

The commemorations have led to many initiatives bearing fruit. The Centenary Mission has registered and approved more than 2,000, but many others haven’t needed to be approved to be simply sources of inspiration. Our main cultural institutions have taken part in outstanding exhibitions in Paris and every region, including the Louvre-Lens with The Disasters of War.

This public enthusiasm has affected all ages. In families, children, parents and grandparents have shared accounts of the war, testimonies gathered, letters kept, photos preserved and objects made. Fifteen thousand people took part in the first phase of the great collection I announced last year. They donated tens of thousands of mementos and documents to the archive. The second phase of the great collection will take place this week, and I call on all our fellow citizens and all those countries able to donate testimonies to do so.

Schools have played an active role: through the commemorations, teachers have taken the opportunity to focus on the tragedy, on its causes and the chain of events leading up to it, on the suffering, drama and broken destinies it entailed and even the meaning of what we call duty, on the limitations of human beings and finally on the European aspect, because it took two wars for us to realize the need for Europe to be built.

I want to congratulate the pupils who responded passionately, and I’ve had the opportunity to congratulate the winners of the competition “Young Artists of Remembrance”. They’ve given us films, songs, albums, drawings and other creations. I want to pay tribute to everyone who has put so much into such competitions, and the veterans and war victims who have contributed their memories and accounts. I thank the National Office for Veterans [and the Victims of War], the staff in national education and, in short, everyone who makes sure history can be passed on to the younger generations.
Local authorities have launched major initiatives.

The departmental archives have been opened up; eight million poilus now feature in the Grand Mémorial [website] that I opened this morning – new technology serving remembrance, the Internet supporting what is best. It will enable us to find out who our ancestors were and what they did in the war. I also want to pay tribute to those local authorities that have renovated remembrance sites, such as the Fort de la Pompelle in Reims and the refurbished Verdun Memorial, which I’ll inaugurate in 2016 for the centenary of that terrible battle.

France has landscapes and monuments on its soil that have universal value; it’s the legacy of history. France has been a battleground, a land of war, but also a land of liberation. So I’ve asked our remembrance sites, the beaches of the Normandy Landings and the Great War cemeteries of the Western Front to be included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

This exceptional heritage already attracts many visitors from every country in the world. What do they come to seek? The landscapes where their forebears fought, where some died. They come to seek reasons and understand the slaughter. They come to contemplate how superhuman acts were possible amid the inhumanity.

These commemorations have attracted a lot of visitors – four million for the second quarter of this year alone in Normandy – and this is why I want sites such as cemeteries, burial sites and landscapes which serve as a reminder of what the wars were like to be appreciated, as a national priority. This is why we’ve got to welcome these remembrance tourists to our country in the best possible way.

REASONS FOR HONOURING THE DEAD

I want to end with a simple question. What is the point today, 11 November, of a country such as France, with its friends – yesterday’s allies, yesterday’s belligerents, but friends forever today –, what is the point of honouring the dead? I want to answer this, because the question lies at the heart of what we’ve got to say about our destiny, not just our history.

Honouring the dead is about giving direction and meaning to our country.

Honouring the dead is about making France face up to its international responsibilities and saying why it acts beyond its borders to promote peace.

Honouring the dead is about making plans for the country in order to move it forward, to be worthy of the past but above all proud of what we can build together, because patriotism isn’t nostalgia, it’s a desire; to put France at the top level in the world whilst preserving its identity – i.e. the social Republic.

FRANCE/EUROPE/PATRIOTISM

Patriotism is about loving France without needing to look down on or ignore others. Patriotism is about making history speak in order to map out the future.

We don’t defend France behind Maginot lines, behind barbed wire, behind fortresses. France is an economy which has to be strong, it’s a social model which has to be recognized and therefore adapt. France is a way of living, a culture, a language. (…)

France is our fatherland and Europe, as François Mitterrand said, is our future; this is still the case.

This is why France is fighting, so that Europe protects peoples and offers shared hope, because we won’t build France by dismantling Europe. (…)

Patriotism is about the Republic. It’s about inviolable principles which adapt to the shifts in our society – laïcité [secularism] (1) so we can live together, the dignity of the human being and equality between women and men. This is why France is battling relentlessly against racism, anti-Semitism and every kind of discrimination.

Finally, patriotism means never tiring of serving France.

FRANCE/EUROPE/PRESENT-DAY CHALLENGES

Right here at this place, everyone can understand that the 20th century, even though it saw progress, wasn’t a golden age but twice had a string of massacres. History helps us to move on, not go back over the events of a bygone era. The future is built by looking forwards, not backwards.

Our country – I say this here – has overcome far more terrible ordeals than the difficulties we’re confronting today. (…)

Our ambition, ladies and gentlemen, is the same one the soldiers of all nationalities who fought to the death here must have had. Our ambition is progress – economic progress, social progress, cultural progress and, today, environmental progress, but above all, human progress. (…)

The history of France will never be finished as long as there are French people who believe in France. Europe won’t be at peace until it addresses people’s needs, and the planet will never be protected until it creates rules – applying to the climate in particular – to enable future generations to live on it.

That is the message of the commemorations.

Here, ladies and gentlemen, at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, amidst the graves, burial sites and ossuaries, in the silence of the dead, the cry of hope still rises up.

Thank you./.

(1) laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the state.

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