Paris, Apollinaire and Devoir de mémoire

Less than a week ago, last Wednesday, our cercle français met to reflect on the First World War battle of Verdun.  As we approach the one hundred year anniversary of the battle, we were exploring the theme of devoir de mémoire, the duty to remember.  The battle lasted 300 days and accounted for three quarters of a million casualties, with fatalities of 162,400 on the French side and 143,000 on the German.  A devastating death toll.

On Friday, 13 November, just over 300 days since the 7 January attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo and the Kosher supermarket, Paris was attacked again, in several places at once. 129, mostly young people, were killed.

The government's response has been forceful.  Président François Hollande says that France is at war.

The notion of being at war reminded me of our Verdun reflections.  These had included a short segment on Guillaume Apollinaire, a poet who served on the front line of the Western Front.  At the onset of war, Apollinaire composed these lines for his poem, La Petite Auto:

                      Nous dîmes adieu à toute une époque
                      Des géants furieux se dressaient sur l'Europe
                      Les aigles quittaient leur aire attendant le soleil
                      Les poissons voraces montaient des abîmes
                      Les peuples accouraient pour se connâitre à fond
                      Les morts tremblaient de peur dans leurs sombres demeures

                            We said a final goodbye to a whole era
                            Furious giants were standing over Europe
                            Eagles left their eyrie, waiting for the sun
                            Ravenous fish rose from the depths
                            Nations flocked together to know each other deep down
                            The dead trembled with fear in their dark dwelling places

Apollinaire was also a casualty and was invalided out of the army in 1916 with a shrapnel wound to the head. He died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, two days before the signing of the Armistice.

His words above, 100 years later strike me as having a resonance with today.

Where do we go from here?  Will it always be like this? Is the future changed utterly?

Discussing the legacy of Verdun, our small group took comfort at the reconciliation, even after the devastation of two world wars, that has taken place between France and Germany. The leaders of the two countries will stand together in May 2016 to remember those who died 100 years ago in the battle of Verdun.

I expect, as they reflect on lessons learned, that their thoughts will also include those who died in Paris, Beirut, Syria, Libya and other war-torn countries that make up our fractured world.

We too must reflect.  It is our devoir de mémoire.


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