Mort Pour La France

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“We call it La Grande Guerre (the Great War) but there’s nothing great about war.  It was a war fought because of hatred and divisions, fought for revenge. It wasn’t great at all.  Vive la paix!”  Thus spoke the representative of the war veterans’ association.  And then they read the names of the local dead, many, many names.

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Loud and clear, first name and last, the years in which they died.  Nothing more, nothing less.  I watched the faces of those around me, people whose families still bear the names of some of those long lost men and boys.  At the end of each year’s list, the incantation “mort pour la France.”  Died for France.

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I could tell right away who in the crowd was called Emile, who Philippe, as little boys giggled nervously to hear their own first names listed among those now long gone.  Very long gone; today marks the 80th anniversary of the end of that war, the War to End All Wars.

Although in the US November 11 commemorates all those lost, in all the wars, France reserves the day to honor those who died in World War I.  There were a lot of them, almost 1,400,000, about 65% of all the French troops who went to war.  The last French WW I survivor died this past year, but there were survivors of other wars in attendance.  In every part of France, yesterday’s soldiers, and today’s, gathered to salute the dead.

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Those who were lucky enough not to have died in a war, and those who still might.

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Every town has its World War I memorial.  Each one bears a list of names of the town’s sons mort pour la France.  Died for France.  There’s no ambiguity there, no suggestion that their deaths might have been in vain.  They died for France.

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All over the country children lay flowers on the monuments to the dead.

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Mayors make solemn tributes, as their predecessors have done for the past eight decades.

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There’s a minute of silence as everyone remembers.  You can’t remember all the horrors of war in one minute, all the dear faces of the fallen, but you can try.

Today I learned that there’s a movement in France to combine the memorial days, as the US has done.  It’s more efficient, in the sense that you get all of the remembering done at once.  It introduces ambiguity, though, as it has in the US.  The soldiers of this war died for a good cause, but the soldiers of that war died for stupid political ambitions, in a faraway land, died for somebody else’s bad judgement, cruelty, greed.  You name it.  And the list of names would be very long.  Intolerably long.  No one could stand still long enough to listen to the names of all the war dead read out loud at once.  And then we’d start to forget.

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“Vive la paix,” the old soldier said.  Let there be peace.

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7 Comments on “Mort Pour La France”


  1. Lovely Photos Abra ,I like the shot over the shoulder of the soldier .
    This essay should be compulsary reading in the schools .

    BTW :Shel played sublimely on Monday night!

  2. Melissa Says:

    Abra, sometime you should consider taking a trip to Ieper (the Dutch name, Ypres in French), Belgium. It’s a fairly easy train trip from Lille, via Kortrijk (Courtrai). There’s a wonderful WWI museum there (closed through most of January), but don’t miss the nightly ceremony at the Menen Gate. My first visit there really brought home just how significant that particular war was to Europe, especially that part of Europe. Feel free to e-mail me for more details.

  3. Margaret Pilgrim Says:

    I am always touched by these memorials that one finds in even the smallest village. Most heartbreaking is the often multiple children lost from the same family, cousins if not brothers. It is hard to imagine the grief in those homes.

  4. Jim Says:

    I cannot think of WWI without remembering Ezra Pound’s poem “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley.” It includes these lines:

    These fought in any case,
    and some believing,
    pro domo, in any case…
    Died some, pro patria,
    non “dulce” non “et decor”…
    walked eye-deep in hell
    believing in old men’s lies, then unbelieving…

    There died a myriad,
    And of the best, among them,
    For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
    For a botched civilization…
    __________

    WWI wiped out almost an entire generation of young men. My god, what a waste.

  5. Haven Says:

    I am reminded of that aphorism of Santayana’s, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”! I enjoy reading and viewing your posts, Haven


  6. Thank you for that post, Abra. As a French expat living in the US, I admire the respectful and sobering way you covered Le Onze Novembre. Merci

  7. Abra Bennett Says:

    It’s so nice to have you here, Sylvie. I really appreciate your comments.


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