vendredi, novembre 03, 2006

Honneur à ceux de Verdun !

The following text is a translation of an editorial of Michel De Jaeghere, published in a special issue of Le Figaro.

Verdun. The entire French Army had a rendez-vous there. It was necessary to hold strong and fast. They, the Germans, would not pass. The young men of the country rushed there, as water rushes to estuary, to offer their lives. Verdun. This is the battle of the greatest of wars: the symbol of courageous hearts and of the horror of battle, the symbol of the incredible enduring forbearance of men and of the inhumanity of modern warfare. Pierre Drieu La Rochelle, who was wounded there on February 25th 1916, wrote: “Verdun! No more trees, no more houses, no more animals for five leagues around. Divisions were destroyed even before they joined the front line. Men killed each other without ever seeing the eyes of their enemies. Lines were tangled. Artillery pieces were found far away from the desolation like warships caught in the middle of the battle by the tempest.

For a long time, the landscape has remained wasted and tragic. On this ravaged ground plowed by fire, the feet of mangled and jagged trunks stood alone toward the grey sky. Then, life’s breath gently blew over this cold and desolate land. Red poppies bloom in the trenches and thistle in the ravine of Death. Beaumont, Fleury, Cumières: the litany of the martyred villages about which an astonished passer-by notes that nothing remains but a chapel which marks its tracks in the frothing of the shell’s holes, like the melancholy of a poem of the Val de Loire.

But there, in this land, nothing would ever be the same again. This land, as Montherlant wrote, “is now forever unfit for frivolity. Having been indelibly marred, it took the sudden magnificence of the wounded, and like them, purified from what is accessory, enlarged to the infinite, crowned by silence, past from mediocre contacts to the mystery of a tremendous secret and entered into an immortal gravity.” For his part, Maurice Genevoix who fought not too far from there, at the Eparges, said: “ Here are the fields of the lost men. And even now, at this moment, I can see bleeding wounds and young dying bodies. I still hear, in the dark and rainy night, their moans, their desesperate voices which yell my name, which call me…

In Verdun, you walk between the crevices. Fortresses no longer show their geometrical lines. They are now shapeless crests, pockmarked by scars, flat like anvils sunken into the ground by the hammering of the sky’s fire. Communication trenches cross the copsewoods, and, for a long time, visitors have been warned against the potential danger, here and there, of buried shells, grenades and weapons. And you only have to dig a little bit to unearth bullets lying just below the topsoil. In Douaumont, a crucifix is enscripted with the words: “ To an unknown named Marcel.” Another one reads: “Two Frenchmen” reunited for the last rest. But it is the entire countryside of Verdun which is really just an immense cemetery. 160,000 French soldiers, as many, or almost, as many as German soldiers or almost, fell on the 20 kilometer front. How many of them have escaped the research and are left out of the cold statistics? How many of these forgotten and uncounted lay without graves while the mixed bones of their French and German brothers finally reconciled, joined the burial vault of the ossuary? A survivor said once: “ If all the men who died here stood up, they wouldn’t have enough room to stand shoulder to shoulder, because they have fallen in successive waves.” In Verdun, you don’t set foot only on a bruised land but on an immense necropolis, it is the bloody face of war.

Montherlant, who attended the ceremony in August 1920, related that when the foundation stone was laid, not a single word was uttered. “ The silence of the consecrators suited the rest of the men who had accepted in silence, who had suffered in silence and who had died in silence.” Standing on the ridge of Thiaumont, Marshal Pétain was content with soberly narrating the main stages of the battle: “Pausing after each sentence, so that it could be translated for the foreigners who attended the ceremony, his narrative had a scanned rhythm, as the inscriptions on stones, as if at this very moment, he was composing it for the temple of glory.

Composing this issue for the 90th anniversary of the battle of Verdun, we endeavored to imitate the sobriety and the gravity of the ossuary’s the founders. We tried to recall the mortal wounds of the men lying in the eternal mud in order to revive without effects those who died without sentences. Maurice Genevoix wrote again: “He who has once heard during a cutting and rainy night, the moan of a wounded man lost in the front of the lines, or caught in the depth of his eyes the glance of a dying army friend, will always hear this moan and see this shattering glance. Words are now, and forever, nothing.

You have a heavy heart when you contemplate the terrifying pictures of this epic, as well as when you turn over the pages of the picture books of Epinal, or the beautiful books of Job which liken it to the victories of the Grognards[1] of the Empire, or the yellowed leafs of the Poilus’ letters.[2] They have served. They have suffered! They gave their lives. They have been paid only and solely by their own greatness of soul, because of what the war has revealed of them. They intended to save France. But, in the end, they could not drag her from the dark spiral of her decadence. They thought that they would end the last of the wars. Yet, it would come again even before one generation had passed. Some of them believed that it was perhaps their role to save the inheritance of the civilization. In fact, it was the opposite, they merely opened the century of the combined totalitarianisms and the barbarisms of Communism and Nazism. The Old Europe didn’t rise again from the blood of her martyrs: she died in it. They bequeathed to us – but what they have done is tremendous – only the example of their detachment and of their courage: they held strong and fast.

In Verdun, an entire generation went to the front line, like at the altar of the sacrifice. “Up there.” They were our fathers and our grand-fathers. We owe them all.

One speaks, instant in season or out of season, about the duty of memory, most of the time in order to disparage France and to destroy the seeds that implant the love of country and countryman in the hearts of new generations. For us, this commemoration presented the opportunity to fulfill this duty in order to entertain, on the opposite, one of the most necessary feelings, because the transmission of the inheritance of who we only are the transient depositaries depends on it. This precious feeling is filial devotion.

[1] The “Grognards” were the soldier of Napoleon's Old Guard .

[2] The "Poilus" were the French soldiers during WW I

The duty of memory:

honoring those who fought for the country!

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