Ministers highlight France’s extensive WWI commemorations

First World War centenary – Statement issued following the Council of Ministers’ meeting (excerpts)

Charleville-Mézières, 7 November 2018

The Minister for the Armed Forces and the Minister of State attached to the Minister for the Armed Forces made a statement regarding the First World War centenary.

The French President wanted to commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War through a commemorative journey, an event unprecedented in terms of its purpose and duration. This journey and the events of 10 and 11 November, including the international ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe, will be the highlight of the exceptional series of First World War centenary commemorations.

In 2011, it was decided that the nation would pay a prolonged and exceptional tribute to the men and women of the Great War. In order to succeed, a specific governance body was established. Created in 2012 in the form of a public interest grouping involving the state, local authorities, public institutions and sponsors, the First World War Centenary Mission was the major coordinator and instigator of this commemorative cycle. (…)

The centenary was dedicated first and foremost to military personnel from metropolitan France, overseas France and the former colonies, who were both heroes and victims of a war marked by its scale and intensity. Many national and local ceremonies have provided an opportunity to recall, over the four years that have gone by, the commitment, bravery and endurance of more than eight million men who fought under the [French] flag between 1914 and 1918, from the humblest soldiers to commanders-in-chief, from those who had come from Africa and Asia to those from small villages in French regions. It has been a chance to honour, in France and the countries of the Eastern Front, the sacrifice of nearly 1.4 million dead and four million wounded.

In the government’s presence, the allied nations, too, have honoured the memory of their soldiers who died on French soil. Among others, Britons, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Portuguese have organized several international ceremonies.

Powerful gestures have been made together with the German authorities to celebrate Franco-German friendship and send a message of peace to Europeans at the battlegrounds themselves: a joint ceremony at Verdun and the inauguration of a Franco-German Historial [memorial to the history of the First World War, from the words “history” and “memorial”] in Alsace. On 10 November, a ceremony in Rethondes will bring together the French President and the German Chancellor.

Because this was a total war, France wanted to pay tribute to all of society, to the departments on the front and at the rear, to civilians and to the women mobilized in the fields and factories – be it through educational projects, exhibitions, seminars or publications.

Thanks to the measures taken, the centenary has been extremely popular with French people and enabled families to reclaim their history.

In 2013, French people were invited to hand in their family archives to municipal, departmental or national archive services. This great collection, which is still continuing, is a success that has enriched the public archives. (…)

At a more detailed level, the search engine Grand Mémorial, made available to French people by the Ministry of Culture, has enabled families to rediscover the individual stories of their ancestors by searching First World War soldiers’ indexed registration forms and the databases of the Ministry for the Armed Forces and diplomatic archives.

Schools have picked up on the collection idea, involving their pupils in rediscovering the faces and destinies of men and women from their local areas. Together with the Centenary Mission, the Ministry for the Armed Forces has supported nearly 1,000 Great-War-related educational projects.

The centenary has also been a part of every region: both those which were the theatre of conflict and those making up the rear. Projects have been set up in every department: more than 6,000 of them received the official centenary label, 2,139 of those for 2018, enabling us to rediscover the history of towns, departments and regions during the Great War.

Meanwhile, many voluntary organizations have created, modernized or expanded memorials, museums and study centres devoted to the First World War. The Ministry for the Armed Forces has backed them up by supporting 51 projects worth more than €17 million over the period. Visitor numbers to historic and commemorative sites in the Grand Est and Hauts-de-France regions have increased by nearly 30% in that time. (…)

Cornerstones of our individual and collective memory, 1,600 of our war memorials have been restored by communes. At the same time, the Ministry for the Armed Forces has carried out an unprecedented restoration programme for World War I military cemeteries: 56 cemeteries have been completely renovated and more than 200 military sections of civilian cemeteries completely restored. Promoted by several voluntary associations and French departments, one government-backed project was presented to UNESCO with a view to World War I Western Front burial and memorial sites being granted world heritage status. (…)./.

Published on 08/01/2020

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