Monday 25 January 2021

Week 4: The Unknown Soldier is placed in the tomb

100 years ago this week: Week 4

A poignant moment in history, overshadowed on the front pages by a portent of further conflict.

Read on to discover the fourth newspaper extract in this series.

The Unknown Soldier is placed in the tomb
It’s over. The ashes of the soldier, the name of whom we do not know, are at rest under the eternal stone. Centuries and generations can come, but glory has limits that cannot cross history's forgetfulness, and the grey slab, placed flat on the ground, dominated by the Arc de Triomphe, is the most pathetic milestone that the recognition of men has erected on the roads of the future.

My translation cannot do justice to this moving and poetic text by the journalist and writer Jacques-Napoléon Faure-Biguet. If you have a good level of French, I recommend you read the full piece, which captures the mood of the event better than any other articles published this same day. 

Having now spent several hours sifting through newspapers from 1921, one thing has become abundantly clear. Over two years after the end of the conflict, World War 1 was still dominating the news.

On this particular day, the headline stories were understandable. Nearly five years after the suggestion was first made, France’s unknown WW1 battle victim, representing the anonymous contribution of millions of other soldiers, had finally been placed in his tomb under the Arc de Triomphe.

The ceremony took place early in the morning, in the presence of soldiers, military leaders, and politicians, but also many thousands of ordinary Parisians. The coffin had first arrived at the Arc de Triomphe on November 11, 1920. One day previously in Verdun, a young soldier named Auguste Thin had been asked to pick the ‘Unknown Soldier’ from eight possible candidates, representing the major zones of conflict in France. Thin chose coffin number 6.

Alongside the French dignitaries and the Paris people were representatives from other countries, including UK Prime Minister David Lloyd George, the Belgian minister of Foreign Affairs and Count Sforza representing Italy. These statesmen were not in Paris for this ceremony, but for another post World War 1 event that was taking place in the city. Later that same day, these men would sign a document that pushed the inhumation story out of the headline slot in Le Petit Parisien.

"Agreement on the reparations"

In the previous days, there had been intense discussions and negotiations between several countries concerning the war reparations the defeated nations should pay France and the Allied Powers. This 'punishment' had been agreed and signed at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but the devil was now in the details. How much, when, to who and for how long? 

There is no need to go into details here. An agreement had been found late in the day on January 28, but it was by no means the end of the subject. The negotiations moved on to London, where discussions became more technical and resentment and defiance ever greater in Germany. In this day's news, the protagonists spoke of their relief to have found a joint agreement that would weaken Germany and its allies and prevent them from building a new war machine. History tells us that this would not be the case.

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier becomes even more poignant within this shadow. On the day the victim of one conflict was being celebrated, the world took a step towards another war. 

By reporting on the previous day's events, newspapers are already covering history. This was one such event where journalists seem fully aware of this fact. Faure-Biguet could not read the future, but he did signal a warning. History's forgetfulness is as eternal as the flame alongside this grey slab.


C-Marie said...

I have read where Churchill said that Germany was so ready for the promises of Hitler to lift them out of the degradation (to them) that they suffered from the reparations and more after World War I.
God bless, C-Marie

Susan said...

Very sobering reading, and a good reminder of these times. I'm just starting to research a bit more about Agnes Sorel (who is local to me) and her influence on the court. There are lots of parallels between the 1440s (post Hundred Years War) and the 1920s.

Jim said...

Thanks for recommending the complete article. It was moving.

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