New French WWI memorial focuses on individuals, not nations

By Lucy Williamson
BBC News, Arras, France

  • Published
Media caption,
The BBC's Lucy Williamson: "Friends and former enemies, mingled together for the first time"

A new memorial to mark 100 years since the start of World War One has been inaugurated in northern France with the aim of focusing attention, not on the nations involved, but the individuals.

Wilfred Owen's name is there. So is fellow poet Isaac Rosenberg's.

There are rows of Smiths, and Wrights, and even some Camerons, but also Fleisches, Ernsts and Mullers.

Almost 600,000 names - friends and former enemies - mingled together for the first time on a ring of panels, in strict alphabetical order. No ranks, no nationalities; just a dizzying list of the human stories that ended on France's northern battlefields.

Image caption,
The "ring of remembrance" reorders the memory of World War One
Image caption,
French President Francois Hollande gathered with other dignitaries to inaugurate the memorial

In a land dotted with war memorials this new "ring of remembrance" reorders the memory of World War One.

One hundred years on, the mood here is not of a national loss, but a European one.

A memorial that fits the era we live in, say its creators, reflecting Europe's current and remarkable period of unity and peace.

It also honours the sense expressed by soldiers at the time, they say, of a shared experience and shared destiny with men from the other side.

One of the names on the panel belongs to Geert Hindricks, from the 3rd Hannover Infantry Regiment.

He described in a last letter to his wife how the German soldiers on the Western Front became friendly with their enemies in the British trench just 20m (65ft) away, warning each other when officers were passing by and sharing meat and cigarettes.

"When you think about it," he wrote, "it's a sad affair when there's no animosity between the locals and the soldiers, and only those at the top can't agree on anything."

Image source, AP
Image caption,
The names of the 580,000 people killed in France are listed alphabetically, not by nationality

For the officials of modern-day Europe, standing side-by-side at the site on Tuesday - French President Francois Hollande alongside German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen - this centenary is a visible sign of how much has changed.

The reconciliation that grew out of the wars of the 20th Century put an end to inter-European conflicts stretching back hundreds of years.

As the historian and philosopher Joseph Rovan puts it: "It took 23 Franco-German wars [since the 16th Century] to finally create Europe."

Much of that progress has been down to the personal chemistry between Europe's post-war leaders.

But the iconic friendship between France's Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer of Germany, and their post-war rapprochement, hasn't always been easy to emulate.

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Part of the memorial is left hanging above the ground - a reminder of the fragility of peace

The creators of the centenary monument have left part of the structure hanging above the gentle slope of Arras's fields - a reminder and a warning about the fragility of peace.

With tensions rising between Paris, Berlin and London over how to govern Europe, and how to protect national interests within it, the anniversary is a chance for Europe's current leaders and decision-makers to reflect on the nature of brotherhood and what happens when it fails.