Remembering the First World War: The flood of 1914-18 memorabilia has begun – and it will break your heart

A pan-European digital library has collected 500,000 mementos

Robert Fisk
Monday 28 October 2013 01:00

The French embassy in Beirut held a gloomy ceremony last week to mark the killing of its 58 paratroopers in a suicide truck bombing 30 years ago. An Islamic Jihad bomb. For which, I suppose, read Iran. Just one survivor of the attack was persuaded to come back to Lebanon; he spoke movingly of his living, wounded comrades and their all-too living trauma.

The Americans lost 241 servicemen a few seconds earlier in another suicide lorry bombing, but no ceremonies for them last week. I guess the fires of Afghanistan and Iraq still burn too brightly.

Or do we Europeans care more about these dark anniversaries? Unlike the Brits – and I suppose we must wait till that awful date of 4 August to get round to it – the French are already commemorating the First World War, the hundredth anniversary of which falls next year. Perhaps they lost too many men to wait: perhaps 1,385,000 against Britain’s 744,000.

In Ireland, one of the late Seamus Heaney’s last poems, published for the first time this weekend, is inspired by a reading of the British First World War poet Edward Thomas, who was killed at the battle of Arras in April 1917. In France, they are already reopening ancient tunnels where German and French soldiers spent months blowing each other up. French papers carry full page articles on the need to preserve the memories – the letters and documents and photographs and memorabilia of the war which was supposed to end all wars – along with pictures of long-dead poilus in their odd firemen’s hats.

A digital library called Europeana has collected 500,000 mementos and personal archives in 10 countries – its campaign for memorabilia in France begins in just over a week’s time – and some of the items could break a heart of stone. Among them is a cluster of white, black and brown figurine farm animals sculpted by French soldier Charles Grauss for his daughter Ghislaine. They attest to love and a longing for home. But Grauss “fell on the field of honour” – as they say in France – on 29 April 1918.

A snapshot shows the Peiffer-Weber family outside their smashed home in Reims in 1918, the building torn apart by a German shell. Madame Peiffer can be seen in a white smock, sitting on the rubble with her tiny daughters, Juliette and Elisa. The very elderly sisters gave the photograph to the digital library which allowed Le Figaro to print it, along with other ephemera of war.

Some of the letters are from children. Marguerite Hosmalin wrote to her father in April 1915 (“Mon cher papa...”) with her own drawings of the British, French, Belgian and Russian flags. And there is – was there not bound to be? – a Bible which saved the life of one Kurt Geller in a trench in north-eastern France. Geller – French, despite his name – was sleeping when shells fell around his trench and a chunk of shrapnel struck the Bible beneath his head, almost cutting the volume in two. The Bible still exists, its back and pages torn but its front cover not quite broken. Geller’s head was untouched.

British troops sent thousands of postcards home from the trenches, many of them showing destroyed French towns and villages. My father – of whom I have sworn not to write more, although it will be difficult next year – was in the King’s Liverpool Regiment and sent back cards of the destruction of Cambrai which he had helped to liberate along with Canadian troops in 1918. For some reason he was never able to explain, his mother – my grandmother – gave him not a Bible but a tiny steel model of the Buddha to keep him safe. My dad was not a Buddhist. But he survived and the little Buddha is now in my safekeeping, along with his service medal, “The Great War for Civilisation” inscribed on the back.

I used to hunt for postcards of the First World War myself and I well remember buying – at a Paris flea market – a card sent home from the trenches by a French soldier in 1914. One after the other, he listed the names of his neighbours who had already been killed. I put the card in a place of safety, and now – to my great sorrow – cannot find it. Which shows that the place to put important papers must always be the obvious one.

Eugene Herbet, who fought at Verdun, kept all his 1914-18 papers in the loft of his home. The family house was and still is on the Somme, where his grandson, also Eugene, found them when Eugene Senior died. He had been a stretcher-bearer but also a musician and had persuaded his colonel to let him start his own orchestra in the trenches. His musical note-taking and concert papers are still intact, along with a special march he wrote for his French unit, the 411th Infantry Regiment.

In France, they’ve even printed for the first time a French translation of Company K, a novel written by US Marine William March and first published in America in 1933. He fought from November 1917 until the last day of the war, 11 November 1918, after crossing the Meuse under shellfire the previous day. “If men of rank from each army could simply find themselves beside a river where they could talk calmly,” March wrote – and I am re-translating him back from the French – “no war would last more than a week.”

One serviceman in the novel reads Shelley and Wordsworth. And another, beside him, says to himself: “When the war’s over, I’m going to learn to read.”

Qatar two-faced on democracy

A few moments here to reflect on another war – Syria – and the wealthy Arab nations which finance the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad regime.

Qatar is foremost among those who wish to see the establishment of a representative democracy in Damascus. Or so it says.

But last week a court in Qatar upheld a 15-year jail sentence given to a local poet for criticising the former Emir and “inciting revolt”.

Mohamed al-Ajami had written a poem about the Arab revolts which toppled at least four dictators, and referred to “sheikhs playing on their PlayStations” – a clear swipe at the autocracies of the Gulf.

Al-Ajami’s lawyer, who says his client has already spent two years in solitary confinement, claims the boy has only recited the poem once, in an apartment in Cairo. Now his only chance of freedom lies in the good grace of the Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamed al-Thani.

Assad pere et fils also locked up a few poets in their time. But is the “new” Damascus going to be any more liberal under rebels paid by those freedom-loving Qataris?