World recalls sacrifice of WWI dead

GERMAN and French leaders stood side by side at the World War I remembrance ceremony in Paris for the first time yesterday as events were held around the globe to honour the millions of dead.

In London Elizabeth II led tributes to the war dead, including the growing military death toll in Afghanistan. But among the dwindling band of survivors, the last British veteran of the Great War stayed away from official events.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel rekindled the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and vowed that their nations would never wage war on each other again.

Sarkozy said at the ceremony: “We are not commemorating the victory of one people over another but an ordeal that was equally terrible for each side.

“German orphans cried over the death of their fathers in combat just as French orphans did,” he added.

A visibly moved Merkel shook the hands of frail, grey-haired veterans of World War II.

Born after the war, she and Sarkozy bear none of the personal scars that marked previous French-German gestures – most notably the 1984 visit by president Francois Mitterrand and chancellor Helmut Kohl to the French battle site of Verdun. Mitterrand was injured in World War II in Verdun, while Kohl’s father fought in the area in World War I.

At the encounter between Merkel and Sarkozy, flag-waving bystanders and chattering schoolchildren lent a note of cheerfulness to the sombre ceremony.

While the leaders paid homage to the war dead, much of the talk was about the future, from policy to conflict resolution.

“The Germans and the French, once bitter enemies, now stand united as neighbours in a way that nourishes hope and confidence that elsewhere in the world, too, deep trenches can be bridged and overcome,” Merkel said in her speech.

“One must learn to rise above one’s history. What happened cannot be forgotten, but there is a force that can help us ... the force of reconciliation.”

The 1914-18 conflict set the tone for the 20th century’s litany of brutality and in terms of sheer mass battlefield killing has rarely been equalled.

German leaders have attended World War I memorial events in France before, most notably when Kohl took Mitterrand’s hand in Verdun, the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.

But Merkel’s visit was the first time a German leader had attended the Armistice Day ceremony in Paris marking the defeat of Germany and was seen as a signal of ever closer ties between the two neighbours.

“We cannot wipe out the past but there is a force which can help us to bear it: The power of reconciliation,” Merkel said in a speech.

The two leaders observed a moment of silence – at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – to mark the moment 91 years ago when the guns stopped firing across Europe after Germany signed an Armistice Treaty.

In Britain too, people fell silent to remember those who fought and gave their lives in the war.

Elizabeth II led commemorations at a service at Westminster Abbey in London which was also attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Yesterday’s service at the Abbey was held following the deaths this year of the final three veterans of the war living in Britain.

William Stone died in January, aged 108, followed in July by Henry Allingham, 113, and Harry Patch, 111.

Brown has faced severe criticism this week over the war in Afghanistan, where a new generation of British service personnel are making the ultimate sacrifice.

In Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand province in Afghanistan, a gun salute marked the start of a two-minute silence and people stood still to pay their respects.

In the United States, where November 11 is a national holiday, Veterans’ Day, President Barack Obama attended a traditional wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.

Solemn services took place across Australia to remember those killed in action in the war the country joined as part of the British Empire.

Claude Choules, the 108-year-old last British veteran of the Great War, who lives in Australia, stayed away from official events in his adopted country.

His daughter Daphne Edinger said Choules, who lives in a nursing home in Perth, had been scarred by his experiences and chose not to celebrate the Armistice or other veterans’ days.

Choules served on HMS Revenge during a 41-year naval career that spanned both world wars, witnessing the surrender of the German Imperial Navy in 1918 and the scuttling of the fleet in Scapa Flow.

The last American veteran is Frank Buckles, 108, while Canadian John Babcock also survives.

Meanwhile, eight Belgian buglers led a solemn last post ceremony at the world-famous Menin Gate war memorial yesterday to remember the dead.

Poppy petals fell from the arched memorial to commemorate the deaths after dignitaries and politicians from Belgium, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India paused for two minutes’ silence at 11am to mark the November 11 armistice.

The Menin Gate has the names of 55,000 missing soldiers engraved on its walls. A further 35,000 names of the missing are listed at the Tyne Cot military cemetery, which contains 12,000 graves – making it the largest Commonwealth military burial site in the world.

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