At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month……..the cannons shut still.

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At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month........the cannons shut still.

Today in America it is Veteran Day, but for me it remains World War I cease-fire agreement that is also refereed as the World War I victory. It is back in France a national holiday (the second November holiday after the All-Saint day) and back then when I was a first grader, we used to cross the Rhine river across the board to reach Kehl (Germany) because there was nothing to celebrate there.
The world war I i got to know it through my grandparents but not much. Maybe because they did not experienced themselves (but they did the second one), also maybe because my grand-grand-parents did not like to talk about much it either. I really got to sense the first World War during my 8th grade History class and by a field study in the Vosges (Col du Linge) and Verdun (the mother of all battles). Since then, this war remains in my mind as a shell shock and reminds me how the brightest nations scarified a whole generation under the shells, the chemicals, the grenade schrapnel, the rats….and the muds.
“l’Enfer c’est la boue” (Mud is Hell!) was one of the quote that my History textbook that my cortex kept in his mind. 20 years ago. And still haunting me.
At almost its hundred anniversary, as none of its witness survived, we have to remember how this one, the most cruel and sophisticated one (that brought the expression “la der des ders” (the latest of the latests ones)) sparked.
We have to get back to the end of the 19th century, la “Belle Epoque”, those SciFi “steam punks” fellas dreamt to live on, to understand how a volcano waited to erupt. It was a time of huge advancements in the world: railways, industries, electricity, X-rays, medicinal chemistry (Paul Ehrlich and the “magic bullet” that finally put an end to the syphilis threat), chemistry (Badische Anilin und Soda-Fabrik aka BASF, Bayer, Hoechst…), colonies all across the globe….but also with it came arrogance and boasting…and nationalism.
If we have to put a word on the cause of this war, Nationalism was surely one. France was then coming out from the humiliating defeat of 1870 by Prussian (Otto von Bismarck) Army, and my region (Alsace) back to the German empire. Back then, taunting Germans as “boche”, “Fritz” was common and even a sign of patriotism and even stirred to a national scandal when the French officer Alfred Dreyfus (a Jewish military officer from Alsace) was wrongly accused of conspiracy, dividing Frnace into Pro- and Anti-Dreyfus, bringing a verbal and intellectual duel (the famous Emile Zola’s “J’accuse”).
Two alliances (France/UK/Russia versus Italy/Prussian-German Empire/Austria-Hungary Empire) built and the tensions with it. I still have this antique French History textbook written in 1912 in which we can clearly feel the climax of such tension between these two camps. A spark (the assassination of Archiduke Franz Ferdinand by Princip in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914 set Europe ablaze three months later).
A whole generation went to war, “fleur au fusil”, thinking that such war would last a couple of weeks, enough time to come harvest their crops. It took four years to have those lucky enough to come back home.
A war of absurdity (Early French infantry were dressed in navy blue and red, it was like wearing a orange hunting jacket) a war of personal interests and arrogance (Generals ordering the assault for gaining 100 yards of ground from the enemy by paying a toll of 10’000 deaths daily)
, a war of position (trenches, over 800kms of trenches between France and Germany), a war of experimental warfare (in which Mustard Gas (Yperite from the town of Ypres), chlore were used to suffocate enemies, warplanes and modern-day chivalry), a war that scarred the human body and soul (see Otto Dix paints to see the mutilations, “shellshock” or the first detailed description of PTSD) but also a war in which the little people show their humanity (Christmas 1914 should have raised consciousness of how such war was an absurd child play between governing rivals).
The end of the war brought a huge turnover in the world. Europe lost it supremacy and began its fragmentation, the humiliating conditions imposed on Germany was the best recipe for disaster as it seeded the next war and the rise of evils (Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Stalin). It shaped the seed of the current chaos in Middle-East (the Sykes-Picot agreement that did little to accommodate the sectarian strife of the Levantine, as Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine/Israel are terrible consequences from it). It set ways to avoid further wars (League of Nations that was replaced by the United Nations and still show its incapacity as seen with the Syrian tragedy). It also set women emancipation, surrealism age and put America into a thriving decade. But also set the reconciliation path to France and Germany by bringing these two major powerhouse of the European Union.
If you want to learn more about it I may recommend to read of watch novels such as “All Quiet in the Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, “Joyeux Noel” by Christian Caron, “Un Long Dimanche de Fiancailles” by Jean-Pierre Jenet, “J’accuse” by Abel Gance.
If you have a chance to visit France, I would strongly recommend to visit the site of Verdun and its Museum, see the boneyard of Duaumont to get a sense of how this war changed forever me and the whole humanity.