The war memorials of France

Monument aux morts

Today is a national holiday in France and Belgium. Le jour de l’Armistice is a chance to remember those who fell in the war from 1914 to 1918 and subsequent conflicts.

In 1914 the Tour de France finished just before the war was about to start. With the race having just finished, the organiser Henri Desgrange wrote a full page letter in his L’Auto newspaper calling on riders and all young French men to join the combat, employing a tone that shocks today but perhaps understandable given the invading forces. Tour de France winners François Faber, Lucien Petit-Breton and Octave Lapize mobilised but never returned. Racing did carry on, Paris-Tours was away from the military front to the north and east. There was much racing in Italy too.

With war over in 1919 Paris Roubaix resumed. Along the route military vehicles lay rusting and such was the ruin that they stood taller than any vegetation. In an account by Jean-Paul Brouchon, Eugène Christophe rode through the area and proclaimed “here is the real hell of the north” and it was the lifeless scenes and devastation following the end of the war that gave Paris-Roubaix its nickname, not the cobbled roads. In this race won by Henri Péllisier, 40 following vehicles started but only five made it to Roubaix such was the bad state of the roads.

As well as the formal ceremonies today, there are reminders every day of the year. For the cyclist in France each ride will surely involve passing by a memorial, the monument aux morts. You’ll find these in every village and town, usually with an engraved list of those who died. It is often striking to see just how many names left a small village never to return. They are as much a part of a rural village as the mayor’s office, the school, the church or the café.

There are larger monuments in particular places. On the Paris-Roubaix route there are well-kept cemeteries with white crosses and in the Alps memorials to resistance fighters can be found.

27 thoughts on “The war memorials of France”

  1. The letter is frankly horrifying, and very amusing. Desgrange treats war like sport, whereas he should have been content with the other way around.

  2. There is no better way to see the ferocity and futility of war than riding through northern France. A buddy and I did a tour of part of the Western Front a couple years ago and I found it very sobering. The inhumanity of the First World War is hard to fathom; we visited the memorials at Menin Gate, Tyne Cot and Thiepval, on just those three memorials there were more than 150,000 names of Commonwealth missing for which no bodies were found, youth ground up and spat into the mud.

    We also visited the memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette where a plaque commemorates François Faber, here is a link to a few photos of the memorial plus the beautiful Canadian memorial at nearby Vimy Ridge, though my friend didn’t include a photo of the Faber plaque in his journal:

  3. Desgrange’s uses of sporting analogies arnt disimilar to those of his British contemporaries. The ‘play up and play the game’ attitude sent hundreds of thousands of men to their deaths. Scary stuff.

    This sort of thing is exactly why modern sport tries to distance itself from conflicts past and present, hence the current poppy debate.

  4. Sport is another way to “play” battle, just like when we were kids.

    BTW- 11/11/11 is Veterans Day here in the USA.
    Happily served in the US Navy 1984-88.

  5. Remembrance Day. here in Australia, but certainly a universally recognized day of remembering the fallen soldiers, since at 11 am on 11 November 1918 “the guns of the Western Front fell silent after more than four years continuous warfare. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month attained a special significance in the post-war years” and whilst it may have different names in different nations, the association remains the same.

    Not sure if there are war memorials along cycling routes here in Australia, although I have ridden past the Martin Place Cenotaph in “downtown” Sydney – but Australia has lost 32 soldiers in Afghanistan to date, and that’s 32 – mostly young – lives which won’t ever enjoy the pleasure of riding a bicycle. Whilst I reiterate MT Dave’s sentiments, I can’t get the image of former President of the USofA George W. – sitting back in some leather chair in some smoke-filled study with wood and an air of serenity, counting the cash for his buddies on the lives of these men now departed.


  6. TomH: I’m a bit pressed for time to translate it myself otherwise I’d have a go. I’ve put it into an online translation engine and the result is ok.

    Thanks for the other personal accounts and photos. And like Jon in Brescia I’ve seen the memorials in Italy for the “Caduti”. Talking of Italy for cyclists today note several big mountain passes were made by the French and Italian armies in order to transport weapons and supplies, a tiny spin off from the conflict.

  7. Desgrange had been at it for a long time, so it’s not surprising that he wrote that all the young readers of L’Auto should “drain the Prussians’ blood, and when they ask for mercy, not give it to them.” Desgrange had founded the Audax cycling movement in France (based on an Italian model) expressly to create better soldiers. Their rides were even called “brevets militaires.” So even sports at the time was not as innocent as we might think. After the defeat of France in the war of 1870/71, many French believed that their youth was too soft, and sport would toughen them up. Cycling was seen as good preparation to get the stamina required for war.

    While Desgrange was representative for many in Europe at the time, not everybody was a war-monger. Vélocio, the “apostle of the cyclotourists,” saw touring as a way to bring together different Nations and prevent future wars.

    After World War I, there was a big movement both in Germany and France toward a unified Europe to prevent future slaughter. In Germany, this idea was supplanted by the Nazi idea of a unified Europe, but involuntary and under German leadership. For example, Otto Abetz was one of the founders of the pacifist European movement, but later became Hitler’s ambassador to France.

    After WW II, there was a strong drive by the leaders on both sides for close ties – through cultural exchanges and so on – to make sure nobody could talk about “the Prussians” or “the French” as sub-humans any longer. In fact, the European Union was started to prevent future wars, by pooling the German and French steel resources, so that no country could divert the resources to build up the arsenal for war.

  8. “In an account by Jean-Paul Brouchon, Eugène Christophe rode through the area and proclaimed “here is the real hell of the north” and it was the lifeless scenes and devastation following the end of the war that gave Paris-Roubaix its nickname, not the cobbled roads.”

    I didn’t know that, but will always remember it. Thank you.

  9. It was touching to see people young and old remembering the past outside the local Mairie today, quite a turnout.

    I recall going to the memorial in my home village as a child with my family to commemorate the relatives and fiends that my parents and grandparents generation had lost – rather shamefully (as a Brit.) it seems to be forgotten nowadays.

    In matters of war and financial crises, humanity never seems to learn because people choose to ignore history.

  10. If you ever get the chance, visit Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Every evening at 8pm sharp the buglers from the local fire brigade play “Last Post” to show their appreciation for the Commonwealth forces that came to Belgium in her hour of need. There is also a laying of wreaths and a color guard who are volunteers from the British Legion. The evening I was there, there was also a bag piper in addition to the buglers. Its a very emotional experience.

  11. Daniel Moszkowicz, in Australia the ANZAC statues in pretty much every single town is a war memorial, list of the fallen, as found throughout France, etc. A plinth, a soldier, names of the dead. And on Rememberance and ANZAC days ceremonies and wreathes.

  12. Adrian Miles – acknowledged, however I was commenting on not knowing whether these war memorials are along such bicycles routes as say in stages featured in the Tour Down Under, but since I take your point of them existing in most Australian towns, they therefore feature in the country towns staging the starts and finishes of this race. So, whilst they exist in most country towns, there aren’t really any such memorials along “rail and ride” routes in the Alpine regions around the NSW/Vic border, for instance – of which I know about. Certainly our ANZAC Day tradition is a much more celebrated ceremony – Lest We Forget. Thanks.

    Daniel M.

  13. It’s hard to go very far in France without running into a WWI memorial. The touching thing is, they all refer to “The World War.” Little did they know.

    When we look at the problems of Europe today, it put things in perspective to think about the attitudes of a century ago. It amazes me cycling races routinely cross borders today with hardly a gear shift.

  14. If anyone wants to know what it was like for the French ‘poilus’ and their comrades, and how heroic élan was swiftly replaced by despair and contempt for the ruling elites, I strongly recommend a reading of Henri Barbusse’s epic novel ‘Le Feu’ (translated into English as ‘Under Fire’).

    It’s also worth pointing out that in France, at every war memorial, the names of the dead are read out on the 11th by the maire. Those gathered to honour them, follow every name with the words, “Mort pour la France”.

    Very moving.

    Lest we forget.

  15. Maybe when I am older and more sentimental (or just mental!) I will do a ride-and-visit to some of these memorials!

    A question for the history buffs regarding WW1… was it not the case that most, if not all, high-ranking officers were members of the elite/landed gentry, didn’t want to get their hands dirty, and did not see it as a bad thing to shove the riff-raff into the line of fire, resulting in strategies that led to far more deaths than could be considered necessary?! And then after the war were rewarded with management positions in big business ?!

  16. @ Darren
    It’s a bit more complicated than that. The only wars that the elite had known were colonial wars in which the British army enjoyed enormous advantage against local populations.

    The generals might have looked back at the horrors of the American Civil War, and thought about the implications, but they didn’t.

    Another factor was technological. The invention of the machine gun, the so-called ‘concentrated essence of infantry’, made it possible for a few men, well dug in, to hold off large numbers of attackers, amidst terrible slaughter. The generals were convinced that if their men failed to break through, it was due to a failure of moral resolve and courage. Insulated from the horrors of the front line, they had no idea what it was like for ‘Tommy Atkins’. Likewise, the French generals had no conception of the suffering of the ‘poilus’.

    Hence the threat of mutiny and revolutionary socialism in the French army towards the end of the war.

    Hence also the contempt of the English war poets like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon for the high command.

    From memory, I think it was Sassoon who wrote a poem beginning:

    If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath / I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base, / And speed glum heroes up the line to death.

    After the battle of Passchendaele, a high-ranking officer sent forward to survey the scene broke down in tears saying, “My God, did we sent men out to fight in this?”

  17. grumpyoldman, many thanks for your sharing! Reminds me of what I learnt in history class about the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and the class system between bosses and workers! Sadly enough, I see there are still businesses in Western Europe where bosses who have no professional management or leadership training still tend to think there is such a class system, and think they are better people because of their position…even if they have a lower IQ!!! But they do not get me down! I get on my bike, hammer down some tarmac, whilst singing Monty Python unes to myself!!!

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