France acknowledges all victims of war

November 17, 2017
A memorial service for soldiers executed during WWI for desertion, November 12, Rocles, France. Photo Sam Wainwright

On a cold, wet November morning in the village of Rocles in central France, I attended a World War I centenary event unlike any I had seen before.

In the town square there is a small war memorial with a marble plaque listing the district's fallen sons, much as you find in every locality across France and Australia.

However, on closer examination, this one is a bit different. Instead of "Vive la France", it has palm leaves engraved in the stone, slogans calling for peace and acknowledges all the victims of war. How could this be?

The region was the centre of a militant peasant union in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that organised tenant farmers. It even elected Pierre Brizon as France's first socialist MP. Brizon has the distinction of being the only member of the National Assembly (France's parliament) to vote against the war. The area went on to be a heartland of the French Communist Party

The ceremony began with a tribute to the men whose names were on the memorial, but then it called for the official rehabilitation of 639 French soldiers who were court martialled and executed during the war.

Some of the 639 were involved in mutiny, while others simply refused to fight, something that became increasingly common as the war dragged on and the bloody futility of it became more obvious.

But the vast majority were killed in the first years of the war. Many got lost behind enemy lines in the confusion of battle or were taken prisoner but succeeded in escaping. Their reward for finding their way back to the French trenches was to be summarily found guilty of abandoning their post and shot by firing squad the next day.

It has since been acknowledged that many of these men were simply made an example of to warn others against desertion. Reading their last words to their lovers and families, knowing they would be dead by the time the envelopes were opened, is heartbreaking.

Former soldiers in their berets formed a guard of honour for the children and dignitaries laying wreaths. They held standards in the form of tricolour flags with gold trim and bearing the initials ARAC, the Republican Association of Former Servicemen. This is a left-wing returned soldiers’ organisation that explicitly campaigns against war, fascism, colonialism and racism.

One of the speeches emphasised the central role in securing peace that was played by the uprising of German sailors, soldiers and workers in the port city of Kiel, the centre of the German Navy. They took control of the city on November 4, 1918, and formed a soviet (or council) to decide their own policies and elect their own leaders. Their slogan was Frieden und Brot (peace and bread).

Celebrating independent soldier action to stop the war has particular importance for the campaign to rehabilitate the 639 executed French soldiers. The campaigners are demanding that all the soldiers have their names cleared and be listed as having "died for France", including those that consciously refused to fight or actively mutinied.

The speeches also criticised the official November 11 Remembrance Day ceremonies that had taken place the day before for glossing over history and promoting French patriotism. However, for an Australian, they came across as quite subdued.

According to Honest History, Australia is spending a staggering $552 million on 1914–18 commemorations. This equates to $8800 for every Australian killed, compared with $109 for each British death and only $2 for each fallen German soldier.

Even more extraordinary is that Australia, which lost 60,000 soldiers, is even outspending France, a country that suffered 1.7 million war deaths, including many civilians. France's allocation of $90 million only just pips the $88 million Australia is pouring into the construction of a new memorial at Villers-Bretonneaux to be opened on Anzac Day next year.

The more money Australian governments throw at Anzac Day and war memorials, the more detached they become from any real understanding of history — not just the fascinating story of how World War I did not unite Australia but profoundly divided it, but also serious military history.

It was not always this way. In the 1980s we were brought up on Eric Bogle's ballad The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, one of the best anti-war songs you'll ever hear, and we all watched Peter Weir's Gallipoli starring the young Mel Gibson in high school history class. These both told it like it really was.

The consensus back then was not "they sacrificed themselves for us", but rather, "what a tragic and pointless waste of life". If Bogle and Weir produced these master works today, the Murdoch press would be calling for them to be publicly stoned to death for being "unAustralian".

It's no accident that this hyped up manipulation of Anzac Day was promoted by the war criminal John Howard as he desperately sought to involve Australia in the illegal invasion of Iraq. It has precious little to do with "remembering them", and everything to do with trying to get Australians to blindly support any future military engagement.

Back in Rocles, the mayor proudly invited us back to the new community hall to snack on local cheese and sausage, drink mulled wine and listen to music. More than a hundred similar ceremonies took place across France that day. It was a nice way to remember them — all of them.

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