Wednesday, 12 November 2008

90th Anniversary Armistice Commemorations in the Champagne Region

by Kathryn Hadley

Yesterday, November 11th 2008, the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice was celebrated across the world. Alongside the official British and French ceremonies at the cenotaph in London and in Verdun, the victims of the First World War were also remembered in some of the more unknown towns and forgotten battlefields of the Champagne region in France.

In London, the three surviving veterans in England, Henry Allingham, Harry Patch and Bill Stone, each laid a wreath at the cenotaph. In Verdun, President Sarkozy, Prince Charles, Quentin Bryce, the Governor general of Australia, and Peter Mueller, the President of the upper house of the German parliament, attended the official French ceremony at the Douaumont Ossuary in Verdun.

Local commemorative ceremonies and events were also organised in towns across France. Both the municipal celebrations in Epernay, a town of 26,000 inhabitants 30 kilometres to the South of Reims, and the open day at the military camp of Suippes reached record attendance numbers.
Celebrations began at 10.30 in Epernay and were led by the local mayor and deputies, French veterans, local school children and an association of First World War re-enactors. The parade around the town centre was followed by the laying of wreaths at the monument to the victims of the Second World War and in front of the town hall and by a minute of silence.

There was, however, seemingly little need for the mayor and sub-prefect’s insistence on the ‘devoir de mémoire’, the duty to remember the victims of the war. The military authorities at Suippes fell short of buses to escort visitors from one village to another and many visitors were turned away. The military camp was last opened in September 2005 and the memory of the villages and of their families had largely been pushed aside. The area (larger than Paris) surrounding the five villages of Tahure, Ripont, Hurlus, Perthes-les-Hurlus and le Mesnil-les-Hurlus and the two farms of Navarin and Ripont was on the frontline during the war and was converted into a military camp in 1923, allegedly because it was too dangerous to be replanted and built upon.

According to one of the military commanders, the villages' inhabitants came back in 1919, but were expropriated from their lands. Ninety years later, their grandchildren are returning to see for themselves what is left of their lost family heritage: a couple of tombstones in le Mesnil-les-Hurlus and Hurlus and the church altar in Tahure. Others returned to witness the place where their grandfathers died in battle. Leon Carpentier had always wanted to go to the farm of Beauséjour to pay homage to his grandfather, a history teacher from the Pas-de-Calais, who was killed there on June 15th, 1915, aged 35.

For more on the lost villages in the camp of Suippes read Lost Villages of Champagne

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