Bridget Gee is head of external relations at the New Zealand embassy in Paris. In her role, she is in charge of planning Franco-New-Zealand commemorations, especially the 2018 inauguration of the French monument in Wellington.
What role did New Zealanders play in the First World War and what impact did the conflict have on New Zealand?
The First World War was a significant and traumatising event for New Zealand. The human cost of the war was substantial. In total, out of a population of just over a million inhabitants, over 100,000 New Zealand men served in the expeditionary force. Of those, 18,000 died and 41,000 were injured. The centenary of 1918 is first an occasion to pay tribute to these men.
They were driven by a sense of duty, a spirit of justice and deep loyalty to the British Empire when they enlisted in the First World War after the conflict was declared in 1914.
Furthermore, it was the unimaginable experiences they were exposed to during this global conflict that helped the New Zealanders to develop the qualities of endurance and courage, feelings of solidarity and fraternity and a strong sense of dedication. Some dates on which the worst battles in the war were waged have become key touchstones in New Zealand’s national memory, in particular the landings of 1915 in Gallipoli, Turkey, which ended in failure. Regarding the Western front, where New Zealand suffered three-quarters of its losses, we also remember the battles of the Somme, Passchendaele and Messines.
How has 1918 and its memory played a part in forming New Zealand’s national identity?
At the end of the war, New Zealand troops couldn’t return home right away because there was a shortage of ships and some were sent to take part in the occupation of Germany. This had a huge impact on soldiers and their families. Also, when New Zealand signed the Treaty of Versailles it was given a new spot on the international stage.
The First World War had a profound and lasting impact on New Zealand, especially for those who had travelled enormous distances to take part in a war on the other side of the world, as well as those who stayed behind. The effects of the war can still be felt today, not only in our symbols and our commemorative monuments, but also in our politics and our values, in our international friendships and alliances, and in our national consciousness.
Since 2014, the centenary programme of the First World War in New Zealand has encouraged people to explore the way in which these experiences of war have contributed to shaping our national identity. The commemorative actions that have taken place include erecting and renovating monuments, producing music and theatre shows, and devising numerous educational projects in schools.
What will be the key commemorative events in your country in 2018?
On 4 November 2018, New Zealand organised a national ceremony in France to mark the centenary of the liberation of Quesnoy. Just one week before the end of the war, in early November 1918, the New Zealand Division reclaimed the town from the Germans. Since then, Quesnoy and New Zealand have developed special bonds. The town has even named some of its streets and one of its schools after well-known figures and places in New Zealand. New Zealand will, of course, commemorate 11 November 1918, standing alongside France.
Another symbol of the close relationship that unites our two nations and of our shared memory, the French remembrance monument at Pukeahu National War Memorial Park in Wellington will be installed in 2018. This monument was funded by the French Army Ministry through its Heritage, Remembrance and Archives Department (DPMA), which also contributed to its conception, especially by co-organising a French and New Zealand seminar and picking the winning design.
For further information
To Bleuets, citizens!
The centenary of the year 1918 will give many the occasion to don the “Bleuet de France” which came about in the wake of the First World War. A symbol of remembrance and solidarity, the bleuet or cornflower still fulfils the same vocation today and provides moral support for the injured and victims of war.
In 2015 and 2016, terrorist attacks struck France to its core. War, which had fled French shores many decades earlier, had again reared its ugly head in the everyday lives of French citizens. Millions of people gathered in the streets to stand together against fear and freedom-destroying fundamentalism, uniting to honour the dead and show their solidarity with traumatised survivors. Many gained a new perspective on the engagement of armies in theatres of overseas operations.
This humanist momentum was not unlike that which energised the nation in the weeks and months following the Great War when hundreds of thousands of young injured and mutilated men were returning home to rebuild their lives and integrate back into society. What this unprecedented enterprise needed was funds in addition to state aid. The seed of an idea began to grow in the minds of two nurses at the Invalides hospital: set up a factory where convalescing soldiers could manufacture small fabric cornflowers to be sold for a profit that would build up a charity fund. A national symbol was born! The cornflower is associated with many references. During the war, young recruits, wearing a new uniform in sky blue, were affectionately known as ‘Bleuets’ (cornflowers) by their elders. Cornflowers and poppies were also the only blooms to grow in the churned-up earth following the fighting, evoking the force of life. The poppy became the symbol of remembrance in Britain and Commonwealth nations. It continues to enjoy widespread appeal today.
From 1934, the government made the sale of cornflowers official each 11 November and manufacturing facilities cropped up all over France. In 1957, a new collection was authorised on 8 May with profits donated to support troops in the Second World War.
What happened to the ‘Bleuet de France’? Threatened with extinction, the cornflower trademark was granted in 1991 to the French national bureau of former service people and victims of war (ONACVG), a public institution attached to the French Army Ministry. The collection campaigns, led with the support of veterans, armies, local authorities and volunteers from all backgrounds raise just over a million euros each year.
Since 2012, French professional sport has backed this charitable initiative: Stade Rennais football club was the first to adopt the bleuet in official matches. For the occasion of the centenary of the Great War, the French rugby and football teams, as well as the League 1 and 2 teams, became ambassadors of the iconic blue flower. Following the example of the French President, a number of elected officials and senior members of the military authorities wear the bleuet de France at remembrance ceremonies. Commendable actions that are also broadcast widely by the media.
Manufactured by disabled worked, the bleuets are sold to “help those still with us”, soldiers from today and yesterday, the injured, widows, wards of the nation, victims of war and acts of terrorism. A proportion of the donations collected also fund remembrance actions, in particular those aimed at schools.
This year, in memory of the infantrymen, and in solidarity with those who served and serve for France at the risk of their life and those taken from us forever by war or terrorism, wearing the bleuet is a powerful, universal and intergenerational act of citizenship.
For further information
2018: the Year of Clemenceau
Last 11 November, the French president paid tribute to Georges Clemenceau while visiting the former prime minister’s Parisian apartment that is now a museum. The perfect occasion to declare that 2018 would be the “Year of Clemenceau”.
In Paris, at the Champs-Élysées roundabout, the statues of France’s two war leaders sit one across from the other. At the metro exit stands the imposing statue of General de Gaulle, while on the other side of the avenue, the statue of Georges Clemenceau rises tall. Erected in 1932, it features the Father of Victory in mid-stride wearing a heavy coat and gaiters, his scarf blowing in the wind, as he was seen when visiting the poilus, a term of endearment (literally ‘the hairy ones’) for the French infantrymen in the war. Today, this image is without a doubt the most enduring in the memory of French citizens.
In 2018, it will be revived following the French President’s decision to pay homage, as one strand of the commemoration of the centenary of the First World War, to the victor Georges Clemenceau, the founder of the Third Republic who, appointed President of the Council by Poincaré in November 1917, pledged to "conquer or die". Despite the validity of his choice, it would be reductive to remember Clemenceau for nothing but his warrior image and to sum up his career as one led exclusively by an aggressive and warmongering strategy.
“WE WANT PEACE”
In 1917, Georges Clemenceau and his government declared themselves present to “work”, to work for a “war of salvation” and strive for peace. Consequently, on 20 November 1917, in his ministerial declaration to the Chamber of Deputies, the Tiger, as he was also known, pledged to lead “an integral war” prompted by his desire to bring an end to the deadly conflict as soon as possible: “We want peace; we would sacrifice everything to obtain it in the conditions of justice and beauty that are the worthy values of our country.” There are several explanations why Clemenceau was so fiercely committed to ending the war. First and foremost was his visceral aversion to extreme violence, a revulsion largely fuelled by his visits to the front from September 1915 in his capacity as President of the Senate Army Commission.
Indeed, his first visit, in Champagne, was not only for institutional purposes. From Suippes to Souain, his tour gave him the chance to meet these men “in the trenches who are moreover in a pitiful state as a consequence of the accumulation of mud and debris of all sorts, [these] men who display the most tranquil courage”, as he expressed before the Senate Army Commission on 30 September 1915.
This initial contact with the field was also an occasion to feel closer to his beloved younger brother Albert for whom he was extremely worried and regretful that he was unable to take his place on the battlefield. Not to mention that this initial visit, the first of many, etched forever in his mind the memory of Sergeant Poissonnier who “has other things to do than keep us in his memory, as anxious for his future as he is” but who “he [Clemenceau] will never forget”. This was how he described Sergeant Poissonnier in the French daily L’Homme enchaîné on 6 October 1915. The admiration and sincere affection the President of the Council felt for the troops was the constant driving force of his commitment to achieving peace. Once very much shocked by a visit to the "smoking ruins" of 1870 in the company of his friend Scheurer-Kestner, he was profoundly convinced of the urgent need to stop the war as swiftly as possible if it could not be avoided all together. This horror of bloodshed came from experience and philosophy on the existence of the “great man".
A FLAMBOYANT AND COMPLEX PERSONALITY
To proclaim 2018 as the Year of Clemenceau is not merely an opportunity to pay tribute to the intelligence and energy of a man of state but also to delve deeper into this flamboyant, complex and multi-faceted personality. To celebrate the ‘Father of Victory’ is to follow an infinite number of paths depending on one’s particular interests, desires and whim.
Born in Vendée, sent up to the capital to finish his studies in medicine, imprisoned in 1870 in a besieged Paris, mayor of his commune, doctor to the poor in Montmartre, member of parliament, senator, Dreyfusard, writer, friend to artists such as Monet, minister of the interior and later President of the Council and keen traveller, Georges Clemenceau was a constant champion of action and ideals. Elusive and contradictory, he was not always an easy man to fathom. This is why the Centenary Mission, the ministries of culture and the army (the Heritage, Remembrance and Archives Department) and sites of remembrance chose the year 2018 to organise or support a series of events.
Since January 2018, a capsule website has posted a detailed calendar of 1918, documents and articles, a rich collection of images, and coverage of the initiatives started by the French Presidential office. Several archive documents stored at the defence department’s history section and assembled by General Mordacq, the head of Clemenceau’s war cabinet, are currently being digitised. A total of 10,000 individual records.
In Paris, the Musée Clemenceau will be opening its doors to the public. In a gallery refurbished with funding from the French Army Ministry’s Heritage, Remembrance and Archives Department, visitors will get to see not only the different faces and numerous combats of the “warrior republican” but also the vast culture and tenderness of this private man in his apartment which is in the same condition as when he died on 24 November 1929. Exhibitions and guided tours will be organised through the year.
In Mouilleron-en-Pareds, the house of his birth has been turned into a national museum. A highlight in Vendée’s cultural calendar, its official inauguration took place in June 2018. A house and museum, it “has preserved all the emotion of a place of remembrance and will present the career of this man of ideas who made such an impression on the history of France through his mind and action” as head curator Marie-Hélène Joly likes to describe him. A few kilometres from there, in Saint-Vincent-sur-Jard, "La Bicoque", Clemenceau’s cherished retirement home, will also honour, through talks and other events, the host who entertained at his table a great many friends and who, in the silence and solitude of the night, used to write literature and love letters looking out at sea.
All of this will help us better understand the meaning of the oath to Clemenceau addressed by General de Gaulle on the BBC on 11 November 1941. Indeed, when the general uttered the unforgettable words: “From the depth of your Vendéen tomb, today 11 November, Clemenceau, you do not sleep!”, the war chief, as he was then, knew that the “old Tiger” could still inspire France for the immediate victory and the century to come. An exhibition at the Pantheon in November 2018 will show how true this was.
For further information
Clemenceau, Sylvie Brodziak, Presses universitaires de Vincennes, 2015.
Clemenceau au front, Samuël Tomei, Editions Pierre de Taillac/Ministère de la Défense, 2015.
Dictionnaire Clemenceau, Sylvie Brodziak and Samuel Tomei (dir.), prefaced by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, Bouquins collection, Robert Laffont, 2017.
1918, exiting from the war
The Armistice of 11 November 1918 was the catalyst for a complex period during which the withdrawal of four million soldiers was enacted. The first phase consisted of demobilising the troops, in other words organise their repatriation home. For many, above all soldiers sent from the colonies, demobilisation did not take place until late in 1919.
The period of demobilisation that came in the wake of the First World War was exceptional not only because it was on a scale never seen before but also owing to the diverse backgrounds of those affected, a mixture of those born and bred in mainland France, others from overseas France, i.e. the former colonies, but also men and women recruited to work for the war effort.
From the moment the armistice was declared, four million mobilised troops in the French army (including around 300,000 soldiers from the former colonies) were given the prospect of returning home, an unquestionable source of joy for soldiers and their families alike. The government was well aware of their hopes. Yet it also had a duty to maintain a strong army until the signing of the final peace treaty imposed on a defeated Germany, an act that did not happen until 28 June 1919 in the form of the Treaty of Versailles. Caution was also paramount due to other international concerns going on at that time (in central and eastern Europe, Russia and the Levant).
ORGANISATION OF THE DEMOBILISATION
The act of sending the soldiers back to civilian life was carried out in stages with priority afforded to the most senior. From late November, the oldest men (between 49 and 51) were permitted to go home. This was followed by the return of men aged 32 to 48 between December and April. Circumstances changed when the Allied leaders became alarmed at Germany’s reticence to accept the terms of the armistice, which it deemed too harsh, and started to consider military intervention with the explicit intention of forcing the defeated nation into submission.
The demobilisation process was therefore put on hold. The classes comprising the active reserve forces, i.e. soldiers under 32, were kept in service until July 1919. While more than a million soldiers were demobilised by this time, the French army still had a further 2.5 million men in its troops compared to just over four million on 11 November 1918. Demobilisation was then resumed and carried out in four stages through to September. It wasn’t until 14 October 1919 that the general decree of demobilisation was signed, cancelling out the sadly famous mobilisation decree of 1 August 1914. The return of those originating from the colonies was carried out along the same lines. However, for many of them who enlisted for the duration of the war, their contracts stipulated that demobilisation was not an option until six months from the end of hostilities, which meant the month of May 1919 at the earliest, taking the armistice as the base date. In September 1919, about 15,000 indigenous troops remained in France including 13,000 Indochinese soldiers, above all Vietnamese, nurses and drivers for the most part. They returned to their native countries between September and November.
The staggered return was rarely appreciated by those affected, even if it did give some of them the chance to attend the parade on 14 July 1919 through the Arc de Triomphe. It brought disarray to the formation of the units which had to be reorganised to factor in the demobilised troops. Furthermore, there was a lapse in discipline with soldiers and citizens feeling that the end of the German threat no longer justified the application of rules and regulations to which the large majority were subjected in silent revolt and which they strongly resented. For the demobilised, quitting the army brought its own set of problems. The procedure itself was simple: having a medical inspection, updating one’s military papers, then being sent to the demobilisation centre which was the holding place for the regiment to which each demobilised soldier belonged. But there was frequent chaos, especially as concerned the trains: the soldiers, to protest against the slow convoys and the uncomfortable carriages, frequently smashed windows and doors. Demonstrations were held by the Senegalese riflemen from the Saint-Raphaël Camp who, during a review, jostled a general and noisily demanded their return. When you factor in the lack of marine transportation, the repatriation of overseas soldiers was even further problematic.
QUITTING THE ARMY, RETURNING HOME
For the first to leave, returning home meant facing disappointment. The demobilised men were treated quite indifferently by the authorities and there was no ceremony of any sort welcoming them back. To replace the clothes left behind in the barracks, abandoned or unwearable, they received nothing but an ill fitted suit (called an Abrami after the Under-Secretary of State for War Léon Abrami) or, if they refused it, the paltry sum of 52 francs, equivalent to about 50 euros in today’s money. They were even summoned by the tax office to pay their back taxes, since the moratorium was lifted at the end of the hostilities. It was only in March 1919 that more comprehensive measures were introduced to compensate for the earlier gaffes: the tax moratorium was reinstated; a demobilisation bonus was paid, calculated on a fairer basis (250 francs plus 20 francs for each month stationed on the front), and a law on pensions paid to war invalids or families of men killed in action was passed. The welcome home was also changed.
From the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, the regiments who returned to their home town were now celebrated: festivities commenced with a parade of the troops, cheered on by crowds of compatriots, in streets bedecked in decorations and foliage. The celebrations were especially emotional for many of them in the procession who, despite mixing with other regiments during the course of the conflict, were still sons of the soil. The parade was sometimes, though not always, followed by various other festivities, including concerts, balls, fireworks or torch-lit processions. Even when the festivities took place, nothing could hide the obvious grief that would ensue for years to come for the walking wounded and the widows and families whose black mourning wear was a constant reminder of all those who would never return home.
The demobilised troops also had to make huge efforts to readapt. They had lived, for several years, five in some cases, amongst their fellow troops, far away from home, and cut off from civilian life with the exception of rare periods of leave. They first had to find a job, which was not always easy. Despite the passing of a law in 1918 obliging business owners to rehire their former workers or employees, not all of these owners were still in business or in a position to take on staff. They were also forced to carry out a series of formalities, which were time-consuming and often humiliating, to obtain the benefits to which they were, by rights, entitled. But finding work was not their only problem. The liberated man, whose daily routine up until that point had been governed by the army, had forgotten how to live an ordinary life, meet their individual needs and know how to feed and dress themselves. More especially, family life had to be reorganised, with wives who, whether they liked it or not, had taken on the responsibilities in their capacity as the new head of the household and children who had lost many years with their father, if they had ever known him at all. Couples separated and divorces were more common than before the war.
The demobilised also felt that they had nobody with whom to share their personal experiences since the people they’d left behind could not even begin to imagine the suffering, fears and solidarity they had shared with their brothers in arms. A portion of the six and a half million veterans (about one adult male in two) did find an association in which they could express their sense solidarity and grievances in French society. Their main state of mind was a feeling of pride of surviving such an ordeal and clinging to their positions, as they did in Verdun, to stop masses of German troops spilling across the country. They felt infinitely more a sense of satisfaction from fulfilling their duty than the exhilaration of the daring exploit of war, even if not everyone was entirely indifferent to it. The further the war receded into the past, the stronger the sense of peaceful, and even pacifist, patriotism grew in the majority of the troops, marked above all by a condemnation of the war and a rejection of anything that might facilitate it, most notably militarism, the excitement of daring heroism and even, in some extreme cases, the honour of choosing death over servitude.
WHAT FUTURE FOR THE OTHERS “MOBILISED” FOR WAR?
Other categories of soldier were also affected by the end of the war. French prisoners, whose number is estimated in the region of 500,000, were able to leave their camp as soon as the armistice was signed. Many took the initiative to return home by their own means, not without difficulty. The French authorities took responsibility for the repatriation of all others. It took two months, from mid-November 1918 to mid-January 1919, to complete the majority of returns. Those that did return had to deal with the indifferent attitude of the authorities and public opinion, as if these veterans were somehow tainted with dishonour when most of them had no reason to shoulder any blame, The law also assimilated them with the other veterans for the compensation owed to them.
Just as discreet, perhaps understandably so, was the demobilisation of men from Alsace and Lorraine from the territories annexed to the Reich since 1871, who had served in the imperial army (250,000 of them during the war). In an attempt to counter the lack of understanding and the injustices born of their situation as Frenchmen having served in an enemy army, a first association was set up in 1920 under the patronage of the great patriotic writer Maurice Barrès, and explicitly named ‘malgré-nous’ (against our will), which was once again used following the even more tragic circumstances that unfolded during the Second World War.
Further neglected still was the demobilisation of a small number of women, conscripted into the war to carry out work until then largely attributed to men in industry and services. They were forced to quit their jobs and return to being housewives or domestic workers under pressure from the authorities (the minister of armaments Louis Loucheur issued a circular to this effect on 13 November 1918). The transfer of these women was done with little noise and left few traces behind.
TO CHALLENGE OR MAINTAIN THE COLONIAL ORDER?
The return of demobilised troops from the colonies was often marked by some form of ceremonious wecome. In a speech delivered in Algiers, General Nivelle, who had come to welcome the riflemen and Zouaves returning to their garrisons, praised "their heroism, their spirit of sacrifice and their unconquerable faith, in Marne, Ypres, on the Somme, in Aisnes, in Verdun, and in Château-Thierry, in Champagne". He reminded them that he had always stationed them at posts of honour. This greeting was addressed above all, admittedly, to only the first repatriated contingents while those that followed were welcomed with far greater indifference. In certain cases, the authorities seemed to take an interest in planning the readaptation of troops. One brochure handed out to demobilised troops from Indochina explained the formal procedures to follow to ensure they received the benefits to which they were entitled. They were given a medical inspection and any injured or sick were treated in medical facilities.
This outpouring of solicitude did not mean a total disregard of surveillance. In Indochina, one regiment of repatriates, established in September 1917, was instructed to centralise information on the indigenous troops in mainland France, so as to report any potential problems, but also any sign of divergences in individual behaviour, which was then passed on to the local security services. In some regions, incidents occurred in response to returning troops. In Djibouti, in the spring of 1919, demobilised troops, some of whom earned a name for themselves in battle (in particular during the liberation of Douaumont in October 1916) mutinied. Some who returned to their camps set about looting the place. Incidents broke out in town. Other similar disturbances happened in French West Africa (AOF), especially in Senegal and Guinea. None of these incidents deteriorated into serious trouble. Workers recruited in the colonies to support the war effort (whose number is estimated at 200,000) also returned to their home country in their masses. The authorities had no desire to keep them in France. They feared these workers had been corrupted by revolutionary ideas which seemed to be gaining ground amongst the French proletariat. They felt that sending them back was an opportunity to give popularity-seeking satisfaction to popular discontent, at a time when troops returning from the front were still seeking employment. Managers in the colonies wanted to reinstate all of the “indigenous” manpower, vital for ensuring the economic recovery in overseas France while receiving wages pushed down to the lowest level by pressure from the returnees. To meet the needs for rebuilding France, there was a general preference for calling on people originating from Europe, deemed more efficient and more accepting by the trade unions owing to their working class tradition. A small number of colonial and Chinese workers were employed to work on the first sites established to clear rubble from the front, in conditions that were often punishing and dangerous. The return journey of demobilised troops was in principle paid by the state, but the administration was in no rush to honour its obligations. The last Vietnamese returnees did not make it home until July 1920.
As their comrades in mainland France, veterans, be they European or indigenous, expressed little the realities of war. Some tended to attribute the attitude of these troops to a “fatalism” that rendered them indifferent to the most momentous events and not to the need to forget that was very common amongst veterans. Back home, these same indigenous citizens were just as ready to challenge the pre-war order and the order imposed by the colonial authorities not to mention the order of traditional societies. They were not prepared to submit to their civic leaders or their elders.
They relied on their status as veterans in the French army to try to avoid the orders imposed by the administration. In AOF, business owners criticised the arrogant attitude of demobilised troops and accused them of picking up lazy habits while in service that was driving them to delinquency. However, many were enjoying, amidst the general population, the consideration shown to them owing to their apparent command of “white manners”: they smoked tobacco, knew a smattering of French and could show official “papers”. Their military actions were admired in a society in which the combatant was held in high esteem. Their demobilisation bonus, paid in one go and often spent on gifts, also gave them, at least in the beginning, a certain prestige in parts of the country forced into a frugal existence.
Furthermore, some repatriates acquired from their time in Europe a new political conscience and new ideas for action. One former soldier, Dorothée Lima, founded in 1920 the first newspaper in Dahomey, La Voix du Dahomey. One returnee worker from France, Tôn Duc Thang, who may have participated in the Black Sea mutinies, created the first trade union in Saigon. For others, a spell in the army confirmed a political vocation, such as Jean Ralaimongo, a teacher who was voluntarily conscripted at the age of 32 and went on to become one of the first leaders of the Madagascan emancipation movement, or accountant Galandou Diouf who soon became the rival of Senegalese political leader Blaise Diagne. We might wonder if this type of behaviour was frequent amongst the former combatants. In fact, most of them returned home with a desire to enjoy a peaceful life and the benefits extended to them by the government and the respect of their loved ones.
Veterans and former soldiers of European origin, especially the French in Algeria, had a different attitude. While their mentality might seem not so dissimilar to their compatriots in mainland France, the colonial context brought a slight nuance to their patriotism. Their war experience, the brotherhood of arms that forged links between many of them and indigenous soldiers, the countless examples of heroism and devotion shown by these troops, seemed to plead in favour of maintaining a colonial order that produced impeccable conduct. Their very positive opinion on their former comrades in battle took scant consideration of the often tough living conditions the latter would return to in civilian life or their aspirations to escape the condition of “subjects”. While feeling more affection and respect towards the indigenous troops than in the past, those who were yet to be known as the “Pieds noirs” were scarcely more prepared to listen to the demands of their representatives. These exaggeratedly optimistic sentiments were further reinforced by the exemplary participation of the soldiers from the colonies during the Second World War.
Overall, demobilisation might appear to have been successful: the soldiers made a seamless integration into civilian life. Veterans in mainland France continued to express their loyalty to the Republic, which seemed to have come out of the war stronger. But their expectations were commensurate with the sacrifices they had made: a happier life, a more attentive government. As for the men enlisted from the colonies, the pride of having been good soldiers nurtured a claim for dignity that would fuel aspirations of independence.
For further information
Les colonies dans la Grande Guerre : combats et épreuves des peuples d’outre-mer, Jacques Frémeaux, Editions 14-18, 2006.
Photo gallery (ECPAD)
11 novembre 1918-10 août 1920, les sorties de guerre
11 novembre : armistice signé à Rethondes, en forêt de Compiègne, mettant fin aux hostilités de la Première Guerre mondiale sur le front occidental, durée 36 jours.
20 novembre : en France, Georges Clemenceau ministre de la Guerre.
9 décembre : armistice de Focşani entre les puissances centrales et la Roumanie.
13 décembre : reconduction de l'armistice par les Alliés.
15 décembre : armistice russo-allemand de Brest-Litovsk.
1er janvier : indépendance de la Biélorussie, érigée en république socialiste soviétique.
5 janvier : prise de Vilnius par l’Armée rouge.
5-16 janvier : insurrection spartakiste écrasée à Berlin (exécution de Karl Liebknecht et Rosa Luxemburg le 15).
16 janvier : nouvelle reconduction de l'armistice par les Alliés.
17 janvier : Paul Deschanel élu président de la République française.
18 janvier : ouverture au Quai d'Orsay de la Conférence de paix sous la présidence de Georges Clemenceau.
19 janvier : élection d'une Assemblée Constituante en Allemagne.
21 janvier : début de la guerre d’indépendance irlandaise.
26 janvier : élections législatives polonaises.
5 février : reprise de Kiev par les bolcheviks.
11 février : Friedrich Ebert élu président de la République par l'Assemblée nationale de Weimar.
14 février : bataille de Bereza Kartuska, en Biélorussie, premier engagement de la guerre polono-soviétique.
16 février : dernière reconduction de l'armistice par les Alliés avant la signature du traité de paix.
27 février : proclamation de la République socialiste soviétique lituano-biélorusse.
2 mars : création de la IIIe Internationale à Moscou.
3 mars : grève générale en Allemagne.
4-13 mars : répression de la grève générale à Berlin.
10 mars : proclamation de la république soviétique d’Ukraine.
21 mars : proclamation de la république des conseils de Hongrie ou république soviétique hongroise.
22 mars : en France, loi instituant une prime de démobilisation.
23 mars : fondation, à Milan, des Faisceaux italiens de combat (Fasci Italiani di Combattimento) par Benito Mussolini.
25 mars : en France, création des conventions collectives de travail.
29 mars : en France, acquittement de Raoul Villain, assassin de Jean Jaurès.
31 mars : en France, loi instituant le droit à réparation pour les Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre.
2-6 avril : évacuation des troupes françaises du port d’Odessa.
7 avril : tentative de révolution communiste en Bavière.
15-16 avril : début de la guerre hongro-roumaine.
17 avril : en France, loi reconnaissant le droit individuel à la réparation des dommages causés aux biens par le déroulement de la guerre.
19 avril : en France, loi promulguant la charte des sinistrés.
19-21 avril : mutinerie des marins français de l’escadre de la mer Noire.
21 avril : entrée des troupes polonaises dans Vilnius. Fin de la république socialiste soviétique lituano-biélorusse.
23 avril : en France, loi instaurant la journée de travail à 8 heures et la semaine de travail à 48 heures. Entrée en Bavière de l’armée et des corps francs pour écraser l’insurrection.
1er mai : manifestations ouvrières à Paris. Offensive tchèque en Hongrie.
1er-8 mai : prise de Munich par l’armée et les corps francs. Fin de la république des conseils de Bavière.
7 mai : signature du pacte franco-anglo-américain, dans le cadre du traité de Versailles, en cas d'agression de l'Allemagne.
12 mai : rejet par l’Assemblée nationale constituante allemande du projet de traité soumis à la délégation allemande.
21 mai : en France, vote par la Chambre d'un projet de loi accordant le droit de vote aux femmes, rejet du Sénat.
10-13 juin : en France, grèves dans la métallurgie.
12-13 juin : congrès du Parti des communistes de Hongrie.
16 juin : ultimatum des Alliés à l’Allemagne. Proclamation de la république slovaque des Conseils.
19-23 juin : victoire décisive de l’Estonie et de la Lettonie sur le gouvernement balte pro-allemand à la bataille de Wenden.
22-23 juin : approbation du traité de Versailles par l’Assemblée nationale de Weimar.
24 juin : en France, loi sur les réparations à accorder aux victimes civiles de la guerre. Échec d’une tentative de putsch contre-révolutionnaire à Budapest.
25 juin : grèves des transports à Paris.
28 juin : traité de Versailles avec l'Allemagne incluant en préambule le Pacte de la société des Nations.
2 juillet-septembre : grève des cheminots au Portugal.
7 juillet : l'armée tchèque met fin à la république slovaque des Conseils.
11 juillet : la Galicie orientale protectorat polonais après la conférence de Paris.
14 juillet : défilé de la Victoire sur les Champs-Élysées.
20 juillet : offensive de l’Armée rouge hongroise contre les Roumains (défaite de l'Armée rouge le 24).
31 juillet : création de la Confédération générale du patronat français.
1er août : démission du gouvernement des Conseils en Hongrie, formation d'un gouvernement socialiste.
3 août : occupation de Budapest par les troupes roumaines.
6 août : chute de la République des conseils hongroise, formation d'un gouvernement contre-révolutionnaire, début de la Terreur blanche en Hongrie (1919-1920).
8 août : Minsk aux mains des Polonais.
11 août : promulgation de la Constitution de Weimar à Schwarzbourg.
14 août : promulgation de la Constitution de Bamberg par la Bavière.
16-17 août : début d’une insurrection des populations polonaises contre l’autorité allemande en Haute-Silésie.
19 août : proclamation de l’état de siège en Haute-Silésie.
20 août : début de la bataille de Tobolsk-Petropavlovsk entre les armées rouge et blanche en Sibérie.
23-28 août : insurrection de Sejny, retrait des troupes lituaniennes.
24 août : répression de l’insurrection par les corps francs en Haute-Silésie.
Début des mouvements paysans en Italie (occupation des terres).
7 et 12 septembre : décrets-loi instituant des réformes agraires en Roumanie.
10 septembre : traité de Saint-Germain-en-Laye avec l'Autriche.
12 septembre : prise de parole d'Adolf Hitler à un meeting du Parti ouvrier allemand dans une brasserie de Munich.
28 septembre : guerre soviéto-polonaise, début de la bataille de Daugavpils.
9 octobre : à Florence, premier congrès des Faisceaux de combat.
10 octobre : blocus économique de la Russie soviétique par le Conseil Suprême des Alliés.
14 octobre : en France, décret de démobilisation générale annulant le décret de mobilisation du 1er août 1914.
26 octobre : succès de l’Armée rouge sur les troupes russes blanches en Sibérie après la bataille de Tobolsk-Petropavlovsk.
2 novembre : en France, premier Jour des morts depuis le retour de la paix donnant lieu à de nombreuses cérémonies dans les cimetières et les nécropoles du front. Fondation de la Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens (CFTC).
11 novembre : première journée de commémoration de l'armistice de 1918, une seule cérémonie étant organisée dans la chapelle des Invalides en présence du maréchal Foch.
16 novembre : en France, succès électoral du Bloc national aux législatives ; débuts de la "chambre bleu horizon".
20 novembre : refus du Sénat américain de ratifier les traités entraînant la non-participation des États-Unis à la SDN.
22 novembre : gouvernement de Károly Huszár en Hongrie.
27 novembre : traité de Neuilly avec la Bulgarie.
8 décembre : la ligne Curzon proposée par le Conseil Suprême des Alliés comme frontière entre la Pologne et la Lituanie, la ville de Vilnius attribuée à la Lituanie. Refus de la ligne Curzon par les Polonais qui avancent jusqu’à Kiev.
9 décembre : signature à Paris du traité des minorités par le royaume de Roumanie à l’issue de la conférence de la paix.
12 décembre : reprise de Kharkov aux nationalistes par l’Armée rouge, de Kiev le 16 puis prise d’Ekaterinoslav et occupation de tout le sud de l’Ukraine.
5 janvier : l’Armée rouge chassée de Daugavpils les troupes polono-lettone.
10 janvier : entrée en application du traité de Versailles.
17 janvier : en France, Paul Deschanel successeur de Raymond Poincaré à la présidence de la République.
18 janvier : en France, démission de Georges Clemenceau du poste de président du Conseil après sa défaite à la présidentielle.
20 janvier : en France, Alexandre Millerand président du Conseil ; création du ministère des pensions, des primes et allocations de guerre avec André Maginot comme premier titulaire.
24 janvier : en France, constitution de la Commission des Réparations.
18 février : le nombre d'hommes pouvant être gardé sous les armes en Allemagne fixé à 100 000 par le Conseil suprême.
23 février : en France, Raymond Poincaré nommé président de la Commission des Réparations.
25-29 février : 17e congrès national de la SFIO à Strasbourg.
Février-mai : en France, vagues de grèves des mineurs et des cheminots.
24-25 mai : second congrès des Faisceaux de combat à Milan.
4 juin : traité de Trianon avec la Hongrie.
En Italie, révolte des bersagliers (unité d’infanterie légère).
5 - 16 juillet : conférence de Spa sur les réparations.
10 août : traité de Sèvres avec la Turquie.
Freelance photographer Édouard Elias has covered major events including the Syrian civil war in 2012 and those in the Central African Republic in 2014. His photographs were recently exhibited at the French Army Museum. For the past several months, he has been reporting the trench war in Ukraine.
How at the age of 21 does one decide to venture off to photograph the war in Syria? Did you have a special interest in conflict zones?
It’s partly due to my family background. I grew up in Egypt and France. After my parents died, I was brought up by my grandparents. My grandfather was in the military - he was a maquisard in Creuse in 1941 and then a soldier in Indochina and in Algeria. I was fascinated by his stories, what he experienced, his capacity to exceed his own limits and the profound respect he had in the commitment of the combatant even to the point of thinking about it from the enemy’s point of view. I think this has had quite an influence on the way I work in the sense that I take care to avoid making uninformed judgements.
When I was 19, I gave up business studies and enrolled in photography school. When I was doing my end-of-year work placement, I went to Turkey to visit the Syrian refugee camps. I had no intention of going to Syria. But once I was there, I met various people and those encounters finally led me to Aleppo. That was back in 2012.
And after Syria, the Central African Republic. The photos you took over there were shown in the exhibition “Dans la peau d’un soldat” (In a soldier’s skin) at the French Army Museum. How did that make you feel?
What moved me was this thread woven through the generations, between my grandfather, his history, and the legionnaires today. When you are in the Central African Republic (CAR), everyone talks to you about the Foreign Parachute Regiment (REP) whereas here nobody really knows about it. Also, showing photos of legionnaires, who will survive them and survive me, at the Invalides, at the very place where they pay tribute to soldiers who have fallen for France, is to honour them.
This exhibition felt like a point of pride and not to mention also a small victory. My intention was to take photos of these men going about their daily routine, in moments of waiting, doubt, occasionally in pain. Because the life of a soldier is not just about pride, honour, glory.
The greatest strength of anyone leaving for a war zone, whether they are a soldier or not, is what they are prepared to give to achieve their aim. I really got to love these guys with whom I developed a relationship based on trust. Too, there are certain photos that I chose not to publish.
You were very young...
I was 23, not all that young really. Yes, if you compare me to the old fighters with 50 years of service, but today all those considered war reporters, even though I’m not that keen on the term, like Patrick Chauvel, for example, started out aged 17-18.
If you don’t like the term “war reporter”, how would you describe yourself?
I’m really a photographer. More a photographer than “photojournalist” as some might like to label me. I tell stories through photography. I’m interested in form because it makes sense. Each report calls for a distinct approach which is determined by the choice of camera, the frame, if you take it in colour or black and white, if the image is posed or not, if its texture has grain or not...
Plus, I don’t only work in conflict situations, even if am more naturally drawn to combat zones. I also work for the press such as Gala in France and VSD, who can send me to report in these war zones or to cover another subject. I rarely do portraits, but as for the rest I handle a wide variety of commissions. The money I earn from short-term assignments funds my trips abroad that demand more time. Because editorial offices are more reticent to send journalists, whole teams and above all photographers to cover a conflict unless its major news. Regarding the CAR, for example, nobody would send me, so I offered to do it as I wanted to go. Through a friend, Didier François, who acted as my guarantor, I made contact with the French delegation for defence information and communication (DICoD) who trusted me and let me go without a real commission. Plus, I’d just been released from prison three months earlier which didn't seem to worry them. Once I was there, I decided not to send any photos. I didn’t publish anything.
When you’re in the field, the way you work changes depending on the media channel you're working for. For example, with the AFP, I had to send my photos within 48 hours max. That’s what I did in Syria. I’d gone over with a friend Olivier Voisin who also worked with the AFP. At that time, many documentary channels like those on the BBC network were sent images already edited while people were ignorant to the reality of the field, which distorted the analysis conducted by the editorial offices and skewed public opinion in Europe. Everyone thought the rebels were on their way to winning the war—it was the media that presented the idea of a rebel victory—because they had conquered 70% of the territory but this wasn’t what was really happening. On the ground, fewer offensives were being led and movement had stabilised in Aleppo since July 2012. They were heading to attrition warfare while the editorial offices believed they were still in a manoeuvre war. Neither were they interested in the photo reports we were producing with my mate Olivier of kids ferrying munitions to the front line. They wanted images of warfare.
After that, we were split up from Olivier, I went west and he headed east. We both got to photograph fighting but he was killed. After that, I wanted to stop sending images directly from the field. Because I felt I didn’t have the right to be there nor the necessary objectivity to do a good job. I preferred to take my time, meet people, earn their trust and send my report after. Which is what I started to do in the CAR. It’s important to explain the context of my situation.
In the CAR, my plan was to go for a longer period (a month plus travel time) and ask for an advanced outpost. They told me “it will be with the Foreign Legion”, the 2nd Foreign Infantry Regiment (REI). I then found out that it was regiment based in Nîmes, the town where I was born! I grew up in Uzès. I gathered some material on them with my pals from the ECPAD. I didn’t know anything apart from the myths you hear about the Legion. So I headed to the Central African Republic with some food provisions. I was met by the communications officer on site, a real tough character, the only woman on a base of 200 legionnaires. She gave me tons of advice so I could go about my work and made things so much easier for me. I established a genuine relationship of trust with her.
ECPAD photographers were there with you too... Was their relationship with the troops different from yours?
Of course. They had a different rapport, they were in the military. That makes a huge difference.
So things weren’t a given for you. Did you have to earn the legionnaires’ trust?
It was a gradual process. When I first got there, I had long hair and introduced myself as a ‘photographer-stroke-journalist’. You can see why they might have been slightly reticent: I was bound to ask loads of questions and be the ‘dead weight’ in the field (I wasn’t armed). As a matter of act I didn't ask any questions, I would simply stay silent and observe them. Then I started going out on all the patrols with them and, little by little, they ended up getting used to my presence and accepting me. Of course, there was some tension at the beginning but relationships were formed and I become part of the group. Which meant I could take any photo I wanted. Almost to the point of them asking me questions about my personal life. From my side, I tried to annoy them as little as possible and adapt to them. The respect was entirely mutual.
Are you still in contact with them?
Four months later, when the report was published in the L’Obs [French weekly news magazine], the army military command felt that showing the legionnaires through a human lens was detrimental to their image as soldiers, before the piece managed to change their minds, as it did the troops in the 2nd FIR. I printed copies for them which they hung up in the corridors. They then invited me up for Christmas with them in 2014. The first time a journalist had spent Christmas with them.
In 2015, I asked the commanding officer if I could take photos of the legionnaires in training in Nîmes. He said yes and invited me to observe them in training for a month. I lost eight kilos. I took part in all the training exercises, with the exception of weapons training, which gave me the opportunity to continue my report and forge even stronger ties with them.
Military photographers take a different approach: they know the field, they respect the chain of command. Plus the legionnaires felt they were performing a communications exercise. The photos they took were delivered to the army and they never got to see them.
So if you’re not there as a communications exercise, what is your goal? To inform? Document?
I produce a record without any analysis. What I show isn't the conflict in the CAR; I share what 15 legionnaires experienced over a month. I don't speculate and I don’t hold a position: I will never say who the protagonists in this war are. I simply present the living conditions of the people I lived with day in, day out. It's just a tiny slice of the entire operation.
It’s also a way of paying tribute to them.
Certainly. I’m not there to defend France’s deployment. You can love your country without agreeing with their decisions. What I’m interested in is why these people are fighting, who are they? What are they prepared to risk for their career, their passion, their hope?
But you are also taking risks to document all this...
In general us journalists take less risks. We are slightly in the background, less exposed than a soldier. Admittedly we go to the same zones but often with troops who are less mobile. It's less risky. For example, we are strictly prohibited from following special forces into the field. That's not our place. With the exception of Syria where there was a lot of confusion, we don’t go where the troops are at their strongest, unless you've integrated the patrol which has been engaged. Sometimes, however, you surprise yourself by almost wanting to be in the patrol which will be engaged. You’re half expecting it to happen even if we have a tendency to be a bit cynical. You can get to a place and think “so, is it being bombed or what?” In Ukraine, for example, at one point I felt frustrated because there was less bombing... You build relationships with the troops, you start to share their expectations, their feelings.
Did your experiences in Syria ever prompt you to question your choice of career?
Quite the opposite in fact. Precisely because I never regretted one second going there, I’m still doing what I do. But differently. Lots of people think that... and that’s exactly why I never give interviews about it. I don't have any problem speaking about the details and the conditions of my incarceration. It was a life experience, an occupational hazard but one that doesn't define me, I try to continue my work and push that to the back of my mind. I worked like a crazy person.
So after the CAR, do you have any more plans to report on overseas operations?
Yes, but I still want to observe the rank and file, not the special forces. What I’m interested in are the faces of the soldiers and to take photos of their everyday lives. What I’ve done with other armies, I’m doing with the Ukrainians.
Is that one of your future reporting projects?
Currently, I’m working on a big project in Ukraine. I’ve already been over several time, but this time I’m going to take photos of both sides of the Russian front. I’ve decided to go with black and white film! Again, it’s not the conflict itself I’m interested in but the troops and the trench war.
Have you noticed any similarities between this experience and your experience with the troops in CAR? I mean in terms of camaraderie, sharing these intimate moments, the waiting as you mentioned before?
I didn't manage to capture it on camera, but yes. With the difference that these men are far more exhausted, they’ve been there for a year and a half, and they know that on the other side are friends and relatives. There are even cases where the father is stationed on the Russian front and the son has been enlisted to the Ukrainian side. It’s not the same context at all.
It’s a desolate no man’s land… it’s quite traumatising. My goal is to document their living conditions as this is an attrition war and the men are living deep in the trenches. My work in Ukraine is to show all that: the destruction, the fatigue of the troops, monuments to glory in the patriotic age. We have literally been plunged into an ideological war with pro-Europeans on the one side fighting pro-Russians on the other all accusing one another of being neo-Bolsheviks and neo-Nazis. And the references go back to the First World War and the Second World War. The monuments are crazy... Opposite statues to the glory of the USSR and at the same time what the USSR subjected them to. It’s mental!
There are still lots more reports to do in this region. But I also want to go to Abkhazia. To learn more about the concept of ‘frozen conflict’.
For each assignment, the aim is to take photos in an alternative way, depending on the subject. Our tool needs to do justice to the subject. Of course, I will add colour but for this report I wanted to test out this technique, a more traditional approach to photography. My cameras weigh five kilos each... you get four photos per film, it’s indescribable torture. But if they managed to do it before, why can’t I?
Have you ever taken an interest in reporters who covered much earlier conflicts? Do you have any role models?
I don’t necessarily know the names but I know the photos. I tend to know better the Christopher Griffiths or Don McCullins of this world than the military photojournalists who generally never publish their photos or at least don’t turn them into publications. There are very few books by military reporters.
You also went to Italy recently.
Yes, two months ago for Amnesty International following refugees as they travelled across Italy. Before that I headed out on the Aquarius, the boat collecting refugees from the middle of the Mediterranean. I’m in the process of putting together a coffee table book on the subject. There are so many interesting reports to do that I don’t stop to focus on one particular subject.
As a freelancer, have you ever come against certain limits?
Now, for example, I’m going to Ukraine, on the Russian side, with a photographer from L’Humanité [French daily newspaper] which gets me the necessary accreditations. But I prefer to freelance so I have absolute control over my photos. However, you always run into obstacles.
When I left for CAR, the French army was my main constraint. But I always manage my subject according to the limits put before me. They are never a problem if you know what they are and you respect them. Also, you can always take photos and not publish them. That’s also what I love about photography. I could never write a text or perform an analysis.
But your photos are there for everyone to analyse and interpret in their own way...
That’s true. The aim is to pose a question without casting judgement or taking a position: for example, I’m not saying what the Russians are doing is good or bad. And I’m aware that my images could be used with deliberate intent...
But you have the freedom to accept these publications or not...
That’s exactly it. I do have this freedom. I have absolute faith in the Army Museum, for instance.
Interview on 31 January 2018
The Bayeux-Calvados Awards
For the past 25 years, the town of Bayeux has hosted the annual ceremony of the Bayeux-Calvados Awards for war correspondents. A tribute that is also written in stone with the memorial dedicated to war reports killed around the world that was inaugurated ten years ago.
Memorial to Fallen Reporters, Bayeux, Calvados - © S. Guichard
Among the first towns liberated in France, Bayeux, in association with the Departmental Council of Calvados, launched an annual international event in 1994 timed with the 50th anniversary of the Normandy landing. The event consists of awarding a prestigious trophy to journalists from all over the world in four different media categories: written press, radio, TV and photography. In addition to awarding trophies, the Bayeux-Calvados Awards for war correspondents organises a fascinating week of talks, Q&As, and debates with the public (for the young and not so young) as an opportunity to gain further insight into international affairs. The rich programme of events (evening gatherings, a book fair, exhibitions, etc.) approach well or lesser known conflicts to interpret the news and shine a light on the job of reporter, in the company of people who cover the planet’s hotspots all through the year. The groups of journalists who attend and the quality of the exchanges with TV, radio, press and photography reporters make the Bayeux-Calvados Awards an essential date in the media calendar.
This coming 8 to 14 October, the Bayeux-Calvados Awards for war correspondents will be celebrating its 25th year. Twenty-five years of war reporting, testimonials on conflicts, crises or revolutions that A total 193 award-winning reports since 1994, from Bosnia to Chechnya via Rwanda, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Congo, Pakistan, Israel/Palestine, Libya, Mexico, Syria and many others still... Winners include some of the top names in journalism: James Natchwey, Jean Hatzfeld, Nicolas Poincaré, Yuri Kozyrev, Santiago Lyon, Luc Delahaye, Javier Espinosa, Eric Bouvet, Gilles Jacquier, Grégoire Deniau, Christina Lamb, Jérôme Delay, Alan Little, Laurent Van der Stockt, Christophe Boltanski, Jeremy Bowen, Rémy Ourdan, Yannis Behrakis, Ayman Oghanna, Arnaud Comte, Lyse Doucet…. Twenty-five years of paying tribute to these women and men who travel the globe, taking their lives into their own hands to witness and record, to share and to wake our consciences. In 2017, for the occasion of the awards ceremony, the president of the jury, Jeremy Bowen, reminded us of the important role of war correspondents: “Journalism is in a good state, a good position. The final choice, made by the jury composed of very experienced journalists, was the right one. It shows that there are some very brave, skillful and honest journalists who are working in some of the world’s most dangerous places. They are shining a light into the dark corners of the world and that is a very important thing to do".
To ensure the names of journalists killed while doing their jobs are never forgotten, the town of Bayeux, in collaboration with the association Reporters Sans Frontières, erected a memorial dedicated to remembering reporters killed around the world since 1944. “It’s the only place in the world where my husband’s name is etched in stone", said Michèle Montas, the widow of Haitian journalist Jean Dominique, speaking at the time of the inauguration of the first phase of inscriptions on 7 October 2006. This space, one of a kind in Europe, was opened in its finished state on 2 May 2007. It was designed and built by architect and landscape gardener Samuel Craquelin. It comprises a landscaped promenade, punctuated by 30 white stones on which are engraved the names of over 2,500 journalists who paid with their lives to keep us informed. “To want to be free is to also want others to be free", wrote Simone de Beauvoir. This concrete installation serves as an all-year reminder, beyond the Bayeux-Calvados Awards for war correspondents, of the town's dedication to defending press freedom and democracy.
For further information
40 years ago, Kolwezi
“Katangan rebels have taken over Kolwezi, President Mobutu has asked France to send troops. You need to rush over to Kinshasa!" The words my father blurted down the phone when his call woke me up on the morning of Whit Tuesday, 1978. When I arrived at Kinshasa airport on Thursday 18 May, I spotted five Lockheed C 130 Hercules (American transport aircraft) in Zairean Air Force colours parked out of the way, near the hangars. The French troops could arrive at any second.
Night fell without warning. It was 26 degrees and the air was muggy. I was chatting with a group of Zairean soldiers. Doling out cigarettes was a way to get more information. It was 11.15 pm when a UTA DC8 landed. I watched a hundred odd French troops disembark. I recognised the French Foreign Legion green beret. It was all I could do not to shout with joy. It would be a real privilege to join a French Foreign Legion operation. I walked over to a legionnaire: “Are you going to storm Kolwezi?". The soldier didn't reply. An officer heard and answered: “Captain Poulet. And you are?" I introduced myself and explained that I wanted to join them on this operation. “Negative!" he replied.
I insisted some more. A hint of a smile on his lips, he turned on his heels and rejoined the other officers. I headed over to them but they all climbed into their jeeps and drove towards a stand-alone shack close to the hangars. A legionnaire walked me back and handed me over to the Zairean soldiers. Two Transalls sporting tricolour cockades landed at the same time. I tried to find out more. They were coming back from Chad with munitions for the Zairean Mirages. I was in the beating heart of the operation being formed; I just had to be accepted. No dice.
But because I was giving out cigarettes, the Zairean soldiers let me stay with them on the runway. Legionnaires carried equipment onto the C-130s. A devious plan formed in my mind: I’d hide in the plane toilet and show myself once we were up in the air. It would be a fait accompli. However, there were two things I hadn't counted on. There are no toilets on board a C-130 and the Foreign Legion was going to storm Kolwezi. The regiment chaplain who flushed me out of the aircraft accompanied me over to the hangar where one of the officers exclaimed: “You again?!". He whispered to Colonel Erulin, who had his eyes on me, and showed him my press card. “Negative!" Back to the Zairean soldiers.
ARRIVAL IN KOLWEZI
On Friday 19 May, at 10.50 am, about 400 legionnaires took off to storm the city where enemy troops were numbered between 2,000 and 3,000 men, equipped with tanks and recoilless rifles. Operation Leopard was high risk. At last, it was by a run-of-the-mill press flight organised by President Mobutu the next day that I made it to Kolwezi. During over four hours of flight, a Zairean press officer explained that we mustn’t wander far from the plane as fighting was happening in and around Kolwezi. We’d barely touched down in the airfield when I was able to get away with two other photographers, Henri Bureau and Pascal Pugin. We hightailed it to Kolwezi.
Abandoned vehicles and strewn bodies everywhere. The road that led into the city was threatening. Flanked by tall grass with no visibility on either side, the perfect set-up for an ambush. After walking five kilometres, we were anxious to get there. But it was important to move forward slowly and ensure we were easily identifiable. The risk didn’t come from the paras, who were well disciplined when it came to firing, but from the Katangans. A legionnaire emerged from the tall grass. He was a member of the 3rd company. Finally we’d made contact. Later we joined up with legionnaires from the 4th company. In the P2 district, we found the bodies of 39 civilians, men, women and a baby. Shooting erupted here and there. I tried to find the place where there had been skirmishes. It was complicated: parachutists changed the route several times; an encounter with Katangan rebels could totally jeopardise my report.
At 6 pm, night fell like a light switch being turned off and we had to find a place to bed down. At the Impala Hotel, Colonel Erulin summed up the situation. Civilians told us how they’d been terrified through the night and hadn't dared step foot out of the hotel. It seemed that the massacres had stopped when the French arrived. Surprised and disorganised, the Katangan rebels had spent too much effort trying to regroup and lead a counter attack to continue the slaughter.
LEAP TO ACTION
The following day, Captain Coevoet suggested I join the 3rd company who had received orders to enter the commune of Manika where the rebels were still firing. At least I was going to be taking part in the action. We leapfrogged our way there, clearing street by street, house by house, a few gunshots, prisoners, identity checks. Bodies, still more bodies. Civilians staggering out of their hiding places. The legionnaires remained calm and advanced methodically.
After the Foreign Legion had liberated the city from fear, Europeans emerging from the jungle where they'd been hiding told us how they’d seen on Sunday 20 May a car containing four men in uniform, dead, their hands tied behind their backs. Colonel Gras on whom the disappeared soldiers depended decided to launch an operation. A recce by helicopter was planned and Captain Coevoet gave me the honour of accompanying him on this dangerous mission.
At the approximate spot described by the witnesses, we found a blue Ford. The Alouette III landed 300 metres from the target. The two officers, carrying guns, leapt into the jungle, ready to fire. We moved forward prudently towards the vehicle that had stopped right in the middle of the road. Nothing. Just a plastic sheet in the car splattered in fresh blood. No bodies. On the ground, berets and ammunitions belts, left behind. We went back. Lieutenant Bourgain then found a small diary in a room at the Impala, in which one of the missing men, Warrant Officer Jacques Gomila, had kept a personal journal in which the last entry was made on Sunday at 11.30 in the morning: “Wanted to go out. They fired at us. A soldier made us go back in. Comrades, the hotel is surrounded. Go back."
The lieutenant and his five warrant officers would never be found, missing, swallowed up by the vastness of Africa. The determination of the Ambassador for France and Colonel Gras made it possible for the legionnaires and their officers to lead a high-risk commando operation during which they displayed a level of courage and professionalism that saved several thousand lives of Zairean civilians and foreigners. On 7 June, the entire regiment boarded the Starlifters operated by the US Air Force. Back to Solenzara and Calvi.
For further information
Reporters of war
During the Great War, the only pictures sent back from the front were those taken by military photographers. Civilian photographers were not permitted to cover the events as they unfolded. One hundred years later, alongside civilian reporters, enlisted reporters continue to document...
For more than a century, army photographers and cameramen (and operators) have produced a record—employing the technical equipment available to them and toeing the ministerial line—of the conflicts that affected their contemporaries at the time and continue to affect society today. Their news images broadcast through every media channel, from the written press to the Internet, have depicted the course of our modern history and kept the memory of our dedicated troops alive. While the French military authorities knew the benefits of photography since the technology first appeared in the 1830s, they did not immediately jump on it as a means of representing the strategy and supporting the instruction of troops. In 1895, the Lumière brothers patented the Cinématographe, a combination film camera and projector.
In 1915, the French army engaged in the First World War established, as did the German army, two units dedicated to taking still and moving images of its operations: the army photography unit and the army cinematographic unit. From that point on, the military authorities profited from these technological innovations to take and produce, in times of war as well as of peace, photographs and films that helped relay their message and document their history.
ON THE FRONT OF THE GREAT WAR
In May 1915, four French ministries—the War, Foreign Affairs, National Education and Fine Arts ministries—joined forces to create the Army Photography Unit or Section photographique des armées (SPA) following the enemy’s example. The photographers were a mix of conscripted civilians who worked for photography companies affiliated with the national photography trade association and servicemen. The Army Cinematography Unit or Section cinématographique des armées (SCA), established at the same time, was run by four major French production companies involved in producing newsreels: Gaumont, Pathé, Éclair and Éclipse.
In 1917, the French War Ministry turned producer and sole distributor after both units were merged into one and named the Army Photography and Cinematography Unit (SPCA). Its mission was threefold: to produce images for the purpose of propaganda, primarily through newsreels; build up the historical archives, and create content for the military archives. At the front, photographers and cameramen worked in concert. Their actions were under rigorous supervision. They were only permitted to travel by order of the War Ministry or the French army general headquarters and were always chaperoned by a staff officer. It would be the operator’s responsibility to transport with him the photographic or film camera, tripod, and cellulose nitrate reels or glass plates. The filming conditions and strict supervision somewhat encumbered by heavy equipment meant that the unit primarily ‘shot’ the battle adjacent: the ferrying of the troops or artillery, the wounded, the prisoners and the camps. Images of the front and the injured were not shown until after the French victory.
At the start of the war, the equipment was supplied by civilian production companies and later the cameras were hired. Each operator would send his negatives to the production company he worked for, which would then develop and print the films. The prints would be mounted and annotated on boards and the photographs captioned before being presented to the military censorship commission. Any photos or footage of the dead or wounded, frequently taken by camera operators such as Pierre Machard and Albert Samama-Chikli, were prohibited by the censorship commission lest they weaken national morale. Photographers and cameramen in the SPCA were interested in every aspect of the Great War. However, the distribution of their images was strictly regulated. While not every image was destined for public distribution, all photography and footage had to be archived. Censorship was exercised at the point of distribution.
During the interwar period, and at the time of the Spanish Civil War in particular, the war reporter, such as Robert Capa or Gerda Taro, became a familiar figure in civilian life. At a time when the illustrated press was growing in popularity, the political impact of published photos became sensitive to public opinion. Conscious of this shift and helped by the technical development of cameras, which became lighter and more easily transportable, photojournalists sought to get as close to the action as they could. However, exposure to risk was just as prevalent, especially owing to their restricted field of view when looking through the lens. Nevertheless, risking their life to capture images was an occupational hazard they willingly accepted. In 1937, Gerda Taro was crushed to death by a tank.
“UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL WITH TROOPS”
Conscious of the stakes at play in managing photographs and film footage, the warring parties engaged in the Second World War employed both media as an implacable psychological weapon serving a cleverly orchestrated propaganda campaign in support of the war effort. On the French side, the co-existence of two governments each claiming legitimacy was reflected in the management of images. Official teams of photographers and cameramen were active in Vichy (attached to the General Commission for Information) as well as in London and Algiers (with the Office of Information through Cinema). From 1944, in mainland France, other operators accompanied the liberating forces and witnessed first hand the horrors of war. Indeed, Germaine Kanova took photographs endowed with realism and a profound humanism, emphasising the dignity of men scarred by an environment devastated by years of war. Jacques Belin, meanwhile, observed attacks by the troops, and captured the energy of battle and immortalised the soldiers.
When the Second World War broke out, army reporters wanted to be as close to the troops as possible. In the post-war period, in mainland France, the photography and cinematography units had a hand in building the identity of the country’s national defence. At the same time, reporters were sent to Indochina to garner public support for a far-flung conflict. Their main mission was to show the face of the enemy. Yet these directives put reporters in tough circumstances. For instance, Paul Corcuff who after enlisting in June 1944 was sent to Indochina in 1949 to observe the military operations at close range, accompanying the withdrawals, and experiencing the living conditions and general feelings of exhaustion. From the inside, he witnessed the daily reality of the fighting forces but was appointed by the Press Information Service (SPI), a unit attached to the army’s department of propaganda. Army photographer Pierre Ferrari also wanted to be as close as possible to his subject. In the heat of action his images neither elude war nor death.
However, neither photographer had any power over the future of their images, which were subject to the obligatory information controls before they were published in the international press. This way of working—which would become the accepted standard of many photographers including Henri Huet during the Vietnam War—was exacerbated by the necessity to employ equipment (such as the Rolleiflex 6x6) that was cumbersome and poorly suited to the subjects in hand. The Arriflex used by Pierre Schoendoerffer and already the motion picture camera of choice of cameramen during the Second World War had only three minutes of battery life and took very short reels. The camera operator was obliged to carry around equipment including chargers, films and spare batteries, weighing in at over 20 kilos. Transporting such a heavy load, operators were unable to film at will, instead forced to capture short albeit well planned shots that today are some of the most iconic images of the conflict (parachutists, Diên Biên Phu and so forth).
The photographs taken by army reporters depicted the reality of the battlefield. But the editorial choice had to dovetail with a communications strategy that extended outside the French borders. The images of military operations in Indochina had to specifically meet the communications objectives defined by the French government within a tense international context. While civilian reporters were less beholden to the imperatives of political communications, military reporters, some of whom were veterans, could more easily integrate into the forces.
After Indochina, the French army was deployed to Algeria. During this conflict, the French Ministry of Defence deliberately avoided sharing any images of large-scale military action. In the field, the General Government of Algeria set about developing its local action, such as distributing tracts and installing loud speakers (under the orders of the 5th Bureau of Psychological Warfare). The SCA unit stationed in Algiers was organised and scaled up to meet the growing demand for news images. The unit enjoyed an almost exclusive monopoly in terms of producing “operational” images to be sent out to press organisations and the military. These images were chiefly images of captured prisoners or psychological warfare operations led by the 5th Bureau against the civilian population. At this time, one photographer who adopted an alternative approach emerged: Marc Flament, a photographer appointed by Lieutenant Colonel Bigeard. He took part in all the operations conducted by the men of the 3rd Colonial Parachutists Regiment (RPC) and immortalised the parachutists and commandos in aestheticised shots that showed the soldiers as heroes. His images, which were shot outside the regulatory confines of the 5th Bureau and the filter of institutional censorship, reflected the harsh realities of war.
THE ERA OF OVERSEAS OPERATIONS
Deployed principally to produce instructional and informational films from a more institutional angle, military reporters followed armies in peace time but also during periods of international conflict. Indeed, during the 1970s and 1980s, the teams of reporters employed by the Army Photography and Cinematography Establishment (ECPA) took part in overseas operations in Kolwezi, Lebanon and Chad. The French army was then a participant in international operations and it was not long before its deployments would be exclusively under the mandate of the UN or NATO.
Photographic and audiovisual equipment was improving all the time. This meant reporters could work more autonomously and move around more easily. Reporters worked with several cameras, which might be colour or black and white. From the 1980s, army reporters enjoyed a certain amount of freedom, such as François-Xavier Roch who immortalised far more than just the action of the French army in Lebanon and started a career as a photojournalist. However, as soldiers first and foremost, army reporters undoubtedly tended towards self-censorship, which was likely guided by a sense of propriety among brothers in arms. Pierre Schoendoerffer, for example, always refused to film a soldier in agony. Similarly, during the attack on the Drakkar barracks in Beirut on 23 October 1983, killing 58 French parachutists, Joël Brun, the ECPA photographer stationed there, refused to film the first hours of the dramatic scenes but waited until the next day to photograph the searches and act on behalf of the forensic identification team, documenting the identity of the victims and the collection of the ID tags. Consequently, he did not capture the initial explosion or the terror on the servicepeople’s faces.
During the 1970s and 1980s, photographers and cinematographers had to send their reels and films to the head quarters based at the Fort d’Ivry to be developed. This somewhat delay their publication. In the 1990s, the use of satellites to transmit analogue video images via Inmarsat revolutionised practices. During the Gulf War, camera operators sent their footage of warfare and the Allied breakthroughs in Saudi Arabia and Iraq directly. This development allowed for rapid broadcasting on TV following authorisation by the military command. In subsequent years, this system of transmission remained expensive and heavy (around 10 kilos) but did allow operators in the French army to document, almost instantly, the action of the French armed forced in combats or in contact with civilian populations in Rwanda, former Yugoslavia and Kosovo, through news items covered to rally French support. Until the 2000s, operators would even entrust their films to those able to transport them back to France, such as pilots.
From the start of the new millennium, digital technology began to replace analogue technology. ECPAD, the French delegation for defence information and communication (DICoD), and the Army Information and Public Relations Services (SIRPA) deployed to the field photographers, camera operators and sound recorders as well as journalists (civilian and military) who had the capability to publish their work almost instantly, after authorisation by the army military command, and to produce written press reports for army publications or for external use (TV media, for example).
In the field, however, technology was not the only constraint. Photographers and camera operators might have orders to follow and objectives given by the military communications advisor in the field. The photos or footage they produced was then contingent on the decisions of the communications officers. In Côte d’Ivoire between 2003 and 2005, they produced less archive images than evidentiary images and news images.
Framing a precise and restricted subject gives the impression there is no reverse angle for the troops, but also makes it possible to produce images endowed with certain characteristics: the camera is closer to the troops, in particular at moments which are rarely captured on film by civilian journalists. The images thus become weapons in the hands of both parties, especially in the case of asymmetrical warfare. Operators in this situation form a Combat Camera Team.
“COMBATANTS IN THEIR OWN RIGHT”
The 2000s also beckoned in a change in how subjects were treated. In Afghanistan, for example, photographers and videographers recorded the main missions to which the French army was deployed. However, the prisoners and dead of the enemy were never photographed to ensure the material was never used for the purpose of propaganda. The French army took with them journalists from outside the institution who were required to abide by the rules issued by the communications officer. Photographic and film coverage of contemporary events related to the fight against terrorism necessitates a different approach. As evidenced in the Sahel where France has stationed troops since 2013. At the start of intervention, only official photographers were authorised to observe operations, as much to abate the military command’s fears of seeing journalists being taken hostage as to manage communications surrounding military operations. In fact, when hostilities broke out, the only images available were those of preparations and logistics, which immediately told the journalism world that Operation Serval in Mali was going to be a war without images. The photos produced by the ECPAD, shot in close proximity to the troops, were only published after the first operations, while the possibilities of observing these same operations were more restricted for journalists. In the battle against terrorism, controlling the image, from when it is taken to where it is distributed, constitutes an alternative war zone, above all in the realm of new media.
In Afghanistan or in Mali, photographers and videographers found themselves once more in the position of directly witnessing skirmishes targeting French troops. This explains why, for several years now, army officers have been equipped with individual firearms in addition to their photographic or film equipment. They might, in fact, be called on to exchange fire to defend their brothers in arms. They are combatants in their own right, exposed to the same risks, as we are reminded by the death of Sergeant Sébastien Vermeille, photographer for the SIRPA Terre (SIRPA’s land army unit based in Lyon) on 13 July 2011 in Afghanistan. In October 2013, the DICoD attached to the French Army Ministry founded the Prix Sergeant Vermeille to honour the fallen officer. It was set up to promote the work of professional civilian and military photographers who accompany, in the field, men and women deployed by the army ministry in France in domestic or overseas operations.
For a hundred years, the images produced by army war reporters, archived since the earliest days of the very first units established, have provided a record, evidence and information to support defence communications. Not to mention that they also help the policy of remembrance pursued by the Army Ministry for educational, cultural and scientific purposes. The exhibitions, audiovisual productions and publications made from these images are windows into the history of contemporary conflicts, and pay homage to both their victors and victims. The image collections are an essential medium for educational actions that call on academics to study an archive document and examine the question of engagement, in particular from a modern perspective. As such, the work carried out by war reporters for over a hundred years is an importance feature of remembrance for French citizens, our younger citizens especially.
For further information
Images d’armées. Un siècle de cinéma et de photographie militaires, 1915-2015, Sébastien Denis, Xavier Sene, ECPAD/CNRS Éditions, 2015.
History of army films, ECPAD
French military cinematographic services during the Second World War, Stéphane Launey, RHA 252/2008