1919: honouring the combatants

Le cercueil du Soldat inconnu hissé sur un canon de 155 sous l’Arc de Triomphe lors des cérémonies du 11 novembre 1920 à Paris
The coffin of the Unknown Soldier raised on a 155 mm gun beneath the Arc de Triomphe, during the commemorations of 11 November 1920 in Paris. - © Excelsior-L’Équipe/Roger-Viollet


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    DATE: 14 July 1919

    PLACE: France

    OBJECT: The Victory Parade

    PARTICIPANTS: France and the Allies

    The French national holiday of 11 November, as everyone knows it today, has its origins in the 1919 commemorations and the dual significance that was to last for many years: remembrance of the dead, made imperative by the mass mourning of the belligerent nations, and the Allies’ shared desire to celebrate victory.

    As well as being a new type of conflict, the First World War is distinctive for the way in which French society built and preserved its public memory. The war memorials erected in the country’s 36 000 communes and responded to in Paris by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe, together with the Remembrance Day ceremonies held by local communities before their war memorials and by the most senior representatives of the French State before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, are so many elements of a coherent commemorative system. Established in just a few years, that system has made a strong mark on collective time and space.

    Equally noteworthy is how lasting an impact that commemorative system has had. The centenary celebrations have been a further testament to its mobilising power, despite the fact that the conflict’s last direct witnesses have died; or might it be said that First World War remembrance amounts to a dramatisation of the fight against oblivion, which the publicising of the deaths of the “last poilus” in the late 2000s contributed to rekindling?

    There is nothing straightforward about focusing only on the first year following the armistice. It is more usual to examine the establishment of the commemorations, up to the mid-1920s (when the main aspects of the commemorative system were firmly in place) or throughout the interwar years. Changing the chronological focus in this way, however, enables us perhaps to see something else. This memory under construction saw a multitude of projects and initiatives that were soon abandoned, in a process of trial and error that suggested other possible ways of remembering the war, pathways which, although ultimately not pursued, were nevertheless opened up at the close of the Great War. These served as a way of questioning the unambiguous nature of First World War remembrance. Furthermore, the relationship between a “celebratory” remembrance of victory and the victors, on the one hand, and the remembrance of loss and the dead, on the other, becomes particularly apparent from this standpoint.


    The signing of the armistice marked the beginning of a period of intense public debate about how the war should be commemorated. The memory of the war was inscribed in the stone of statues and steles, and in the public calendar through the establishment of a day of remembrance: a large proportion of the projects submitted and events organised in 1918 centred on the victors, the heroes, the soldiers who had returned from the front. In the French parliament, November and December 1918 saw a great many bills and draft resolutions proposed for discussion, concerning how those who fought in the war should be remembered. While the cult of the dead occupied a central place in those debates, it was not the only matter under discussion; also at stake was the broader issue of preserving the memory of the very meaning of the war and its conclusion, as these were understood at the time.

    On 11 November itself, French members of parliament began debating a bill concerning “a national tribute to the armed forces, prime minister Georges Clemenceau and Marshal Foch”, by means of a permanent inscription in all schools and town halls. Significantly, an amendment by the socialists Bracke and Renaudel proposing that, instead of the “architects of victory” mentioned in the original text, the inscription should mention the Republic alone, was rejected. The issue of the political exploitation of victory by a republican regime, whose ability to conduct a war had been continually questioned in the run-up to 1914, was set aside: the desire to prolong wartime political unity (the so-called “sacred union”) thus had a significant impact on this inaugural moment of remembrance of the conflict. The republican nature of the victory remains a blind spot to this day.

    The discussion of a second amendment by Bracke and Renaudel illustrates another characteristic of how public remembrance of the war, at the close of hostilities, seemed bound to develop: the central place of the Allies, indissociable from the widely held belief at the time that the end of the war signified the victory of democracy over imperialism. The amendment proposed for a second text, paying tribute to President Wilson, to be engraved on the walls of all schools and town halls across the country. The proposal, broadened to include the American nation and all the other Allies, was finally voted on 20 November. This has wider significance, as a very broad agreement on the importance of placing the collective figure of the Allies at the centre of the representation of the First World War that was to be passed on to future generations. It prefigured the plan, submitted a few days later, to make the 11th of November an inter-Allied commemoration to “glorify the victorious end to the war and celebrate the liberation of the peoples”. Like the many planned monuments in which the Allies took centre stage, this proposal, too, offered a glimpse of another possible way of remembering the Great War. A path destined to be abandoned from day one of the interwar years, as the exaltation of the Allies soon ebbed and the memory of the war was rapidly renationalised.


    Aside from discussions about long-term remembrance projects, 1919 was marked by many celebrations in honour of the troops, at the crucial moment of their return home. Whereas, as Bruno Cabanes has pointed out, 11 November 1918 constituted the apogee of the feeling of distance experienced by the soldiers towards a home front accused of indifference and ingratitude, their reintegration into civilian life was a major aspect of demobilisation.  The demonstrations of gratitude that flooded the public sphere were supposed, in the context of the “moral economy of demobilisation”, to constitute symbolic repayment – clearly always insufficient – for the sacrifices made by the soldiers, and to avert division.

    Ceremonies to celebrate the “return of the regiments” thus took place in step with the process of demobilisation, the troops retracing the route which, in August 1914, had led them from their barracks to the local railway station, from where they had departed for the front. It was a symbolic means of bringing the war years to a close, while also indulging the dream of a “return to normality”. These commemorations were also a way of making the scattered return of the troops into a collective experience, which also enabled civilians and local communities to pay tribute to them. This largely fictitious moment of “homecoming” of the regiments also provided the newly founded veterans’ associations with the opportunity to take their first initiative, by organising a commemorative event. In so doing, these associations asserted their role as guardians of the memory of the sacrifice made by both the survivors and the dead.

    The summer of 1919 was the high point of the symbolic demonstrations of public gratitude towards the soldiers. The signing of the Treaty of Versailles, on 28 June, was an occasion for further collective celebrations and marked a crucial step in the end of the war. The demobilisation process resumed, having been interrupted in April in readiness for a possible advance into Germany in the event that it refused to accept the terms imposed on it at the peace conference. All the conditions were fulfilled for a “victory celebration” to be held in Paris on 14 July, during the homecoming celebrations. The event’s symbolic programme was itself a means of creating a remembrance narrative for the war. French and Allied troops led by marshals Foch and Joffre crossed the French capital from Porte Maillot to the Place de la République, passing under the Arc de Triomphe before marching down the Champs Élysées, crossing the Place de la Concorde and parading along the main boulevards. Between one and two million people watched the parade. Discretion in the republican references (the only mention was in the parade’s finishing point: Place de la République), the omnipresence of inter-Allied symbolism (with contingents from all the Allied nations) and the central place given to honouring the dead – which we will discuss further on – were its main characteristics.

    Three weeks later, the Fête de la Reconnaissance Nationale (Day of National Gratitude), organised by the Union des Grandes Associations and the French government on 2 and 3 August – the anniversary of the start of the war – was in the same vein. On the 2nd, in the main lecture theatre of the Sorbonne, hundreds of schoolchildren listened, in the presence of wounded and maimed soldiers, to speeches from the French President, the Prime Minister, Marshal Foch, Ernest Lavisse, and other political and cultural figures. On the 3rd, the message of the previous day was spread throughout the country. The departmental authorities circulated a template for the ceremonies, which seems to have been widely taken up by communes: a speech by the mayor, a public reading of the speeches given by the President and Prime Minister at the Sorbonne ceremony, and the award of certificates to the families of those killed in action.

    Even more than the speeches, the way the ceremony at the Sorbonne was staged made its meaning clear: showing the country’s gratitude to the troops also required an assurance from the civilian community that the memory of their sacrifice – hence the presence of wounded and maimed soldiers – would be preserved by future generations – signified by the presence of the children. The ceremony was nothing less than a representation of the act of preserving the memory of the conflict or, more precisely, the sacrifice. The requirement of gratitude and the symmetrical feeling of a debt to be repaid were such that they needed, from the outset, to be lasting: celebrating the victors already amounted to constructing the memory of their sacrifice. Jay Winter notes that, after 1914, “commemoration was an act of citizenship. To remember was to affirm community, to assert its moral character”.


    Remembering the dead was at the heart of the demonstrations of gratitude towards the victorious returning troops, to the point that the survivors themselves tended to be eclipsed. Addressing the French parliament on 11 November 1918, Clemenceau attributed the main credit for victory to “our great dead”. A few months later, the organisers of the Fête de la Victoire of 14 July 1919 were confronted with the very practical difficulty of not allowing the tribute to the dead to detract from the celebration of the victors. The solution chosen was to install a mobile cenotaph beneath the Arc de Triomphe, where crowds would gather on the night before the parade to pay their respects to the dead; the next morning, the cenotaph would be moved aside to allow the triumphal procession to pass. At one stage, the idea was even mooted for the troops to parade in silence before a war memorial set up on the Champs Élysées.

    On 3 August 1919, the “Day of National Gratitude”, many local ceremonies gave pride of place to the dead. In the municipality of Amiens, for instance, 5 000 of the city’s schoolchildren processed before a temporary monument in memory of the war dead. At the very heart of the tribute to the living, then, was a clear tendency for First World War remembrance to become mixed up with the cult of the dead. The dead came at the top of a hierarchy of combatants, which military decorations determined in only a secondary way, beneath the supreme sacrifice. At the Parisian leg of the Day of National Gratitude, on 2 August 1919, Léon Robelin declared: “the dead [...] more than the living, have ensured the survival of the motherland”.

    Equally significant is the fate of a proposed resolution tabled in the French parliament in November 1918, for the publication of a special book containing all the citations awarded during the war. When its proposers suggested that the citations awarded during the war should be included in a planned record of France’s war dead, the Livre d’Or des Morts pour la France, the rapporteur replied: “We felt that the finest citation was also the most egalitarian: ‘Died for France’. We do not wish to add anything further to the Livre d’Or than this simple, moving phrase.” In First World War remembrance, death levelled not only the military hierarchy (distinctions of rank on commemorative monuments were less present than after earlier conflicts), but heroism itself. The Law of 1 October 1919 establishing a memorial to the Great War in each commune determined that the State would provide the communes with a record of the names, citations and wounds of all those who fought in the war. That law was still based on the idea of a commemoration that included all servicemen “who took part in the operations of the 1914-18 war”, and did not focus only on the dead. Significantly, it was destined to scarcely be implemented.


    The ceremonies of gratitude held for the returning soldiers in the context of the demobilisation of 1919 in fact amounted to laboratories of commemoration. The cenotaph of the Fête de la Victoire of 14 July 1919 prefigured the war memorials, just as the organisers’ hesitancy over the place to be accorded to silence in the commemorations resonates with the importance which the minute’s silence would assume in the liturgy of the Remembrance Day ceremonies in the 1920s.

    Of course, homecoming celebrations and legislative discussions were only the most visible part of a deeper movement that was also rooted in the provinces with the emergence of local ceremonies. Indeed, 1919 saw the unveiling of a great many war memorials on the initiative of mayors or other personalities and public subscription.

    The mobilisation was all the greater since the memorials amounted to a kind of substitute grave for the hundreds of thousands of dead whose bodies could not be identified. The ceremonies to unveil these memorials, many of which took place on 11 November 1919, were a first draft of the commemorative rituals that would be held across the country, around these same memorials, on the anniversary of the armistice, throughout the interwar years and beyond.

    Yet at the close of 1919, an annual date for national commemorations of the war had still not been set. The creation of a commemoration on 11 November had certainly been considered since November 1918. But at that time, it was victory that was being commemorated – not of course with militarist exultation, but an inter-Allied celebration of the triumph of democracy. A year later, the date of 11 November seemed to have been abandoned by the legislator. Cautious not to create too many public holidays in what was a delicate economic situation, parliament decided that on 1 or 2 November (All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day), the communes would hold a ceremony devoted to “the memory and glorification of the heroes who died for the motherland [...] organised by the municipality with support from civilian and military authorities.” It was not until 1922 that veterans succeeded in having 11 November declared a national holiday. Yet it was to have an altogether different meaning from that envisaged in 1918. The veterans’ 11 November – the one that prevailed – was to focus on preserving the memory of their dead comrades.

    Nearly a year after the end of the fighting, the “Law on the commemoration and glorification of those who died for France during the Great War” was passed, in response to widespread concern across French society since at least 1916. The text provided for records containing the names of all those who died for France to be admitted to the Pantheon; the State to provide each commune with a special record listing the names of those killed who were born or lived in the commune; a national war memorial to be erected in or near Paris; funding to be allocated to the communes to support initiatives to glorify those who died for France; and a ceremony in memory of the dead to be organised by municipalities every 1 or 2 November, as mentioned previously. A number of provisions would not be implemented, a sign that the “cultural work” (Daniel Sherman) of the construction of memory had yet to be fully accomplished. But there was already a clear trend of public remembrance of the First World War being reduced to remembering the dead alone.

    Between the possible paths of extolling the nation’s great deeds, giving political legitimacy to the republican regime and meaning to the fighting, and providing contemplation and consolation to mourners, the general orientation of First World War remembrance had already been established.


    Victor Demiaux, phD in history, executive assistant to the chief executive, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS)

    Read more

    Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, Jay Winter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

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