My centenary: Five years on the frontlines of the Great War
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For five years, Stéphanie Trouillard has covered WWI centenary commemorations for FRANCE 24. In more than 160 articles, she sought to untangle a conflict that shook the world, setting off in search of her own family’s wartime story in the process.
In November 2013, French President François Hollande officially launched his country’s World War I commemorations. As a history buff, I jumped at the chance and pitched covering the subject to my editors. Truth be told, I didn’t really know what I was getting into. Like everyone, I had a vague sense of the conflict: Images of Verdun, of the trenches, the mud, the rats, the moustachioed “Poilus” (as France’s WWI infantrymen are still affectionately known), gleaned at school or from the pages of a few pertinent literary classics.
Like a virus
So in 2014, I set myself a challenge: To write a weekly article about the war that tore apart a wide swath of the world. I thought I would exhaust the subject within a year and run out of story ideas. I was wrong. What was meant to last a few months wound up spanning five years. Like many others, I caught the centenary virus. Filled with curiosity and respect, I also discovered the horror at times, and plunged headlong into this total war.
Indeed, the First World War affected society as a whole. In trying to decipher it, I explored extremely varied domains: Military strategy at Verdun and Amiens; weaponry, with the development of tanks; medical breakthroughs; the tragedy of the “gueules cassées” (the soldiers disfigured facially). But I also delved into the more unexpected aspects of the war: The arts, through armies’ involvement in theatre or the songs of the Poilus; sport, through the tragic fates of great champions; even archaeology, through the soldiers’ burial sites still being unearthed today. And of course, there were the stories on civilians: the women mobilised behind the lines, in the fields or the factories; the children subject to propaganda in schools.
For FRANCE 24, I also examined international dimensions of the conflict. In the field, I travelled to disparate sites where so many fought. On The Western Front, in Sarajevo, in Palestine, in Italy, at Gallipoli, on the Eastern Front, even in Equatorial Guinea, I walked in the footsteps of myriad soldiers: Breton Poilus, Senegalese Tirailleurs, British Tommies, Australian and New Zealander Anzacs, Chinese workers, German prisoners. For four years, the conflict mobilised men and women from around the globe.
The centenary community
A century on, I also noticed that WWI memories have not endured in the same way from one country to another. For the British, the story is still fresh, passed on from generation to generation. I felt the vivid emotion of ceremonies, too -- particularly those marking Anzac Day, which brings thousands of Australians to the Somme, to the cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux, at 5am. In France, meanwhile, the Poilus’ descendants had sort of lost touch and I note that many have re-appropriated the history by virtue of the recent commemorations, as manifested by the thousands of exhibits and conferences organised all over the country.
A veritable “centenary” community has grown on social media. Every day, users share their own discoveries and family histories online. The 1Jour1Poilu (1Day1Poilu) project brought many together with its initiative to index the 1.4 million records of soldiers officially recognised as having died for France (Mort pour la France) and create a virtual memorial in tribute. All of which meant that I was never short on motivation and my work was considerably enriched by the collective effort. Some gave me story ideas, others even entrusted me with very moving personal archives that brought me even closer to history as it happened. And, in endeavouring to tell the story of this war on a human scale, I also looked into my own family history. I had known very little about the fates of my WWI ancestors, peasants from Brittany’s Morbihan, a department of northwestern France that lies along the Atlantic Coast. I didn’t even know if there were any soldiers in my family tree. I had nothing. No letters. No postcards. No photo had materialised 100 years after the event. The period was silence, a great gap. What did the war feel like to them? What had they lived through?
In search of my family
Thanks to archives now widely digitised and available online, I could set out in search of my forefathers, fill in the gaps in my family’s memory and piece together the history of a few within the history of the many. Like every other French family, mine was not spared. At 22, Joseph Gondet, my great-grandfather Louis’s brother, was killed in November 1916 on the Eastern Front, a very long way from his native Brittany. A century later, I paid tribute to him by retracing his journey and travelling to the site of his death in Macedonia. I also discovered the tragic death of Théophile Réminiac, my great-grandmother’s brother. He died aged 20 from tuberculosis and I was able to have him officially recognised as Mort pour la France.
Every time, as I put the pieces together and told their story, I was surprised by the emotions they elicited in me after all this time. But it was on November 11, 2014, when I felt them most powerfully of all. At the inauguration of the Ring of Memory, near the Notre Dame de Lorette necropolis southwest of Lens, I knew the monument would include an inscription of my great-great-uncle’s name, Joseph Trouillard, as it would those of every soldier killed in France’s Nord-Pas-de-Calais region over the course of the conflict, regardless of nationality. My grandfather bore the same name, in tribute to his uncle. I have few memories of my grandfather, who died when I was seven. But one episode is seared in my memory. One day, when I was staying with him on holiday, I nagged him all afternoon for a soda that I ended up pouring away without even drinking. My grandfather gave me a real earful over my capricious behaviour.
More than 20 years later, at the very moment I discovered Joseph Trouillard’s name on the Ring of Memory, I got a message from my father about an article I had just published about Joseph. He simply wrote: “Your grandfather would have forgiven you for the soda.” In that instant, I realised I was doing this work not only for FRANCE 24, nor even for myself. For five years, from November 2013 to November 2018, my whole family accompanied me, making me a link in a long chain, a custodian of memory. Joseph Gondet, Théophile Réminiac and Joseph Trouillard, my three great-great-uncles who died during the First World War, were at my side. In illuminating this war, I “brought them back to life”. They are no longer forgotten now, like all the soldiers these centenary commemorations let us honour and return to the world’s memory.
This article has been translated from the original in French. Stéphanie Trouillard’s new book, about her uncle, World War II resistance fighter André Gondet, is entitled “Mon oncle de l’ombre: Enquête sur un maquisard breton” (Skol Vreizh).