The battlefield of Verdun, where more than 300,000 French and German soldiers were killed in 1916, holds a resonant place in the collective memory of France.
It is hard to escape the sombre appearance of one of the most terrible of all battlefields, even on a day when the leaves glow yellow and golden as the sun shines. The ground is pockmarked and creased with shell holes and trenches. The crosses of the buried French stretch almost as far as the eye can see and, on a hill overlooking the site, a huge concrete ossuary holds the bones of 130,000 unidentified dead.
The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was accompanied, very much in his wake, by various notables including the Prince of Wales, Quentin Bryce, the new governor general of Australia (the first woman to hold the job), and the Grand Duke of Luxembourg.
A clutch of French ministers and EU officials hovered. The president of the German parliament took the place of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Mr. Sarkozy was said by officials to have planned the entire event himself, which was entirely credible, though in the circumstances it was a pity he was late and missed the significant time of 11 o’clock, roaring up in a motorcade with his wife, Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, just after the hour had struck.
A two-minute silence does not have quite the same symbolic resonance at 13 minutes past the hour.
The veterans, together with visitors, military men in kepis covered in gold frogging, tricolour-sashed officials and schoolchildren, did not seem to mind the delay.
Instead they gasped as Bruni-Sarkozy, her auburn hair fluttering in the breeze, emerged from the limousine.
Prince Charles, usually the centre of attention at such events, had little more than a bit part, though he did have more medals than the other leaders combined. Several times he and his wife, Camilla, were all but submerged in the surging throng seeking a view of the president’s wife.
She herself struggled to keep up as her husband beamed, waved and shook hands with notables, as if at a political rally, on his way to the ossuary, somewhat incongruously to relight the eternal flame inside.
Outside again, the president gave a lengthy speech, promising that France would never forget the children who had died for her and would never forget the soldiers of other nations who had come to defend the nation’s liberty.
With that, Mr. Sarkozy roared away in his limousine, leaving the other guests queueing for vehicles as if for taxis, with Charles and Camilla elbowed into the crowd by French officers chatting on their mobile phones.
It was a peculiarly unpoignant ceremony, a rushed and jostling affair. Shortly before he was killed at Verdun, a young French lawyer, Raymond Jubert, wrote: “A battlefield today is just a field like any other; it is just something to be turned over ... you have to look very closely to get any idea of the corpses it holds.”
It was almost as if he had President Sarkozy’s visit in mind. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008
6 months ago