PARIS: Travelling from across the world to battlefields where their soldiers fell 100 years ago, victors and vanquished alike marked those sacrifices ahead of Sunday’s Armistice Day and assessed alliances that have been dramatically redrawn since those dark days.
A century ago, the entry of United States troops into the First World War tipped the momentum towards its allies, including France and Britain. On Saturday, even as he began two days of remembrance of the 1914-1918 war, United States President Donald Trump said his nation bears far too much of the burden to defend the West.
A flurry of Armistice-related diplomacy once again turned Paris, the jewel that Germany sought to take in 1914 but which the Allies fought to defend, into the centre of global attention yesterday, with dozens of world leaders arriving for solemn commemorations planned for Sunday.
Almost 10 million soldiers died. France lost 1.4 million and Germany 2 million.
Yet, despite a war that was supposed to end all wars, World War II pitted both sides against each other once again.
Across the line that once marked the Western Front, leaders lauded the courage of soldiers who were killed during the unprecedented slaughter, before converging on Paris for a dinner.
The armistice entered into force on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, and on Sunday 69 world leaders will mark the centennial of the event at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, underneath the Arc de Triomphe in central Paris.
At dawn on Saturday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to Vimy Ridge, the battlefield in northern France where Canada found its sense of self when it defeated German opposition against the odds.
Standing amid the white headstones against an ashen sky, Trudeau addressed the fallen, saying what Canada has achieved in the past century has been “a history built on your sacrifice. You stand for the values on which Canada was built”.
In southern Belgium’s Mons, Canadians were also lauding George Price, the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the war when he was shot by a German sniper two minutes before the armistice took effect.
Trump was looking beyond the tragedy of death and destruction, asking in a tweet: “Is there anything better to celebrate than the end of a war, in particular that one, which was one of the bloodiest and worst of all time?”
After his meeting with Macron, Trump had been scheduled to head to the battlefield of Belleau Wood, 90 kilometres northeast of the capital, where US troops had their breakthrough battle by stopping a German push for Paris shortly after entering the war in 1917.
The battle of Belleau Wood proved America’s mettle to allies and foes alike, and by the time the war ended, US forces were at least an equal to any of the other major armies, which were exhausted and depleted by then.