THURSDAY 11th NOVEMBER – the eleventh day of the eleventh month – Armistice Day. A chilly, wind-swept day in Paris with heavy rain for most of the day.
In the centre of the Arc de Triomphe, the tomb of an unknown French soldier from the First World War, the eternal flame and, on this day of remembrance, a guard of honour.
At 11.00 this morning, the national act of remembrance took place – the tributes were paid and the wreaths laid.
After the crowds had left, I made my way across to the wind-swept Arc de Triomphe as I do every year on this day.
The Unknown Soldier was interred here and the eternal flame lit on Armistice Day 1920. Originally, the tomb was a memorial to the unknown French soldiers who died in the first world war. The inscription on the tomb reads – ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918 – Here lies a French soldier who died for the fatherland 1914–1918. Today, the tomb embraces all those who died in the first and second world wars as well as all the subsequent conflicts. The tomb was the inspiration for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey in London.
One of the things that always moves me is that, after the official ceremonies are over, anyone can approach the tomb and pay their respects either with a simple bow of the head or by offering a wreath to one of the attendants. On doing so the guard of honour, as if by magic, always come to the salute as a sign of respect – the same salute is given to a President as to an ordinary individual paying their respects.
In today’s busy world it is easy to forget the “Lions led by Donkeys” – which seems just as relevant today as it was in 1918.
I always try to remember the first verse of ‘Aftermath’ , a poem by Siegfried Sassoon:“Have you forgotten yet? For the world’s events have rumbled on since the gagged days, Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways; And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you’re a man reprieved to go, Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare. But the past is just the same – and War’s a bloody game … Have you forgotten yet? Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you’ll never forget.”