World remembers sacrifice of WWI fallen

French and German leaders stood side by side in Paris to honour the fallen of World War I on Wednesday, as countries around the globe held ceremonies to remember the millions who died in the conflict.

President Nicolas Sarkozy and Chancellor Angela Merkel rekindled the flame on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe and vowed that never again would their nations wage war on each other.

“We are not commemorating the victory of one people over another but an ordeal that was equally terrible for each side,” Sarkozy declared before a military honour guard and crowds of well-wishers.

Far from being “The War to End All Wars”, the 1914 to 1918 conflict merely set the tone for the 20th century’s litany of brutality, although in terms of sheer mass killing on the battlefield it has since rarely been equalled.

Much of the fighting—which pitted Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey against France, Britain, Russia, Italy and, from 1917, the United States—was in northern France and characterised by horrific trench warfare.

German leaders have attended World War I memorial events in France before, most notably when former chancellor Helmut Kohl took former president Francois Mitterrand’s hand in Verdun, the scene of one of the fiercest battles of the war.

But Merkel’s visit on Wednesday was the first time a German leader had attended the Armistice Day ceremony in Paris marking the defeat of Germany, and was seen as a signal of ever closer ties between the two neighbours.

“We cannot wipe out the past but there is a force which can help us to bear it: the power of reconciliation,” Merkel said in a speech which, like Sarkozy’s, emphasised the two countries’ central role in the European Union.

The two leaders observed a moment of silence—at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month—to mark the moment 91 years ago when the guns stopped firing across Europe after Germany signed an Armistice Treaty.

In Britain too, people fell silent to remember those who fought and gave their lives in the so-called Great War.

Queen Elizabeth II led commemorations at a service at Westminster Abbey in central London, which was also attended by Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Brown has faced severe criticism this week over the ongoing war in Afghanistan, where a new generation of British service personnel are making the ultimate sacrifice.

In Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand province in Afghanistan, a gun salute marked the start of a two-minute silence and people stood still to pay their respects, the BBC reported.

In the United States, where November 11 is a national holiday called Veterans’ Day, President Barack Obama was due to attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Solemn services took place across Australia to remember those killed in action in a war the country joined as part of the British Empire.

This year has seen the deaths of the last three British veterans of World War I in Britain.

Of the eight million British soldiers who fought in the conflict, only 108-year-old Royal Navy veteran Claude Choules, who lives in Perth, Australia, remains alive.

The last French veteran, an Italian immigrant who lied about his age to join the Foreign Legion and fight in the trenches, died last year aged 110.

He was one of more than eight million men who fought under French colours in the war.—AFP

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