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Legacy of WWI vets promises to outlive them

Humi By Peter Humi
CNN Paris Bureau Chief

November 13, 1998
Web posted at: 8:12 a.m. EDT (0812 GMT)

In this story:

PARIS (CNN) -- Gabriel Plancher, 101 years old, breaks down in tears at the memories he's held for most of his life.

"We had no choice. We were sent to the front and had to fight," recalls the still-sprightly veteran. "We all were risking our skins."

Gabriel Plancher still grieves WWI's loss of life

Plancher, one of barely 1,000 French veterans of World War I still living, was describing the Battle of Verdun, one of the costliest battles of the so-called 'Great War.'

It was February 1916, and German troops launched a massive offensive against the forts near Verdun, in northeastern France. This, after German artillery fired a million shells against French defenses in less than 24 hours.

German troops advanced en masse, to be decimated by French machine-gun fire. As casualties escalated on both sides, Plancher, then 19, saw his cousin killed by his side.

"He was shot through the heart by a bullet," Plancher recounts. "He died without knowing what hit him."

Plancher's cousin was just one of some 600,000 men who lost their lives in the lengthy Battle of Verdun.

Plancher's memory is clear. But 80 years on, what do most of the rest of us remember -- or remember studying -- about the First World War? And what is its legacy now?

Honoring the dead

On Wednesday, Armistice Day, President Jacques Chirac and Britain's Queen Elizabeth II laid wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

It was the highlight of official commemorations in France to remember those who died in conflicts this century, especially those in the war that ended 80 years ago Wednesday.

Nearly 10 million soldiers -- much of the generation -- were killed in campaigns from Russia to northern Italy.

The western front in northern France was a true killing field: Many of the nearly 1.4 million Frenchmen who died in that war did so in the static trench warfare of the front lines.

Historians still study the whys and wherefores of the war. For many people now, looking back, the war seems to be about pointless slaughter.

Reminders, tangible and intangible

The Paris CNN field crew and I recently visited the former front lines in northern France for reports related to the 80th anniversary of the armistice.

Verdun   Graves
World War I cemeteries include many graves for the unknown

I was struck by the stark beauty of the cemeteries, scores of them, in Flanders, along the Somme, Picardy, the Argonne, Artois and of course around Verdun.

They are well-tended. Lush, well-mown grass grows among thousands upon thousands of tombstones. It is peaceful: a fitting place to rest, I thought, for those young men who fought and died all those years ago.

I walked past row upon row of headstones in one British cemetery. I was struck by the number of those unidentified.

'A soldier of the Great War' was the inscription I read over and over. 'Known unto God.'

In Flanders, in Belgium, more than 54,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers simply disappeared during the fighting, their bodies never found. Imagine, say, all the runners in the New York City Marathon.

Another present-day reminder of the war: the tons of shells, grenades and other ordnance found every year by French farmers near the old front lines.

The French army has a special unit that does nothing but collect the debris and dispose of it, usually by blowing it up.

This legacy can be lethal. Since 1990, 11 members of the bomb disposal squads have been killed by artillery shells first fired in anger more than 80 years ago.

Our thoughts of that war also no doubt are influenced by historical black-and-white films and photographs shown on television. The footage is fascinating, though the jerky, grainy quality of much of the footage can make the events feel removed from our everyday lives in 1998.

Our understanding is also enhanced by what was written at the time by soldiers on the front lines: diaries, poetry and letters sent home.

And then, there's the ever-dwindling band of veterans.

'How will it end?'

On Wednesday, I went to a small war memorial service in Puteaux, in the northern outskirts of Paris.

Raymond Abescat   Raymond Abescat
Raymond Abescat reflects at Wednesday's memorial

There Raymond Abescat, 107, gave the speech in memory of the French soldiers who were killed. Born in Paris in September 1891, he may well be the oldest veteran alive in France.

Monsieur Abescat joined the French army in 1912, and was due to finish his service in September 1914. Instead, the war erupted that August, and Abescat and his unit, the 113th infantry regiment, were sent to northern France.

Wounded at Verdun by shrapnel and in Flanders by chlorine gas, Abescat is still alert, though somewhat deaf and confined to a wheelchair.

"I remember our first contact with the Germans. It was in Belgium, in August 1914," Abescat told me in an interview.

"We were ordered to attack across a field of wheat that was waist high. Another of the regiment's companies advanced first. Only seven of them survived. Then it was our turn. Only 85 of us were left alive afterwards, out of 250 men."

He went on: "I thought, 'If this is how it's going to begin, how will it end?'"

On Wednesday, Abescat spoke resolutely, if a little unsteadily, at the memorial: "France's youth was decimated in the war. We can never recover from such terrible loss."

Abescat became an accountant, had three children and now boasts several great-great-great grandchildren. He says he doesn't talk about the war much with his family, but the much-decorated veteran says he doesn't mind.

"I'm looking forward to the next century," he says. "It will be my third century, you know!"

Looking forward, this Armistice Day may be the last major anniversary of the end of the Great War that veterans such as Abescat are likely to witness.

With their passing, our living link with that conflict will be broken. Still, the significance of the armistice ending 'the war to end all wars' will not be lost.

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