PARIS – Paris, the City of Light, has always been the biggest prize of the First World War, either to conquer or defend.
So it is right that when the winners and the losers meet to celebrate the centenary of the armistice this weekend, the most important ceremony should be on the famous Champs-Elysees of the Arc de Triomphe.
On Friday, some leaders began commemorative events in a large crescent of cemeteries and entrenched battlefields north of the capital.
British Prime Minister Theresa May deposed garlands for the first and last British soldier killed during the fighting – the two were buried next to each other in Mons, in southern Belgium. A tomb contains the remains of Pvt. John Parr, killed on 21 August 1914. The other tomb is Pvt. George Ellison, survived some of the worst battles of the war, was shot on 11 November 1918, last day of war.
French President Emmanuel Macron continued his pilgrimage to the sites of the First World War and reached May, when the two current leaders of the allied forces who defeated Germany passed by the graves in the Thiepval memorial.
"Every cemetery and monument in the world is a unique and moving memory of the cost of the First World War," said May.
Sixty-nine heads of state and government will highlight that message to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of Sunday, exactly a century after the armistice.
Such was the symbolic importance of the French capital that the victorious American genius John J. Pershing said it was his "desire that every man of the American shipping forces be given the opportunity to visit Paris before returning to the United States".
Away from every surviving American soldier of the war of 1914-1918 he arrived in the French capital, but on Sunday President Donald Trump will join his French counterpart and host, Emmanuel Macron, and others to remember the millions of dead during the first global conflict.
Alan Seeger, the American poet whom Macron praised in his speech at the US Congress last year, has already captured the seeds of reconciliation in 1916, when he wrote, as a soldier of the French Foreign Legion, that "I have never pulled out the weapons from any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but out of pure love for France ".
France, Britain and its empire, Russia and the United States had the main armies opposing a German-led coalition that also included the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Nearly 10 million soldiers died, often in a brutal trench warfare in which poisonous gas added a cruelty to war that the world had never seen.
Hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the world have died in Europe, many of them on the western front coming from the Flanders fields of Belgium almost to the Swiss border.
Bringing the heritage of defeated Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit the site in the woods to the north of Paris, where military leaders have agreed in a railway carriage for the armistice at 5 am on November 11, 1918, six hours before it came into force.
On Sunday, in another show of reconciliation, Merkel will open an international forum for peace in Paris with Macron and the secretary general U.N. Antonio Guterres.
Like other leaders visiting national cemeteries scattered across northern France, Trump will visit two burial sites that highlight how the United States reached its age as a military power after it entered the war in 1917 and created it to become a dominant force for the next century. .
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