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Queen Marks 80th Anniversary of WWI

November 11, 1998

PARIS (AP) _ Britain’s queen and France’s president presided Wednesday over an occasion both grand and poignant _ the last major anniversary of the Great War likely to include actual veterans of the carnage.

At 11 a.m., Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a bright lavender coat and hat, arrived at Paris’ grandest military site, Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe, where she and President Jacques Chirac laid a huge wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Both were presented to four World War I veterans _ 101-year-old Gen. Maurice Bourgeois, a lieutenant at Verdun; Abramo Pellencin, 102; Guy Cohen, 101, and Georges Rideau, 101.

France’s oldest survivor from the war _ Raymond Abescat, 107 _ was unable to attend.

The 80th anniversary of when the guns fell silent _ at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 _ was being marked with pomp and ceremony under sunny skies.

``I prefer not to talk about it,″ an emotional Rideau told reporters. ``There are good and bad memories. I did my duty.″

He said that it was ``painful″ that today’s youth did not seem interested in the Great War.

Bruno Manfrini, an 84-year-old World War II veteran, was first to jump to attention when the French national anthem, the Marseillaise, began to play at the Arc de Triomphe, saluting with his white-gloved hand.

``It’s a magnificent moment for France to have the queen here on this occasion,″ Manfrini said. Pointing to the blue sky, he added: ``The good Lord was thinking of us today.″

It was supposed to be a quick war, and a ``war to end all wars,″ but of course it wasn’t. It was a four-year nightmare of unimaginable brutality, one that killed millions and changed Europe forever.

Precious few are still alive who fought in World War I. And yet fascination with the conflict remains, evident in the countless grainy, black-and-white photos gracing newspaper and magazine covers in France and Britain as the anniversary approached.

Chirac and the queen were to place another wreath at a statue of Georges Clemenceau, France’s deeply respected World War I leader.

There were echoes of World War II as well: the queen planned to unveil a statue of Sir Winston Churchill, on an avenue renamed the Avenue Winston Churchill.

Later in the day, the queen was to travel to Ypres in Belgium, where she was joining Belgian King Albert II in remembering the appalling losses from a four-year war of attrition against the Germans in the trenches there.

There was one major figure missing from the ceremonies: Germany’s new leader, chancellor-elect Gerhard Schroeder, who informed Chirac he could not attend because his calendar was already full with creating a new government.

Schroeder dismissed as ``rubbish″ reports that he wasn’t attending because he wanted to avoid the past.

The Great War killed 13 million civilians and 8.5 million fighting men. Germany lost an estimated 1.7 million soldiers; Britain lost more than 900,000; Italy 650,000; the United States 116,000. France was proportionally the hardest hit, with 1.3 million dead.

The sheer devastation wrought on France can partly be measured by the 30,000 or so monuments in cities, towns and villages across the nation. Some villages list more war dead than their current populations.

As if there were any doubt about the enduring wound left by the war, a bitter dispute broke out between the political right and left just days before the anniversary.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, visiting the site of a suicidal offensive against the Germans at Chemin des Dames, asked that 49 mutineers executed ``as an example″ be ``fully reintegrated today into our national collective memory.″

Chirac, a rightist, called Jospin’s remarks ``inopportune.″ And a political ally of the president’s, former Interior Minister Jean-Louis Debre, said Jospin’s remarks were ``of a nature to justify acts of mutiny in the future.″

The same debate has taken place in Britain, where last week, some 306 men executed for cowardice or desertion were not included in a memorial led by the queen.

Many are believed now to have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after enduring the horrors of the trenches for months.

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