Pere-Lachaise Cemetery is reputed to be the most visited cemetery in the world and is the main tourist attraction in this quarter of the city. It is the most famous of the Paris cemeteries and is the equivalent of London's Highgate Cemetery. Maps near the entrances show the locations of the most famous residents including Chopin, Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and the sixties rock singer Jim Morrison. The full list is a veritable roll-call of the great and good who have illuminated all facets of French and Parisian life over the past 200 years or so. An intriguing place to walk around, and no doubt very atmospheric on a foggy day.
However, I had come to see the graves of two men. One was that of Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the most famous French war poets, who died of influenza on the 9 November 1918 and who was buried here two days after the Armistice. Born in Rome 1880, he in fact had a Polish mother and an Italian aristocrat father, and his real name was Wilhelm Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky. He is buried with his widow, who died in 1967. Their headstone eschews traditional designs and is a simple menhir about eight feet tall. The other Great War grave is that of Henri Barbusse, writer of the famous novel "Le Feu" (translated as "Under Fire") who died in 1935.
Near Barbusse's grave are ten or twelve memorials to the French citizens who died in Nazi concentration camps. Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Mauthausen and Buchenwald were some of the infamous names I saw; a litany of man's inhumanity to man. Some are simple stone memorials, others are sculptures which evoke those harrowing photographs of living skeletons. I thought of my late uncle, a captain in the RASC and one of the first British soldiers to enter Belsen when it was liberated, and what he must have seen first hand. I also recalled a visit to Buchenwald that I made in 1990 during a tour of East Germany only a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That is the only place that I have ever been to that holds more sadness than a Great War cemetery. Nearby were other graves and memorials to French soldiers who fought in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War, the 1939-45 dead of the PCF (Partie Communiste Francaise) and the Resistance.
The cemetery held several surprises in that it is the location of five Great War memorials. Near the Eastern edge of the cemetery, near the Crematorium, is the Avenue des Combattants Etrangers Morts pour la France. This has a Monument to the Garibaldiens and Italians who died in the Argonne, separate monuments to Czech soldiers and to Greek soldiers who died in French service, and to Belgian soldiers who died on French soil. In the latter, the body of an unknown Belgian soldier was laid to rest on 8 October 1922. The remains of other Belgian soldiers were later moved there from other Parisian cemeteries.
The most unusual was a Monument to Armenian soldiers who died in French service. This consisted of a stone shaped like a 10 foot high cut diamond, the base of which was engraved with the names of battles in which Armenian troops fought. A hundred yards away I found a fine memorial to an Armenian general of the Great War.
Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.
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