No conflict has been as extensively memorialised – it hardly needs saying, for good reason – as the first world war. Few villages and towns in Britain and France are without their crosses, obelisks or plaques, or train termini without registers in bronze or stone of slaughtered employees of the railway company. Across miles of Flanders, Artois and Picardy, in a band following the former front line, fields and slopes carry crops of unharvestable white stone, set in gardens to be tended for ever. In places, land churned by explosions or dug with trenches is preserved. From time to time masses of masonry are forced upwards, as for Canadians on Vimy Ridge or British on the Somme, by some special intensity of horror.
On Armistice Day, François Hollande and other dignitaries will gather on a hillside outside Arras to inaugurate another, completely new memorial. It is natural to wonder what more could possibly be said by adding to the weight of gloom that lies on this part of Europe, but the international memorial at Notre Dame de Lorette, unlike the others, seeks to unite the opposing sides. It carries the alphabetised names of the 580,000 from all the combatant countries who died in northern France, gathered in a two-year programme of research led by the historian Yves Le Maner. The memorial is therefore about peace as much about war, and the frayed but still surviving concept of European unity. […]