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WW1

Theresa May and Prince William visit France to mark centenary of key WW1 battle

Britain's Prince William and Prime Minister Theresa May will join 2,000 guests at a service Wednesday marking the centenary of the Battle of Amiens, which rang in the beginning of the end of World War I.

Theresa May and Prince William visit France to mark centenary of key WW1 battle
Photos: AFP
Families of soldiers who took part in the lightning Allied advance, which smashed German defences and morale, precipitating the end of the war, have 
travelled to Amiens from across the world for the ceremony in the city's cathedral.
   
Representatives of the Australian, British, Canadian, French and US governments will also commemorate the tens of thousands of troops killed in the four days of fighting, along with former German president Joachim Gauck.
   
The Battle of Amiens sounded the start of the Hundred Days Offensive on the Western Front, which led to the Armistice in November 1918.
   
It marked a shift away from trench to armoured warfare, with the Allies deploying hundreds of tanks to push deep into German lines on what German General Erich Ludendorff called “the black day of the German army” in the war.
   
May's visit is her second to France in under a week, coming days after she held talks with President Emmanuel Macron at his Mediterranean holiday retreat 
over her Brexit plan.
   
The British premier, who is under pressure to win allies on the continent for her divorce strategy, will read aloud at the ceremony from the war memoirs of Britain's wartime leader Lloyd George.
   
Prince William will also address the proceedings, and the two will also meet with soldiers' families, including descendants of the crack Canadian and Australian troops who led the Allies into battle.
   
Macron, a native of Amiens, is not himself scheduled to attend.
 
Shock tactics
 
The ceremony is the latest in a busy year of World War 1 commemorations.
 
Yet despite the Allies landing a decisive blow in Amiens, the battle never gained the same place in the popular imagination as longer, bloodier World War 1 clashes such as the Battles of the Somme or Verdun.
 
By the summer of 1918 American troops were pouring into France and the Allies had drastically boosted their firepower, emboldening them to strike back at flagging German forces on the Western Front.
   
Supreme allied commander General Ferdinand Foch convinced the French, British and Americans to mount a stealth attack around the city of Amiens, a key rail and logistics hub. 
   
When guns began pounding German positions before dawn on August 8, the Germans were caught off guard.
   
Marooned in dense fog, thousands of dazed soldiers surrendered to the Allies, who dug a gaping, 12-kilometre hole into German lines, backed by some 600 tanks and 2,000 warplanes.
   
The stunned German army never recovered. By early September it was in retreat and two months later the war was over.
 

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WW1

World War One soldier’s bedroom left untouched

The bedroom of a French soldier who died in World War One remains exactly how it was 100 years after he left for war, after his grieving parents stipulated it must remain untouched for 500 years.

World War One soldier's bedroom left untouched
The bedroom of a WW1 soldier just how it was back in 1918. Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP

The dust and cobwebs lie thick after nearly a century, but the memory of the French soldier who grew up in this bedroom – and who died in Belgium in World War I – is today as vivid as the sunlight streaming through the window.

Dragoons officer Hubert Rochereau's presence permeates the place. It emanates from photos and from the second lieutenant's various possessions – uniforms, riding trophies, books – frozen in time on the top floor of a large home in Belabre, a small village in central France.

The vivid vestiges of Rochereau's short life are a testament to the grief his parents felt upon learning of the death of their only son on April 26, 1918, at the age of just 21.

(Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP)

So deep was their bereavement, in fact, that they sought to have his memory live on when they sold the house, stipulating in the deed of sale that their beloved son's bedroom must go untouched for 500 years.

The current owner, Daniel Fabre, has observed their wishes. "It's not an act of devotion but of historic preservation," he tells AFP.

But the clause itself "has no legal basis," he notes. "You can't keep something preserved that way for 500 years under French law."

Fabre, a 72-year-old retired civil servant, took over the large house after the death a decade ago of his wife, who had inherited it from her grandfather.

He proudly shows off the small and tidy room where Rochereau was born, timeworn but remarkably intact.

(Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP)

Cobwebs stretch between a moth-eaten uniform jacket and a wooden desk upon which lies the bric-a-brac that Rochereau collected, including an antique pistol, military manuals, a pipe and a tin of tobacco. Dust hangs in the air.

Yet the small single bed – covered by a lace spread, the soldier's military academy cap and his posthumous medals – looks as if it were just made.

Above it hangs a big sepia portrait of young Rocherau in military dress, with a moustache, his gaze direct. A memory of the man who died in a British field hospital the day after being wounded when Germans overran his unit's position in Kimmelberg, a hill in West Flanders.

Never to be open to the public 

On the walls of the bedroom are artefacts from Rochereau's interest in things military, notably swords and bayonets.

"I believe this is a German bayonet from the First World War," Fabre says, touching one blade. "The rest must date from Napoleon's time, or I don't know when."

Fabre, while respectful of the place, is not sentimental. He has not sought publicity for the bedroom, nor does he feel any attachment to the spectral occupant whose belongings he watches over.

(Photo: Guillaume Souvant/AFP)

His main concern is that his spacious residence not be overrun by tourists or World War I buffs. He has no plans to open the private memorial to the public, and even asks journalists not to provide images or details that could identify his property from the outside.

"I especially don't want to be invaded," he says. "Certainly not. After all, this is my home."

As for the future of Rochereau's bedroom after he too dies, Fabre shrugs. Maybe his daughters will keep it the way it is, most likely they will end up selling the home.

"To be brutal: I don't give a damn. What happens after me, generally speaking, I don't care…. But I think it would be a shame to get rid of all this," he says, looking around the room.

Memorials to Lieutenant Rochereau do exist elsewhere in the village: on a list engraved in a stone monument to those fallen in the war in Belabre's centre; and in the local graveyard, where the soldier's ivy-covered tomb towers over lines of headstones.

But it is the secret bedroom that has become a point of pride for the villagers.

"It's history, but it's also a form of family worship," says the mayor, Laurent Laroche.

For so long, Rochereau was an obscure name, one of the nine million soldiers who died in World War I.

But now "he reappears 100 years later… and I think that if they could see that somehow, his parents would be satisfied," Laroche says.

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