VERDUN (France) • German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande together marked the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun yesterday, laying a wreath at a cemetery in north-eastern France for the 300,000 soldiers killed.
It was the longest battle in World War I, lasting 300 days. Verdun is seen as a key symbol of French-German reconciliation, and the two leaders were expected to call on Europe to pull together to confront its current challenges.
The leaders began the commemoration by laying a wreath at the German military cemetery at Consenvoye, just north of Verdun. Despite the rain, they walked between rows of black crosses embossed in white with the names of the dead. Some 11,000 German soldiers are buried there.
In visiting the cemetery, Ms Merkel and Mr Hollande were following in the footsteps of their predecessors, Mr Helmut Kohl and Mr Francois Mitterrand. When the two men joined hands in September 1984 as the French national anthem was played, it underlined the close ties between the two countries. Once bitter enemies, they are now often called the twin motors of the European Union.
"To be invited to these commemorations shows the extent to which relations between France and Germany are good today," Ms Merkel said ahead of the ceremony.
Both leaders were expected to use the day of remembrance to stress the need for unity at a time when the EU is facing a mass influx of migrants and a possible Brexit. Mr Hollande said before the ceremony that it was a perfect time for the leaders to spell out their ambitions for Europe, now gripped by the "evil of populism".
That appeared to be a reference to Europe's far-right parties, which have made advances in several countries, fuelled by growing concern over an unprecedented inflow of migrants. The two leaders were expected to discuss the migrant crisis and the June 23 referendum in Britain on whether or not it should quit the EU.
Later, they attended the main commemorative ceremony at the Douaumont ossuary, where the remains of 130,000 French and German soldiers lie underground.
That was where Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand made their symbolic gesture to reaffirm Franco-German friendship. "Mitterrand's gesture with Helmut Kohl, the hands that reached out and found each other, that's the symbol of reconciliation," Mr Hollande told French radio earlier in the week.
Yesterday's ceremony at Douaumont featured more than 3,000 French and German schoolchildren in a presentation choreographed by German filmmaker Volker Schloendorff. Church bells for kilometres around rang out in memory of the soldiers who had died on both sides.
The Battle of Verdun lasted from February to December 1916, and was fought along the front line dividing the French and German armies.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE