Dying WWI veterans fuel history

BERLIN // The death last month in Germany of one of the last surviving veterans of the First World War has provided a fresh reminder that the conflict that shaped the 20th century is fast receding from living memory. But as the dozen or so soldiers still alive around the world fade away, interest in the "Great War" is surging in Europe before the 90th anniversary of the armistice in November.

Franz Kunstler, who worked as a museum guide until his death, died in the southern German town of Niederstetten on Tuesday. Aged 107, he is believed to have been the last surviving First World War veteran in Germany. Born in 1900 in what is now Romania, Kunstler was called up to an artillery regiment of the Austro-Hungarian army, which fought alongside Germany in Feb 1918. He saw action on the Italian front.

Kunstler was the fourth veteran known to have died in Europe this year. The last soldier to have fought in the Imperial German Army, Erich Kästner, died in January and the last two French veterans, Louis de Cazenave and Lazare Ponticelli, died in January and March respectively. Ponticelli was given a state funeral attended by Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president. In Germany, where the war is tainted by the stigma of defeat and by its connection to the Second World War and the Holocaust, the deaths of the veterans elicited no official response. The government does not even keep records of surviving soldiers from either war.

The different reactions in France and Germany show the war remains painfully alive in Europe's consciousness almost a century after it ended. In the countries that emerged victorious, fascination with the "war to end all wars" that cost 20 million lives has led to a surge in battlefield tourism to the bloodiest sites of the western front in France and Belgium - the Somme, Verdun and Ypres - over the past decade.

The small Belgian town of Ypres, the centre of some of the most intense fighting of the war, has seen visitor numbers treble since the mid-1990s, with about half the tourists coming from Britain but many also from Canada, New Zealand and Australia, which had thousands of troops in this sector. "The figures started to go up from the mid-1990s. We think it's because there were a lot of books and documentaries about the 20th century coming out at the time, and they obviously included the First World War which shaped the century," said Peter Slosse, head of the Ypres tourist board. "Ever since then, the interest has kept on increasing."

The number of hotel rooms in Ypres has more than doubled since 1997 and four new youth hostels have been built to accommodate the rising number of visiting school groups, most of them from Britain, Mr Slosse said. Ypres was faithfully rebuilt from scratch in the 1920s and 1930s after being completely destroyed in the war. The surrounding countryside, long since restored to fertile farmland, is dotted with dozens of huge war cemeteries, museums and poignant memorials, visited each day by coach loads of schoolchildren and tourists of all ages.

They walk among preserved trenches, scrutinise headstones and listen attentively to guides talking about the military campaign, life in the trenches and the horror of gas attacks and shellfire. "We've seen an increased interest in people wanting to travel out to the western front sites to see the places where their family members fought," said Laura Crafter, marketing manager of Holts Tours, a leading British operator of battlefield tours.

Six of the firm's First World War tours for this year are booked solid, including a trip to sites where such war poets as John McCrae and Siegfried Sassoon fought, and a trip to Verdun, where Germany tried and failed to bleed the French army dry. "Once the remaining survivors have died, it's almost like taking a step back in history, there's nothing to hold onto any more," Ms Crafter said. "Often it's a very emotional experience for people coming here," said Jacques Ryckebosch of Flanders Battlefield Tours, who has worked as a guide for almost 30 years. "The death of the survivors has helped to trigger people's interest because there are no real witnesses left, people want to come and see for themselves. You can read a thousand books and look at a thousand photographs, but you have to come here to get a proper sense of it." Half a million allied and German soldiers died in and around Ypres and many more were wounded. It was at Ypres that the Germans first used poison gas in 1915. The name of the town, like the Somme and Verdun, is synonymous to many with futile sacrifice.

British and Commonwealth forces halted two major German attacks here, in 1914 and 1915, before launching their own disastrous assault in 1917, a three-month advance through fields churned to liquid mud to the village of Passchendaele about eight kilometres from Ypres. The 1917 campaign cost the Allies 400,000 casualties, and all the ground gained was evacuated in three days during the German spring offensive of 1918.

The cemeteries with their endless rows of white headstones are immaculately maintained. The inscription "Known Unto God" or "A Soldier of the Great War" is common because the majority of soldiers killed were never identified or found - a reminder of how many were blown apart by shellfire or sucked into the treacherous mud. The Menin Gate, opened in 1927 in Ypres, bears the names of 54,896 soldiers reported missing. Buglers from the local fire brigade blow The Last Post under its vast arch every evening to commemorate the dead, and have done so every day since 1928, apart from between 1940-1944 when the German occupiers banned the ceremony.

One evening last week, around 400 tourists watched the spectacle in respectful silence. A British military band accompanied by student cadets marched down the street to join the ceremony, playing It's a Long Way to Tipperary. dcrossland@thenational.ae

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