Image: Nicolas Sarkozy
Vincent Kessler  /  Pool via AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy lays a wreath at the statue of former Prime Minister George Clemenceau during an Armistice Day ceremony in Paris, on Tuesday.
updated 11/11/2008 9:02:40 AM ET 2008-11-11T14:02:40

Leaders of a united Europe on Tuesday marked the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I, which tore the continent apart and cost millions of lives.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain's Prince Charles attended the solemn ceremony near one of the conflict's bloodiest battlefields. It was held in the northeastern French town of Douaumont, near the site of the Battle of Verdun.

There, an estimated 300,000 soldiers lost their lives in 300 days of ferocious fighting between French and German troops for control of River Meuse, a key strategic post on the eastern approach route from Germany to Paris. The French forces prevailed in December 1916.

Prince Charles, Australia's governor-general Quentin Bryce, Sarkozy and Peter Mueller, president of German Bundesrat, laid wreaths at foot of massive French flag that soared over esplanade between two large fields of crosses — the burial markers.

Hundreds of people including veterans from other wars stood outside a huge stone ossuary in Douaumont, where the remains of unknown soldiers from both sides of the war are buried.

France has been reflecting on how best to keep the memory of the 1914-1918 war alive, following the death earlier this year of the last of the 8.4 million Frenchmen who fought in the conflict. Lazare Ponticelli died in March, at age 110.

Germany's last veteran from the war also died earlier this year, leaving only a handful of living veterans from the conflict.

British veterans honor fallen comrades
In London, three frail British veterans of World War I honored the sacrifice of more than 700,000 fallen comrades.

The tributes were led by Henry Allingham, 112, who was in the air service, Harry Patch, 110, the last British survivor of the trench war, and Royal Navy veteran Bill Stone, 108.

Applause swelled from the crowd surrounding the Cenotaph memorial as the three old warriors were rolled out in wheelchairs into the intense sunlight.

Allingham said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that he was determined to be at the Cenotaph monument for the two-minute silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

"I want everyone to know," he said. "They died for us."

Allingham's chin slumped on his chest as his wreath was laid, a poignant evocation of the familiar lines said at British Remembrances: "They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn."

Some 5 million people served in the British forces during the war.

Patch was called up in 1916, and fought at the Battle of Passchendaele, which he has described as "mud, mud and more mud mixed together with blood." He was seriously injured in 1917 when a shell exploded near him, killing three of his closest friends.

Patch, a machine-gunner in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, gave his verdict on the conflict at a veterans' event last month: "It was not worth it, it was not worth one, let alone all the millions (who died)," he said.

'We were all victims'
Stone joined the navy in September 1918, and was still in training when the war ended. He remained in the service to see action in World War II, including the evacuation of Dunkirk and the invasion of Sicily.

"I am very happy to be here today," Stone said Tuesday. "It is not just an honor for me but for an entire generation."

"It is important to remember the dead from both sides of the conflict. Irrespective of the uniforms we wore, we were all victims."

Dennis Goodwin, chairman of the World War One Veterans' Association, said the three men were a symbol of human resilience.

"These men suffered the horrors of a war and they had to then face a life of uncertainty — the Great Depression and the aftermath of the war," Goodwin said before the ceremony.

"They had little or no help for any of the traumas they suffered and no help from the government, and they created our generation."

The Cenotaph — literally "empty tomb" — monument was designed by the architect Edward Lutyens and was erected as a temporary wood and plaster structure for the first Remembrance Sunday in 1919. The Portland stone monument that stands today was built the following year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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