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Service Civil International

Peace in Esnes, a hundred years later

by Paolo Maddoni (Sep 12, 2020)

pmaddoni_2020_esnes1I ended my trip to France by bike on 22 August 2020, in the afternoon, at a secluded high-speed railway station in the middle of the Meuse River department, some forty kilometres from Verdun. It was the first all-bike trip in my life, at the age of 58. Alone. No experience, then. Bad, to have too much luggage, too heavy on the bike and on my back. Bad, not to be familiar with mobile devices, internet maps, satellite orientation. Good instead to trust the paper maps. Good especially being able to talk that little bit of French useful to ask for information when I got lost, three times...

Good to find out that I have still have good legs. Good to have good luck with the weather, only a few drops of rain in eight days. Good to have a personal purpose for the trip, beyond just spending holidays. Very good to have reached it!

In the spring I had been part of the project 2020 SCI peace bike tour, the idea of putting together old and new volunteers to celebrate a century of history of the Service Civil International. A group of thirty people were supposed to go from Amsterdam to Brussels, starting on 17th August, the date of Pierre Ceresole's birth, and passing in some places linked to camps and projects, perhaps even to Bilthoven, where in the summer of 1919, pacifists met for the first time to look each other in the face after the horror of the First World War. Everything was ready, I had painstakingly arranged my complicated and long journey with bicycle on my shoulder with trains and buses to Amsterdam but, suddenly, two weeks before meeting us, everything was erased: the COVID19 virus – so violent all over the world during the springtime – returned to become threatening in Belgium, preventing group activities. Disappointment and frustration led me to try an alternative. I already had in mind the idea of continuing after the collective tour after Brussels, if I had the strength, with a personal extension to France and trying to reach Esnes, the village where the SCI story came to life a hundred years ago. So, I kept this second part of my journey. I loaded my heavy bicycle onto a train in Rome and then onto a bus in Turin and then on another train in Paris; I also charged myself with a new energy.

I then start from the Ardennes region on August 15th, following the River Meuse towards the south, on the bike path called Voie Verte. I arrange my tour in three sections, stopping in accommodation two or three nights to turn without luggage the following days. I deliberately leave Esnes as my last destination: I want to have time to progress slowly, becoming familiar with the bike, with my journey and with my expectations. The first three days I wander easily for many kilometers in the beautiful natural park of the Ardennes between rivers and woods, on perfect and easy bike paths. A lot of quiet, few cyclists, few families. One afternoon I walk around Charlevilles, Rimbaud's hometown. The second passage is the longest, 120 kilometers to the south: remote areas in expanses of fields, no more bike path but poorly trafficked provincial roads and some challenging hills. In a guesthouse run by a Dutch couple, I randomly met other cyclists from  various countries. We had dinner together, nice to have a conversation in an international group: just like in a workcamp!

pmaddoni_2020_esnes8Last stop: on the way to the accommodation near Verdun, I meet the junction with the indication: "Esnes- en- Argonne, 6 km". A break of emotion. I hesitate, with the idea of going right away. Then I decide to lay my luggage first and on a lighter bicycle I find myself in the hottest hour of the sunniest day of the French summer to cross vast well-worked fields and small tidy villages, practically deserted, without even a bar at the junctions.

pmaddoni_2020_esnes3Finally, I see from afar the bell tower of the church of Esnes, which today is called Esnes-en-Argonne, having proudly added the name of the area, like all other neighboring countries, proud of the defence of the front in the First World War. I take a selfie at the entrance sign to the village; a white cow approaches me curiously. Few houses along the street, none in sight, not even household noises. A few meters and I arrive at a small square with flower beds, in front of the church with a sharp black roof. On one side, the small town hall. Next door, the announcement of a permanent exhibition on the 1914-1918 war and reconstruction in Esnes. I light up in front of a memorial panel: "After the war, during the 1920s, Esnes was rebuilt on the initiative of a Swiss architect named Pierre Ceresol(e) and some volunteers. It was the first village in the area to be rebuilt." It's like finding an old family photograph in a drawer!


I am immersed in silence and my thoughts. A fountain under the trees of the square offers me fresh water, a bench a little rest. The church is closed, a sign shows that in 1916 there was only one corner of the bell tower: of the houses of the village not even a wall. Reconstructed in the same place, the Italian painter Duilio Donzelli, who emigrated before the war as a labourer in Luxembourg and then expelled for his socialist activism, painted it in 1934. I take up my bike, look for the small cemetery of the village, I scroll through the older graves, where perhaps lies someone who lived in Esnes in November 1920, when the SCI volunteers arrived. On some tombstones I read the name Legay, that of the mayor of the time, (so it’ stated in the reports written by Pierre Ceresole). I do not find Biéler, the chairwoman of the Relief Committee who most of all had disputed the presence of Germans, "enemies", among SCI volunteers of the project.

pmaddoni_2020_esnes5Two kilometers ahead, I meet a large memorial cemetery of hundreds of French soldiers who all died in 1916: white crosses, all the same, in perfect geometric order, the national flag. In my days in Verdun I have met many of these military cemeteries, of both sides of enemies. In the first one of German soldiers, a tomb with the Christian cross was close to another with the Israelite star. It is hard to remind that twenty years later a Jew would no longer be allowed to join the German army.

pmaddoni_2020_esnes6 I go back to Esnes, I fill the water bottle at the fountain. I am about to leave, already satisfied that I have reached my symbolic goal, when I notice a car parked in front of the town hall, which was not there before. I do not know how; I win my shyness and take the initiative to enter the door. A small atrium, a bulletin board with notices about the prevention measures of the corona virus and the return to school. I climb wooden stairs, no one around and no voice. I see a room with the French flag, maybe that of the city council. On a door it says Secrétariat, I am about to knock when a woman suddenly opens the door and jumps backwards, frightened. When her breath comes back, I apologize and introduce myself. The lady immediately says to me, "Ah, of course the Service Civil International! Pierre Ceresole! Come on, I'll show you something.". She takes the mask and a large bunch of keys. "But, madam - I say uneasy - I would not disturb, I happened so suddenly, you are working...". “Well, I can do it, I'm the mayor!". So, I find out that she is Mrs. Véronique Adler, mayor of Esnes for a few years now. She takes me to the exhibition hall, a small room totally full of images and memories of the time of the First World War in Esnes. On a panel, a photo of Pierre Ceresole and other volunteers in front of the first wooden shelter built to allow people to return home in that winter of 1920. We have a nice conversation with the mayor, she knows the SCI experience in Esnes very well, even as it ended: "People weren't ready, yet. She would like to hold some commemorative events, either in November 2020, or next year. Someone from the international SCI has already looked for her. Then she opens for me also the small church, clean and full of paintings. Nowadays it is not used too often, there are not enough priests and yet Esnes–en-Argonne has today only 144 inhabitants, "But as many as 40 are children and adolescents", the mayor underlines proudly. Although very small, the village is alive, many people work in the area on farms or in Verdun, just about twenty kilometers away. The mayor gives me a pen and postcards of the village. I realize to be completely unprepared for that meeting, but in return I give her a blue vest, the one we had produced for the bike tour with the logo of the centennial SCI 2020.

I spent the next day visiting the immense area of the Verdun battlefield: an estimated figure of three hundred thousand soldiers - boyh sides - died in 300 days and nights of cannons exchanges in 1916, humble human flesh to counter the shooting of howitzers. A large forest grows today on the area where, still for centuries, it will be impossible to build houses or cultivate food. Several destroyed villages have never been rebuilt, their name remains only on plaques on the roads. I am pleased to think that perhaps Esnes would have been among them, without the courageous choice of Pierre Ceresole and SCI people.

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