Did Poincare Laugh in Verdun Cemetery?

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Star Weekly/August 12, 1912

Paris.-Did Premier Poincare really laugh in the cemetery at Verdun when the United States government decorated the martyred city?

Whether M. Poincare laughed or not, the pictures taken of him at the time caused the French Communist party to launch a bitter attack on the premier, brought forth a white-hot denial from M. Poincare, caused a debate in the Chamber of Deputies, threw France into an uproar and also resulted in the country being flooded with postcards.

The picture published with this article was issued by the French Com­munist party in the form of a postcard, and first made its appearance at one of the Sunday Communist meetings held in the country outside of Paris. It shows M. Poincare and United States Ambassador Herrick walk­ing in the cemetery at Verdun and shows both M. Poincare and the ambassador apparently laughing heartily. The Communists, who had always accused M. Poincare of a great share in the responsibility for the war, issued the card with a flamboyant inscription, calling it “The Man Who Laughs” and saying that “Poincare, like other murderers, returns to the scene of his crimes.” 

In a short time the Communist headquarters had sold over 100,000 of the postcards. The matter came to a head in the Chamber of Deputies when a young Communist deputy smiled at some remark of M. Poincare’s in regard to Communist propaganda in the French colonies in Northern Africa.

“YOU smile?” said M. Poincare.

“Yes, I smile,” said Vaillant-Coutourier, the young deputy who was one of the great war heroes of France, “but I do not laugh in the cemetery of Verdun!”

M. Poincare went white with rage, and denounced the postcard as a fake and demanded that the entire matter be cleared up with an interpella­tion. That is, that the Communists accuse him publicly from the floor, and that he answer.

“I never laughed in the cemetery at Verdun,” M. Poincare said, denying the charge absolutely and categorically. “The explanation of the matter is that the sun got into my eyes and twisted my face so that it looked as though I were laughing. M. Poincare has stuck to his explanation through thick and thin.

An interesting Toronto angle to the story appears here in the fact that the Star on July 22, in their picture page, published, long before there was any controversy or before the Communists had issued their postcard, a picture of Ambassador Herrick and M. Poincare, taken at the same cere­mony as the picture that has caused the great trouble. The Star’s picture shows Ambassador Herrick obviously laughing but whether M. Poincare is smiling must be left to the judgment of the reader.

According to the French papers, Ambassador Herrick gave two expla­nations of the affair. The papers first quote him as saying that of course he did not laugh, and after being shown the picture as saying, “Perhaps something I said to M. Poincare made him laugh.”

There are two divergent explanations already. M. Poincare says he did not laugh.

Ambassador Herrick says perhaps something he said to M. Poincare made him laugh.
Now comes a third explanation. A movie photographer who was present on the occasion says that he was hurrying to get in front of Poincare and Herrick ;rnd was running along with his tripod when he slipped and fell sprawling and both the French premier and the ambassador laughed heartily at his ridiculous plight.

Whatever the explanation, the incident, the debate in the Chamber of Deputies, and the postal card have raised a furor in France. Over 200,000 of the postcards have been sold and they are selling at present at the rate of 15,000 a day. Communists charge that those sent through the mail are being destroyed, but those familiar with the French policy of complete freedom of speech i 11 politics doubt this. At any rate they have made their appearance in England.

“What if M. Poincare did laugh at the cemetery?” many people will ask. “Anyone might have laughed accidentally. What is all the furor about anyway?”

To understand all that you must realize the French attitude toward the dead. It is safe to say that no living man in France today commands as much respect as any dead man does.
Marshal Foch, Anatole France, Henri Barbusse, M. Poincare or the Pope could never, any one of them, receive the united respect of all the people they would meet if they drove two blocks clown the Champs-Elysees. There are too many people with too many divergent political, religious and ethical views in France for any one person to be a complete national hero. But everyone in a motor bus, regardless of religion or politics, takes off their hats when the bus passes a hearse, even if it is a draggled black hearse with only one mourner walking behind. Even the caps of the motormen and chauffeurs come off when they pass a funeral.

It is that great spirit of respect for the dead, coupled with the significance of Verdun, that has given the question of whether M. Poincare laughed or not the national prominence that it holds.

(Source: William White, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Dateline: Toronto. Simon and Schuster, 2002.)

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