Alister Aldridge’s new publication takes us back in time, the true events take place in a small market town in the heart of Burgundy.

Arnay-le-Duc 1912

In September 1912, the small town of Arnay-le-Duc, in Burgundy, was transformed into a magnificent artificial garden to welcome thousands of visitors. Among them were dozens of senators, members of Parliament, and mayors. The association of 5 agricultural unions organized a series of festivities for 3 days to honour farmers and the rural populations. Dances, concerts, an agricultural fair, gymnastics shows, fireworks, and an award ceremony for the veterans of the Franco-Prussian were on the program.

However, the highlight of the festivities was the coming of a pilot and his plane. Most people had never seen a plane or dreamed of witnessing one landing and taking off in their town.

It was not just any pilot, the young man was a child of Arnay-le-Duc. A student of Louis Blériot and a record breaker, François Deroye was one of the most promising French pilots, and he was as excited to show off his skills to his friends and family as they were to see him fly.

But these joyful festivities were much more than what they seemed. Behind every activity were deep political implications.

The First World War broke out barely 2 years later.

The population of Arnay-le-Duc woke up with excitement on Saturday 14 September 1912. The temperature was cool, but the sun was there. It stopped raining 2 days ago and the forecast was favourable. It was not yet the time to rejoice and relax, however, as there were many things left to do. Everyone was in a hurry to finish their work before the arrival of the first visitors.

Electricians, gardners, and plasterers bustled to finish the last preparations. Some pines still needed to be planted, triumphal arches to be erected, and electrical lights checked. It was a difficult labour and it was done under the watchful eyes of the members of the committee, the unions, and diverse societies. The population of Arnay remained faithful to the motto of the city: Arneti laeta juventus, the joyful youth of Arnay!

It was worth all the hard work. In a few hours, the gigantic bird of wood and silk would fly over town and land near the Fouché pond. The arrival of the plane, that marvel of science, was a unique event which surely would be remembered for many years. Everything was rigorously organized to make an impression on both the young and the old.

The people could dream for 3 days, and forget everyday problems and difficulties as their sight was firmly set on the conquered sky. Gymnasts flaunted their athleticism for all to see performing stunts and jumps. Farmers presented their knowledge of animals and plants showing off their prize specimens.

Inventors displayed their new machines hoping they would soon be on the market. Even domestics and farmhands, by far the lowest of social conditions, were allowed to gain recognition in front of the local aristocrats and bourgeois.

Everyone was hoping to earn some money and to prove that they were the best at what they did. People wished to have fun, to hear and see the brass bands play, to dance at the ball, and to admire the fireworks and the plane. All of it was done in honour of the countryside and rural populations; all done in honour of the Republic and its citizen-soldiers.

It was the Belle Epoque when tomorrow still seemed brighter than yesterday.

Read the complete story in French