Remembrance Day in France

Symbol of Flanders fields

Symbol of Flanders fields

If you went to any French village today you will have seen the commemoration of Armistice Day. At 11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, the guns finally fell silent and, after a brief eruption of euphoria, the world started to count the cost. This day has come to symbolise the sacrifice of French citizens in all wars. Next year, of course, is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the ‘war to end wars’. The centenary commemorations (you can hardly describe them as celebrations) have already started in France, launched by President Hollande last week.

The crushing weight of the casualties marked French society throughout the 20th century. Out of a total 40 million population, 1.4 million French died, equating to 900 deaths for each day of the war. More than a quarter of the 18-27 age group lost their lives. 600,000 widows and one million orphans were left behind. Two-thirds of French families lost a close relative.

Numbers on a page don’t signify much until you realise what the losses must have meant to individual French communities. Not far from us, the tiny commune of Espinas counted 508 inhabitants in 1911. Ten years later, it had 436. The monument des morts (war memorial) is a grim litany of loss. The same family names recur over and over again. It’s a similar story throughout the French countryside.

Is it any surprise, therefore, that French women are given medals for bearing huge numbers of children? After 1918 the imperative was to build up the numbers again – as fast as possible. The epidemic of Spanish flu at the end of the war intensified the need for replacement. A century on, despite the huge changes that have taken place in French society, the necessity for replacement still hangs on.

The countryside took the brunt of the fatalities. Agricultural workers were massively conscripted into the infantry. By contrast, part of the cohort of industrial workers was drafted into the manufacturing effort necessary to keep the war machine running. As a result, they were partially shielded from the cataclysm.

Women played their part in keeping things going. I wrote a while ago about a letter that turned up by chance, written by a farmer’s wife in Espinas during World War I. She tells her husband what crops she has been sowing and how the farm is doing. She expresses some pride in her ability to run the farm.

Despite their efforts, French women didn’t get a lot out of it. Britain granted women the vote in 1918, partly in recognition of their war work. In France, women’s place in society reverted to its pre-war state in 1918 and they had to wait until 1944 for the right to vote.

By many accounts, fictional as well as factual, those who returned from the front lines did not speak of their ordeals. They simply wanted, if possible, to forget. The next generation was brought up against the backdrop of this silence. And then it started all over again in 1939; the 20 years in between were just a truce. It’s only the third generation after World War I that has enough distance to question and investigate what happened.

But I fear that the forthcoming blizzard of books, films, documentaries, exhibitions, visits to the battlefields etc. – not to mention the tacky commemorative items – risk turning the war into a Disney-type tourist attraction and thus satiating our appetite for understanding. Inevitably, history moves on and our perception of it is distorted accordingly. Nobody is alive today who fought in the so-called Great War. The last French poilu (colloquial name for ‘soldier’, lit. hairy one) died in 2008. By an unfortunate irony, Lazare Ponticelli was a naturalised Italian. A few thousand very elderly people are still alive who would have lived through the war. But they would have been too young to know or understand much about it at the time. Now, the only records we have are documentary or secondary.

Even the place of World War II in modern history is becoming hazy to its own third generation. Not long ago, a young person asked me if the massacre by Das Reich at Oradour-sur-Glane (1944) happened recently.

Perhaps one of the tragedies of history is that those who were there would prefer to forget while those who weren’t there have only a partial or distorted view.

Poppies

Copyright © 2013 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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14 Responses to Remembrance Day in France

  1. Deborah says:

    Beautiful post, Vanessa. “The countryside took the brunt of the fatalities.” The memorials in small towns and villages are ever poignant.

    • nessafrance says:

      Thanks, Deborah. They remain poignant, even so long afterwards. I don’t quite know what it is about WWI that caught the imagination so much. My husband and I had a discussion today about whether people in the early 20th century would have commemorated the Napoleonic Wars that took place a century before. Or are we more attuned to historical investigation now?

  2. Sue Whatmough says:

    Thank you for a very moving post. In UK, the last surviving WW1 serviceman was Harry Patch, who died in 2009 aged a hundred and eleven! He said “War isn’t worth one life.” I agree. I think it’s right we should be remembering all who have died fighting in wars, particularly those who have family members still alive and recent history should be part of the education of the young. Sad no-one pays tribute to all the horses who died in WW1, but then I imagine they were considered even more expendable than the soldiers who were sent out to the front line.
    As for next year’s ‘commemoration’ – I fear as you do, that there will be usual tasteless and distressing commercialisation of the event.

    • nessafrance says:

      I saw a programme about Harry Patch when he visited the battlefields and met a German former soldier. It was a very moving moment – and all about reconciliation. As you rightly say, animals played a big part in WWI, including horses, donkeys and dogs. They are the unsung heroes. I think we will all be thoroughly fed up with the commercialisation by the end of next year.

  3. Alison Gabbitas says:

    We live in a small commune in the Lot et Garonne and each November 11th there is a ceremony at the war memorial when the maire reads a letter from the Minister for the Ancient Combatants and then each name from the memorial is read out followed by those attending, saying “Mort pour la France”. The ceremony for the end of WW2 is commemorated by a letter from the Minister for the Defence, and as before, all the names are read out. WW1 claimed about twenty lives from our tiny commune of Beauziac, 4 men lost their lives in WW2. The effect on a small area like ours must have been catastrophic as several names indicate the same family lost men.

    • nessafrance says:

      The village commemoration ceremonies are moving. One of our local villages is near a military camp and, of course, they send representatives to the ceremony each year. I wonder how much longer they will continue to commemorate the dead of the World Wars.

      At this remove, it’s difficult to imagine just how catastrophic the effect must have been. Rural depopulation was already starting but the war contributed massively to it. Today, I stopped off at another nearby village and looked at the war memorial. They had around 900 inhabitants in 1914 and lost 43 (5%) in WWI. But, of course, they were the younger generation. Several families lost two members but one lost three. Six died in WW2.

  4. David Kennedy Ralph says:

    Powerful writing. unrelated to this piece but I am Irish and like many Irish people I had a great uncle who died in WW1. Both wars are not remembered in Ireland. I am afraid Ireland it is a very inward looking country with its head stuck firmly in the sand.

    • nessafrance says:

      I imagine that the troubled history between Ireland and Britain is partly responsible as well. To my shame, I know very little about the Irish contribution to either war but your comment has prompted me to find out more – especially as one of my grandmothers was Irish but I discovered that only a few years ago.

      • David Kennedy Ralph says:

        Ireland was still part of Great Britten in 1914 and the link below states that “In all, about 210,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during World War One… Some 35,000 Irish died”. This is a lot of people to forget about. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/britain_wwone/ireland_wwone_01.shtml
        Ireland has a strange history over the last 100 years. After English rule ended and up until around 1970 it was led by an Irish American and the catholic church – a strange kind of repression. Very much out of the frying pan into the fire. But all in all Ireland is still very similar to England.

      • nessafrance says:

        Thanks for the information and the link, which I shall follow up. My grandmother was one of a large family and I wonder if they lost any sons in World War I. She was born sometime in the late 1890s so the timing would have been right. I shall have to look into all this further.

  5. What a tragic loss of life. They organise school trips to battlefields in Normandy and the children are visibly moved. My niece went by coach from Scotland. They visit a trench, graveyards and exhibitions. Your article is very well written. The statistic are unbelievable.

  6. susancarey says:

    They’re anticipating a tourist boom in Belgium, making cups, chocolates and even booze decorated with poppies. Hotels are building on extra rooms and are taking bookings for 2015 already. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-24842067
    There’s a very cynical saying in Dutch; ‘de ene zijn dood is de ander zijn brood,’ which roughly translated means, one man’s death is another man’s source of income.

    • nessafrance says:

      That’s what I’m afraid of. Distance makes what happened seem almost unreal. No one now knows what it was like to be there and it becomes a fun day out. Hopefully there will be some sober reflection about it all, too.

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