Today is Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11th November, the day the Armistice came into force in 1918. Tomorrow is a public holiday in France, and remembrance ceremonies will take place at war memorials throughout the country. Wearing a poppy is common in the UK, symbolising the blood that flowed and the flowers that grew “in Flanders fields”. The French equivalent, le bleuet, or cornflower, is less well known.
Artificial cornflowers, le Bleuet de France, are sold around 8th May (the end of World War II in Europe) and 11th November. The funds raised go to former combatants, war widows and orphans and soldiers wounded in wartime or during terrorist attacks. However, in my experience, you see bleuets less in France than the equivalent British poppy. Apparently, the sale of bleuets raises about 1 million euros per year, whereas the Royal British Legion raises around 50 million from the sale of poppies.
Significance in World War I
The bleuet holds significance for World War I on several levels. First, along with the poppy, it was the only splash of colour amid the grey and brown of the trenches and battlefields. It persisted in growing in soil churned up by shells. In fact, cornflowers grow better in soil that has been disturbed than in permanent meadows.
World War I jargon
Second, the term “bleuet” described the new conscripts who were old enough to take up arms in 1917 and were sent to the Battle of the Chemin des Dames. In the language of flowers, the cornflower symbolises innocence and naïveté .
The battle started in April 1917 as a French offensive under the command of General Nivelle and resulted in heavy losses for comparatively small gains. The failure of le Chemin des Dames offensive was a significant factor in the mutinies that spread among the French ranks that year.
The fresh-faced conscripts wore clean, new blue-grey uniforms, which had replaced the former, much too conspicuous uniforms of 1914, with their bright red trousers that invited sniper fire. The experienced “poilus” wore the same blue uniforms, of course, but somewhat more battle-stained and trench-muddied.
Le Bleuet de France
The manufacture of bleuets was the initiative of two women: one was a senior nurse in the military hospital of Les Invalides and a war widow; the other was the wife of a general. Their aim was to give wounded and disabled soldiers an active place in society, so they set up workshops in 1916 to make bleuets out of cloth and paper. The proceeds from the sale of bleuets provided a small income for the men.
During the 1920s, the bleuet became the official symbol of those morts pour la France during World War I. This was later extended to World War II and then, in 2012, to all those who have died in combat pour la France.
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