We spent Armistice Day in the small Breton village of La Feuillee in northern France. In the UK the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month is a sombre event, filled with military aplomb. It begins promptly at 11:00 with a silence to commemorate the fallen. Most cities hold large memorial services at their cenotaphs and poppies are worn as a mark of respect. We experienced a similar atmosphere watching the ANZAC parade in Australia. In France, Armistice Day is more of a celebration than a memorial. The French have a public holiday and celebrate their freedom and liberation.
We walked into the village at around 10:50 not entirely sure what to expect and hoping we weren’t late. Our first port of call was the war memorial, which had been adorned with tricolours. On our way towards it we noticed most other people were walking in the opposite direction so we turned on our heels and followed them. We reached the council offices and saw a group of people were gathered outside. We were unsure if we were in the right place as people were calling out to one another, children were shouting and playing, no one seemed to be respecting or remembering anything.
We stood back from the crowd and observed, still trying to work out if we had accidentally arrived at a birthday party or school outing. At 11:00 the church bells rang, our backs stiffened and our heads bowed, ready to contemplate the sacrifice of the fallen. It soon became clear we were the only ones observing the silence. The French villagers continued calling to one another, greeting each other with kisses and chatting. Cars were still arriving and late comers continued to walk up the road from the village with no sense of urgency. We decided to break our silence with a debate about GMT. Perhaps the service was at 12:00 in France due to the time difference. The church bells rang again and it looked like something was happening. It would appear that the French start their commemoration at 11:10, being fashionably late as ever.
Two children were selected to carry a wreath and two gentlemen wore holsters to carry large French flags. An important looking man we assumed to be the mayor, wore a tricolour sash and everyone, including us, began walking towards the village. The jovial mood persisted with everyone talking amongst themselves and having a great time. When we reached the cenotaph, we gathered around and listened to the children sing. Our limited French picked out “les enfants” and “l’oiseau.” Something about children and birds. Next the mayor gave a speech we didn’t understand and introduced the crowd to an elderly gentleman. He also gave a speech we didn’t understand, although we think he mentioned Gallipoli. A short silence followed, it may have been scheduled as a mark of respect or it may have just been that no one knew what was meant to happen next. The children sang another song, or possibly the same one again. Then it was all over.
The villagers walked back to the council building to continue their liberation celebrations with a big party. We couldn’t quite get our heads around it so decided to nip into the Boulangerie for a baguette and a pain au choc.
Being used to the pomp and ceremony of Armistice Day in the UK, the French version was an odd experience for us. It was refreshing to see celebration rather than mourning, but it also felt a bit like we were cheating. Perhaps the difference in how France and the UK choose to mark the day says something profound about their cultures. Perhaps if we had understood more French we would have gained more from the ceremony. Even so, it was certainly interesting to see a different way to commemorate the end of the Great War.