Armistice Day In Northern France

Armistice Day In Northern France

posted in: France | 15

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.

Remembrance Day

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.

War Memorial

15 Responses

  1. It sounds like a nice holiday to appreciate a celebration of liberation. Who knew that not too long after this special day, the country would be in an upheaval that also affects the whole world. I don’t know if it would be appropriate to say, “Ce la vie,” because life shouldn’t be such that! Thanks for the like of Still Life in Paris and the follow. You’ve got a great blog going here. How original is that? A lesbian comedy duo creating uproar and raucous wherever they go? Just ribbing with you, of course. I hope the recent events in Paris and Beirut won’t discourage you from traveling. I know it won’t me. In this case, I’ll say, “Life must go on!”

    • Wandering Wives

      It’s terrible that we were stood side by side with the French people as they celebrated their liberation, then just two days later the attack in Paris happened. It won’t change our plans, we are actually going to Paris on the 30th to see the Christmas markets. I think security will be quite intense as it is the same time as the COP21 conference. The spirit in the country at the moment is very much “life must go on” so I will echo your sentiment.

  2. Thanks for the follow. Yours is an interesting journey and the photography is marvellous. Reading your about page, I found myself nodding in agreement about being saddled with enormous debt in the current economic climate. However, you girls are young and I would rather trade places with you than face each day restricted because of mobility issues.

  3. Yes I agree the French commemoration is defintiely different to our ANZAC Day here in Australia…no better or worse just different…thank you for sharing your experience as it was interesting to read,

  4. Wonderful to hear about your trip and insight. I’ve written a few poems over the years about WWI in France but always from the American soldier’s view. The French soldiers and civilians lived the entire history of the regions fought in. The other soldiers were only there for a relatively short while.

    • Wandering Wives

      I think it’s the same for all of us to see things from the perspective of our own people. We learnt a lot about WW1 and WW2 at school and from our grandparents but this was mostly about wartime in Britain. It’s good to travel and see things from a different angle.
      When we were in Vietnam we went to the prison in Hanoi where American servicemen were imprisoned. Their take on the treatment of American prisoners is likely very different than the American perspective!

  5. Yes, perception and interpretation differs, and French and English are very different kind of people. Though I haven’t seen their cultures from close quarters but being from India (erstwhile British Colony) and a new student of French language I have realized how different people can be on even the most commonest of things.

    Your blog is very good, helps me travel world in my mind, keep sharing.. 🙂

  6. I love this post (thanks Osyth!). It sums up very nicely what happens any time I attend an event in France: confusion reigns, you have to figure out who’s who…and it’s such an odd combination of ceremony and festivity. It is true that 11 novembre is associated with celebration and victory in France but it is also a question of a very different culture and approach to life.

  7. Interesting post. Maybe it has something to do with the difference between being conquered and then experiencing freedom. Or maybe it was just because it’s a small town, not a big city – less formality.

  8. I too had an ancestor who fought in France. Your story is an interesting insight.

  9. I found this so interesting. I have just been blogging all sorts of sad things in remembrance. But yes – they were liberated – of course. Thanks so much for that

  10. Thank you for your great article sharing your experiences on how France and its people celebrate today. Thanks for visiting my blog and liking my post on Remembrance Day (in Canada) too.

  11. My Grandpa was a Vimy Vet- I oft wonder how many others this wise, gentle soul killed when so young. He lived to be 97, and rarely spoke of the war.

  12. Such a delightful read for me! I just posted on my blog a piece about my family and Remembrance Day–my grandfather was a bugler in World War I on the front line in France so it’s nice to read your piece that brings some levity to the day. Thanks very much. 🙂

  13. Interesting perspective on the various ways nations commemorate the end of the war. In Canada, like the UK, Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion, a time for people to reflect on the sacrifices others have made in the service to their country. I suppose some of the difference has something to do with which side of the fight you’re on; if your nation has been held captive for years, it make sense to celebrate your liberation and freedom. One of the things I noticed while in France was the number of monuments and plaques that adorn villages and roadsides. These people live with the war, the battles, the aftermath every day they may not need the same solemn occasions that we, who are so far away from the events, do.

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