In France, It’s Still Called Armistice Day…
The war memorial in our little village in Champagne is much like the war memorials found in every little village in France I’ve ever been in: on three sides of the base are carved the names of those who gave their lives “pour la France” during World War I. And on the fourth side, the names of those lost in World War II.
The German invasion of France in 1940, just 22 years after the end of World War I, was achieved with stunning speed. And forever after the French have endured shallow, frivolous jokes about that defeat, which was of course anything but funny.
Today on my Facebook page I shared a tweet from Gérard Araud, French Ambassador to the U.S,, reminding us all of the massive loss of life France suffered in both World War I and II (“Per capita, French casualties were 30 times higher than the US ones during WWI and 5 times higher during WWII….”)
One of my Facebook friends, Thierry Boussard, responded to the Ambassador’s tweet, adding:
That context can be read in the long lists of war dead that every little village in France suffered in World War I. More French soldiers died in WWI than American soldiers in all wars put together. The French lost a whole generation of brave young man defending their country against a ruthless invader. The survivors were nicknamed “the broken faces”. This explains a lot about what was to happen in WWII. This shows how educated one is when one makes “white flag waving” jokes about the French army.
It is an eloquent rebuttal to all those “white flag waving” jokes, and a poignant reminder of the terrible human toll that World War I wrought, particularly in France.
Today I attended the Armistice Day commemoration in our little village. It began at the mairie with the presentation of the flag, and proceeded to the war memorial in the place de l’église. There each of the names on the memorial was read aloud, and after each name “Mort pour la France!” was shouted. A proclamation from the Minister of Defense was read, and flowers were laid at the base of the statue.
From there the défilé proceeded to the cemetery, where solemn tribute was paid in the section dedicated to the war dead, and more flowers were laid.
Tonight, just as I was wondering about when or why or how Armistice Day came to be known as Veterans Day, quite by chance I came across this quote by Kurt Vonnegut, from Breakfast of Champions.
So this book is a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not.
So I will throw Veterans’ Day over my shoulder. Armistice Day I will keep. I don’t want to throw away any sacred things…
What I witnessed this morning in our village was simple, dignified, moving.
And yes. It was sacred.
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor, and teacher of literature based in Washington D.C. She spends as much time as she can in France.