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Armistice Day – Today We Remember

11 Nov 2020

Signing Of The Armistice, 11th November 1918 by Maurice Pillard Verneuil

November 11, 1918: After the signing of the Armistice. Foch’s chief of staff Maxime Weygand is second from left. Third from the left is the senior British representative, Sir Rosslyn Wemyss. Foch is second from the right. On the right is Admiral George Hope. | Source: Wikipedia Public Domain

A Day of Rememberance
For Those Lost
In The Great War

In the early hours of the morning on November 11th, 1918, a small group of men led by Supreme Allied Commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch met secretly in a train carriage parked in a clearing in the Forest of Compiègne, in northeastern France. Both sides had arrived three days earlier, and the Allies presented the terms of the truce. Foch gave the German delegation 72 hours to accept the agreement that would end The Great War.

At 11:00 am on the 11th day of the 11th month, the guns would finally fall silent on the Western Front after more than four years of war. Sadly, more than 11,000 soldiers and civilians were killed or injured in the final hours before the Armistice took effect. In some places, news of the cease-fire took even longer to arrive, and the full demobilization of forces was not complete until 1920. In the end, the conflict claimed 20 million lives – soldiers and civilians, and wounded another 23 million.

In an unbelievable and unfortunate series of events, the war’s end was falsely reported to media outlets abroad four days before the Armistice was actually signed. Headlines announced the peace, and celebrations broke out in the streets as the jubilant news quickly spread. By that evening, the true situation came to light. On the 8th, all the papers could do was attempt to explain the strange circumstances that led to the incredible error. Thankfully, the end of the war was actually near, and the headlines and celebrations resumed just days later.

Paris, November 11th, 1918. Everyone all but went mad on Armistice Day in Paris. Here is part of the crowd which serged about the great streets around the church of the Madeleine, and extending far down Rue Royale to Place de la Concorde. Caption from Catalogue of Official A.E.F. photographs taken by the Signal Corps, U.S.A., |  Source: Library of Congress

“Am I dreaming? I wonder if I am… As soon as I realize how happy I am,
I think of my brother and sister, both victims of the war, and my eyes mist over.”

“More than ever I am convinced that the war is over. The weapons have been put down: they will not be picked up again. I still have much to write, but finally the whir of the shells and the whistling of the bullets are over.”

French soldier Sergeant Major Alfred Roumiguieres, 343rd infantry regiment, upon learning of the Armistice

Northeastern France and Belgium bore the brunt of the battles on the Western front. Near Verdun, where intense shelling raged for over 300 days, more than 500,000 French soldiers perished. Nearly 500 square miles of French countryside remain so contaminated and transfigured that the area is restricted to this day. The French government declared this ‘Zone Rouge’, red zone, too dangerous and too expensive to rebuild after the war. Live shells, barbed wire, and the remnants of war still linger in the cracks and crevices of the former battlefields, intermingled with moss and grass as nature slowly reclaims the cratered surfaces.

Nine villages within the red zone were left wholly decimated. Road signs identify them as ‘village détruit’ – destroyed village. These ghost villages retain their status as official communes and bear testament to the history that unfolded there. They endure as sacred places that ‘died for France’ and serve as a poignant visual reminder of the war.

For France, the toll in human life was staggering; more than 4% of its population lost in just over four years.

  • 1,357,000 Soldiers Killed
  • 4,266,000 Soldiers Wounded
  • 40,000 Civilian Deaths from Military Actions
  • Hundreds of thousands more from Malnourishment & Disease

Looking back through the lens of history, the idealistic reference to WWI as ‘The War to End All Wars’ may seem naive, but it’s not hard to imagine the appeal of the sentiment at the time, and its usefulness in rallying soldiers to war. Ultimately, the Allies had to extend the Armistice of November 1918 multiple times until the war officially ended with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919. Sadly, in just 20 short years, another generation would be on the battlefields of Europe in the deadliest war in human history, WWII.

Tribute To The Fallen: Battle Of The Somme filmed at the THIEPVAL MEMORIAL (Nimrod – Grimethorpe Colliery Band) |  Video by Woutre

After the first anniversary of the WWI cease-fire, Armistice Day became an annual day of remembrance in France. In 1922 it became an official public holiday. Post-WWII, the holiday was expanded to pay tribute to all who served and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for France.

In 1938 the U.S. made Veteran’s Day an official holiday. Britain observed November 11th as Armistice Day from 1919-1945. During WWII, the holiday was renamed Remembrance Sunday and moved to the 2nd Sunday of November.

In the U.S. and U.K., the red poppy is worn to honor war veterans. In France, it’s ‘le bleuet,’ the blue cornflower that adorns lapels and is considered France’s official remembrance flower. Like the poppy, the cornflower is a wildflower that bloomed on the battlefields of France. To the soldiers, it was a symbol of hope and beauty among the horrors of war. Its blue color is a nod to the French Soldiers’ blue uniforms. Today, proceeds from the sale of cloth bleuets go to support Veterans organizations.

A war amputee selling bleuets on the Champs-Élysées, 4 July 1919. | Source: Wikimedia Public Domain

The last surviving French Veteran of WWI, Lazare Ponticelli, passed away in 2008, aged 110. An Italian by birth, he moved to Paris as a young child and found work as a chimney sweep and newspaper boy. When the war broke out in 1914, he lied about his age and enlisted in the French Foreign Legion at age 16. He went on to serve in both the French and Italian armies. After the war, he returned to Paris and became a French citizen. He participated in the annual Armistice Day ceremonies until 2007, a year before his death.

In France today, the Armistice is commemorated annually with solemn ceremonies and military parades across the country. Nearly every commune in France has a war memorial in the city-center listing the names of those who died for France. A minute of silence is observed at 11:00 am, marking the time the cease-fire took effect.

In Paris, the French President pays tribute to George Clemenceau, the Prime Minister of France during the Great war, by laying a wreath beneath his statue in the garden of the Petit Palais. A procession continues up the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe where a massive French flag hangs from the center of the arch, waving above the Veterans, dignitaries, and spectators gathered to observe the ceremonies. The President lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, rekindles the eternal flame, and leads a moment of silence. A review of the troops and a military parade along the Champs Élysées creates a striking display of pageantry and tradition. A solemn evening vigil at the Tomb of the Unknown concludes the day’s events. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, officials canceled the 2020 parade and scaled-back events throughout the country.

November 11th, 2020, Armistice Day Observed in Paris  |  Video by France 24 [English 3:21]

This year, France bestowed its highest honor on World War I Veteran and writer Maurice Genevoix by inducting his remains into the Panthéon on Wednesday. The somber ceremony featured dramatic imagery from the war projected on the Panthéon’s facade and interiors combined with readings from the young soldier’s memoirs from the front. After the war, Genevoix compiled his writings into a book entitled ‘Ceux de 14’, Those of 14. He also went on to spearhead the creation of the Memorial of Verdun in the 1960s. The memorial and military museum pays homage to both the French and German combatants and the civilians lost during the Battle of Verdun.

Excerpt from ‘Neath Verdun by Maurice Genevoix

Wednesday, September 9th, 1914.

“Not a wink of sleep. The noise of the shells hurtling through the air is constantly in my ears, while the acrid and suffocating fumes of explosives haunt my nostrils. Scarcely yet is it midnight before I receive orders to depart. I emerge from the trusses of wheat and rye among which I had ensconced myself. Bits of stalk have slipped down my collar and up my sleeves, and tickle me all over. The night is so dark that we stumble over the stones and irregularities of the ground. We pass very close to some 120’s drawn up behind us; I hear the voices of the artillerymen, but only with difficulty can I distinguish the heavy, sleeping guns.

Rations are distributed en route with no other light than that of a camp lantern which gives forth but a faint glow. The feeble yellow light stains with brown patches the portions of raw meat cut up in the dusty grass of the roadside.

A march across fields, a march of somnambulists, mechanical, legs light as down, heads heavy as lead. It seems to last for hours and hours. And we are always bearing to the left; at day-break, I assure myself, we shall have returned to our point of departure. Little by little the shadows rise, enabling me to recognize the Vauxmarie Road, the wrecked ammunition carts, the dead horses.”

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”

– LAURENCE BINYON, ENGLISH POET

Sunlight on the craters and regrown woods on the World War 1 battleground, Vimy Ridge, France | Photo by Tim Gurney Dreamstime.com

2020 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Unknown Soldiers’ burial beneath the Arc de Triomphe. The idea of a memorial for the unidentified fallen was first discussed during the war. After the Armistice, several bills were proposed but progressed no further until September of 1919 when an official plan emerged to bury one of France’s unknown in the Pantheon. There was much disagreement between the government and Veterans groups about the choice of the Pantheon. On November 2nd, 1920, after a fierce media campaign, public pressure convinced the government to change the location to the Arc de Triomphe. Knowing the British planned to inter one of their lost sons into Westminster Abbey on November 11th, the French government moved quickly. In just six days, they officially designated the Arc de Triomphe as the memorial site, approved the funds, and prepared for the arrival of the Unknown Soldier’s remains in Paris.

On the eve of the Armistice’s second anniversary, at the Citadel of Verdun, a young infantryman was tasked with choosing from eight unidentified coffins from eight symbolic battles of the war. He added the digits of his infantry unit 132 to arrive at the number six, thereby deciding which soldier’s remains would travel to Paris aboard a private train later that evening. The next day, a procession carried his body first to the Pantheon, then on to Arc de Triomphe, where he remained in a chapel within the arch until construction of the memorial tomb we see today was completed the following January.

Ceremonies of November 11, 1920, the decorated chariot carrying Gambetta’s heart and the cannon carrying the coffin of the unknown soldier in front of the Arc de Triomphe | Source gallica.bnf.fr

This year, to commemorate the centenary of the Unknown Soldier’s procession from Verdun to Paris, a group of French soldiers retraced the 1920 route on foot, running over 300km while carrying the remembrance torch to the Tomb of the Unknown.

Today we remember. We remember the Armistice that ended WWI, we pay tribute to the fallen, and we honor all of the Veterans who served and sacrificed throughout our history so we may continue to live free.

N’oublion jamais.

Let us never forget.

VISIT

Arc de Triomphe
Arc de Triumph, Paris

Musée de l’Armée, Museum of the Army, Paris

Musée de l’Armistice
Museum of the Armistice, Compiègne, France

Mémorial de Verdun
Memorial of Verdun, Fleury-devant-Douaumont, France

 

WATCH

LISTEN

Verdun! On ne passe pas! In French with English subtitles.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  |  KRISTIN BLAKEMAN

I help others discover France’s storied destinations with curated travel experiences. I divide my time between Chicago and France where I’m always in search of exceptional experiences to share with my clients and the armchair travelers who journey with me via my blog I Dream in French.

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