This coming Sunday, it will be Armistice Day and this year has a very special significance with it being 100 years since that very first eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day when World War 1 was finally brought to a close. When the Germans agreed to sign the Armistice in an old railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne about 35km north of Paris.
In the UK it’s easy to tell that this commemorative date is not so far off as, about two weeks before, everyone starts wearing a red poppy. And here in France, as if spotting a Brit wasn’t easy enough, at this time of year the wearing of the little red flower makes it all the more obvious.
There is an equivalent here in France although it is isn’t seen very often. The bleuet, which is the French word for a cornflower, is the French symbol to remember soldiers, victims of war and their families. You’ll see our gorgeous President Macron wearing one on the 11th of November.
The cornflower represents delicacy and hope, and as with the poppy, the little blue flowers were the only signs of life in the fields of northern France after fighting obliterated the landscape. The name ‘bleuet’ was also given to soldiers for their blue uniforms as they went off to fight in the war. The name was so well known that Alphonse Bourgoin wrote the following about them in 1916.
These here, these little “Bleuets”
These Bleuets colour of the sky
Are beautiful, gay, stylish
Because they are not afraid.
Merrily, go forward
Go on, my friends, so long!
Good luck for you, little “blues”
Little “bleuets”, you are our hope!
A few years later, bleuet badges were sold in a similar scheme to remembrance poppies although the tradition these days is not so widely observed. The badges were the brainchild of a nurse at Les Invalides, who wanted to find a new purpose for injured soldiers who were in rehabilitation, so they were first produced by war veterans in specially organised workshops and this actually pre-dates the production of poppies.
Although it seems very British to wear a poppy, the tradition actually came about thanks to four of the countries who helped make up the allied forces: Britain, Canada, the US and France. The inspiration came from the beautiful poem, “In Flanders Fields” which was written in 1915 by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian military doctor. McCrae was moved to write the poem the day after the death of one of his closest friends who was buried, along with many, many others, near the Flanders battlefield. The area was brought back to life by poppies emerging between the handmade wooden crosses marking the soldiers’ graves. This is what McCrae wrote:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poem set off a chain reaction after it was published in the English magazine ‘Punch’ which happened to be read by an American lady, Moina Michael, a university professor who came up with the idea of using the poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who died in World War 1. She started raising funds to help injured soldiers by selling silk poppies, an idea which was adopted by the American Legion Auxiliary. A Frenchwoman, Anna Guérin, was the next to pick up the baton and promoted the sale of poppies to raise money for ex-servicemen, eventually managing to persuade Field Marshal Earl Haig in 1921, to take up the idea of using the poppy as the emblem of the Royal British Legion. A team of five wounded soldiers began the first production line which has now grown to more than 100 people who annually make millions of poppies. Poppy sales are now making over €50 million each year, money which is spent on welfare, remembrance and campaigning. There are over 300,000 volunteers who help make the poppy appeal a success.
This is my seventh year as a poppy-seller for the Legion. I’m a part of the Bordeaux and South-West France Branch which has been in existence since 1935. But it is a bit of a challenge selling poppies around my neck of the woods: most French locals have no idea what they represent and while there are quite a lot of Brits who live in my area, how do you find them?
My modus operandi is to hit the local markets. To be fair, it isn’t that hard to spot English folk and they always seem very pleased to see someone selling poppies. While I won’t break any records for fundraising, I make about €150 each year. I was worried that this seemed pretty pathetic so I checked in with the branch chairman who assured me that many of the volunteers in the south-west of France made similar sums and that all added together, we make about €25,000 each year. Sounds much more impressive with all those zeros!
The reason I decided to become a poppy-seller was really down to a sort of contrition: most years I catch a bit of the remembrance service at the Cenotaph in London on TV and it moves me deeply every time. For sure, I feel sad at the obscene loss of life, a bit of anger that wars have to happen at all but mostly I feel ashamed. Ashamed that for everything those young men fought for, the world today is well….shameful. It makes my conscience feel uncomfortable.
I do feel like a bit of a weirdo selling little red flowers in a country which doesn’t really understand what the little red flowers are for but I always remind myself that if those soldiers can withstand what they went through all those years ago, I can surely withstand a few hours of tin-shaking in the November rain. An American friend came with me once and was a far better salesperson than I am, unashamedly walking up to the nearest passer-by and beautifully explaining the cause. I do have to be a bit careful as, although I have an official sellers badge, apparently it isn’t exactly legal to be selling poppies at French markets (think French administration!). I have been repeatedly warned about the Market Inspector in St Antonin who is a bit of a dragon by all accounts. Dave, a stall holder who sells gorgeous roses at the market, is my look-out and points me in the opposite direction to the dragon inspector as I’m walking round! That would be a strange irony, getting arrested for selling poppies to help those who gave us our freedom.
To give you an idea of what these men went through, I would like to read some small excerpts from the book, “Poilu: The World War 1 notebooks of Corporal Louis Barthas, Barrelmaker 1914-1918”. Barthas came from the Languedoc region in the south of France before he fought directly on the German front line for some 41 months, in some of the war’s most vicious battles – the Somme, the Verdun and Flanders.
His descriptions of battle and life in the trenches are so vivid they almost defy belief. He himself said, “Cheating death was a matter of luck amid this monstrous avalanche of metal; this veritable curtain of steel and fire”, “the disagreeable tic-tac of machine guns which pounded men into marmalade”. HIs harrowing accounts go on to explain some of the things he witnessed: “I saw one of those guys who had already taken cover there get hit in the back with a bullet. I’ll never forget the sight of that hole, like it was made with a drill—a little whiff of smoke from burnt cloth, the man’s violent somersault, a groan, and then the stillness of death.”
He himself managed to escape death on more than one occasion. He explained, “I was by myself, at the far end of our little stretch of [trench], crouched in a little hole, when a big shell landed like a thunderbolt just three or four metres in front of me. The violence of the blast tore away the tent cloth which I had arranged in front of my hole, to keep out the sun and the flies, and tossed it who knows where. As for me, I had the sense of being knocked flat, and for a few seconds I couldn’t get my breath. I had just felt the death wind. Some say it’s chilly; I found it hot and burning. It coursed through my whole body, from my rattled brain, to my heavy heart and lungs, all the way down to my rubbery legs.”
As Barthas wasn’t prepared to kill the enemy, his job was possibly the most dangerous of all as a message runner between command posts. He was almost sent before a firing squad for refusing to order his soldiers on one particular mission which involved them running straight into machine gun fire. Over 20% of the French infantry were killed in trench warfare in such battles.
As President Macron continues his 11-day tour to towns and villages around the north of France, places all around the country are preparing for the big day of remembrance on Sunday. My local village, Castelnau de Montmiral, organises a bilingual ceremony every year, which I usually attend. A hundred years seems so far away but really, it’s just a blink in time.
I’ll leave you with these thoughts about an Old Soldier:
Unnoticed, he blends into the grey park bench,
eyes clouded and watering,
permanent tears for friends lost in a trench
not quite enough of a lifetime ago.
Will anyone acknowledge him?
Smile at him? Say hello?
How many people walk past without seeing?
Are they afraid to take a look
at their future being?
Can see past hands on a walking cane, shaking,
which once held arms straight, which killed
as he dreamt of his mother, holding him
close in a muddy field in France.
Dug in, his only perspective – the sky – looking up,
imagining his Victoria Cross moment,
which never came.
His history has died with those he has loved:
he exists alone now, his life stored in his head,
musty albums in an abandoned attic.
His film is ending, subtitles about to roll,
last moments of anticipation, will his story change
before the last curtain call?
Was he the star of his own show, his life?
Would that he had been so invisible then,
in that giant gutter, repelling the end
but now the magnet has turned,
death – an indecisive friend.
Ninety-odd birthdays leave a stuttering heart
and a once-red poppy, grey.
On a bench, sad fingers trace the brass
in which his wife’s name is interred;
hearing aid off so his sweetheart’s voice
can be clearly heard.
As there will be no ‘hello’ today.
That’s all he wants.
A quiet hello.
So he knows he’s not already a ghost.