Known to all in France as ‘le 11 novembre’, the day of remembrance traditionally commemorates the end of the first world war with the signing of the Armistice in 1918. It is really about the unsung heroes of that war, the soldiers known as ‘les poilus’.
Literally, ‘the hairies’, a better translation would be ‘the unshaven’. The term denotes not so much the facial hair as the image of the simple foot soldiers who left their fields and families to fight in the trenches. They are considered the unsung heroes of history as so many of their number died unknown and unrecognized for their sacrifice.
Lazare Ponticelli, a Frenchman of Italian descent, was the last surviving poilu. When he died in 2008 at the age of 110, Jacques Chirac wanted to bury him at the tomb of the unknown soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. True to his origins, however, le poilu refused the honour, preferring to be buried in the family plot.
The public holiday was officially changed by Sarkozy to the ‘Jour du Souvenir’ in 2012. It was meant to broaden the focus of the day in honour of all those fallen in service for France. At that time, so that the memory of the first world war heroes would not be lost, it was decided to reintroduce the French symbol of the poilus, the bleuet de France. The bright blue cornflower was the distinctive colour of the soldiers’ uniforms. It is worn instead of the poppy, although has yet to become as common.
On this day of remembrance in France, however, while our thoughts were meant to be on les poilus and the tomb of the unknown soldier, another image captured everyone’s attention. A handshake between two sworn enemies, who have apparently signed a truce in memory of armistice.
What does Remembrance Day mean to you?
‘Les poilus’ cut-out: Wikimedia Commons - W2289-Affiche14-18 PoiluType 0 94926 » par G. Morinet pour Éditions Pellerin / Llann Wé² — Travail personnel. Sous licence CC BY-SA 4.0