Remembering ‘les poilus’

W2289-Affiche14-18_PoiluType_0_94926The French would not be French if they didn’t do things a little differently.

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?


Photo credit:

‘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


  1. poshbirdy · November 12, 2015

    I think about everyone who lost and was lost, but I also think of the people I know who were directly affected by the war and about their losses. My mum was just a teenager when her beloved brother Jim was lost in France in WW2, and my Dad and his 2 brothers served in each of the Forces. Baz’s granddad was MIA at the River Kwai when my father-in-law was just a baby (he’s 76 today) and so he grew up without his own father and never accepted his mother re-marrying a former sweetheart who stayed at home. This has affected the entire family. War is cruel and its effects are eternal. I never get used to the ceremony at the Cenotaph and am always brought to tears. Theirs was an immeasurable sacrifice. Thanks for this lovely post – it’s so important to remember everyone’s heroes

    • MELewis · November 12, 2015

      I am impressed by how deeply and personally your family was affected by the war, and how much you still honour all those memories. So glad the post spoke to you!

  2. Lisa @ cheergerm · November 12, 2015

    Always enjoy reading of a varying cultural perspective. Part of our tradition includes a minutes silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, marking the UK time that the Armistice became effective. Canada does the same? ANZAC day here has kind of taken over as a broader, more noted day of rememberance.

    • MELewis · November 12, 2015

      We do this, yes! There is usually a local ceremony in the all French villages and towns, and the 11:00 silence is marked. Remembrance day is also very big in Canada and like you, we extend it to remember all who served. Thanks for sharing, Lisa! (Gosh, that feels weird; it’ll take me awhile to think of you as anything other than Cheerie! 😉

  3. memoirsofahusk · November 12, 2015

    I have always, always, loved the poppy, respected what it stood for and worn it when I could each year. This year, I am very sad that so much political mud-slinging and general conroversy has happened – who’s wearing one, who’s not, which way you should wear it, where the leaf should be positioned, which side you should wear it if you’re female (honestly!) – that I have, I’ll be honest, not worn one. Yes, I bought one but I left it in the hall where it eyed me dolefully as I went out. The simplicity and poignancy of it as a vehicle for remembrance has become lost in a flurry of commercialism and hype. Do you think any soldier, sailor, nurse or widow would care which way the leaf was pointing? Today the Daily Telegraph even used poppies on its front page to ridicule a leader of a political party. Maybe by next year it will feel right again …

    • MELewis · November 12, 2015

      I used to love ‘poppy day’ in Canada, as we called it, but that sounds like taking it a step too far for my liking. When the politically correct starts dictating what we should do and think, count me out. Hope it settles down to a respectful level by next year.

  4. Osyth · November 12, 2015

    Poppies, a Queen on horseback (side-saddle and elegant), shuffling politicians trying not to make eye-contact with one another and The Albert Hall falling silent as The Chelsea Pensioners aged anything up to and over 100 years old march as best they can across the arena, take their places and watch with the rest of the spectators as thousands and thousands of poppy petals fall from a net gathered high in the ceiling. It remains the most moving event of the year. Lest we forget? I never could.

    • MELewis · November 12, 2015

      What a lovely tribute, Osyth! Almost makes we want to go London next time…somehow I never get quite that feeling in France.

      • Osyth · November 12, 2015

        I don’t know if you have found Wandering Wives blog but their piece about Armastice in Northern France written yesterday had me in stitches and nodding my head frantically in ascent. Do be in London sometime for the event – the Brits do it rather well (and of course I might be a teeny bit biased 😉 )

      • MELewis · November 12, 2015

        Will do and thanks for sharing – I love discovering other blogs about life in this great land.

  5. davidprosser · November 13, 2015

    While the poppy is a good remembrance of those lost in all the conflicts since WWI it also makes me think that it’s time we found a way to stop going to war and risking the lives of our children and grandchildren and other generations to come.We’re not leaving much of a legacy for the future.
    Tim to stop making the arms manufacturers richer still and find a way to live in peace with our neighbours.
    xxx Massive Hugs Mel xxx

    • MELewis · November 13, 2015

      Could not agree more, cher David! We need to find a way to honour our lost soldiers without glorifying the battle. And how about taking care of the veterans with better care for PTSD? Biggest bises! xo

  6. Food,Photography & France · November 13, 2015

    I’ve always liked those French schoolroom posters. I’m slightly jaded by the idea of Armistice day and remembering the sacrifice of all those people as we learn nothing and just continue to add names to the list.

    • MELewis · November 14, 2015

      And now it continues in Paris…we are still at war. Appalling.

  7. Lisa @ cheergerm · November 14, 2015

    Just to say that France and you all, are in my thoughts and prayers. Life is precious and that is all that matters.

    • MELewis · November 14, 2015

      Thanks so much for your thoughts. We are all horrified by this new war…

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