Posted by / Category Cultural Differences /

Today is Remembrance Day. All over the world, we recall the end of the hostilities of World War I and subsequent conflicts. WW1 started exactly 100 years ago. In London, poppies are everywhere to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. I used to wonder why poppies were used in such a way, because in France there are no poppies for Remembrance Day. I was explained that it was because of a poem, “In Flanders Fields”, by Canadian physician Lieutenant Colonel John Mc Crae. Apparently, poppies were the first flowers to grow near the soldiers graves, in Flanders. Well, I will never see poppies the same way again, that’s for sure.

100 years can seem like a long time. That said, I believe that it takes at least three generations to recover from war atrocities. 100 years is probably just about the time it takes for families to be finally at peace. The past is always ready to catch up with you sometimes. And it can happen in unexpected ways.
For me, it was a few years ago, when I found out that the WW1 French army archives were online. In a few clicks, I found the death certificates of the two brothers of my great-grandfather.
They were all coming from the same small village in Provence. Gabriel and Louis died within weeks of each other, in August 1916. One hadn’t started a family yet, the other had just got married and his wife was pregnant. The remaining brother, Felicien, came back with half a leg missing. He ended up marrying his brother’s widow and bringing up the baby, my grandmother’s brother, as his own. Then they had my grandmother.
Felicien eventually died in 1941, during the restrictions of WW2. Today, I think about my great uncles who died in Verdun, aged 24 and 26. They were so young, and so far from their small village. I don’t even know where they were laid to rest. Gabriel was killed in action. Louis died of his wounds in a hospital.  I don’t think that it is possible to fathom what they must have gone through. I take some comfort in the fact that life in the trenches was so incredibly difficult that maybe, just maybe, their untimely death ended their suffering. 

I am fully aware that such stories are by no means rare: in France, most families lost at least a loved one in WW1 (There were 1,7m casualties).

Today, here we are, thinking of all the ones who died. I sometimes wonder how we got to be so fortunate. Who decides and why? After all, had we been born in a different time, it could have been us.
Muriel – A French Yummy Mummy In London
  • There, but for the grace of God, go I… So many people forget or just aren’t aware how lucky they are. It’s important to remember.

    • It is, isn’t it? We have a tendency to take what we have for granted…

  • WWI was savage, meaningless, and touched so many families like yours with loss and misery. In the end all those young men’s lives lost at War or maimed or crippled meant nothing. Millions fought for what? An Armistice lasting twenty-one years so that the next time, families lost the sons of fathers lost in WWI. A bitter day to commemorate, but I do love the poppies. Once when I drove through Flanders, the fields were red with them.

    • Wars are terrible. I just can’t start to imagine what they went through. Horrible.

  • We have spoken about your two Great Uncles and their sacrifice which is mirrored by many families in France, Britain, Ireland, Germany and sadly many other countries. I think the Centenary has made an impact because it is both a time to take stock with hindsight, a luxury which people at the time did not have, and there are no participants still alive to tell their own stories. It is sometimes forgotten that the poppy here and the Bluet de France had their origins in a strong revulsion against the War when the guns went silent and a pacifism where many campaigned for such a conflict not to be repeated. Sadly, 21 years later this was to prove a false hope.

    • We don’t use poppies or any other flowers in France for celebrations. And it doesn’t make them any less poignant, I have to say.

  • I do remember as a 2 year old, 5 year old and then the one I really do remember well when I was 11 was the 14 day war that finally created Bangladesh. I lived in Calcutta at the time and the border is only like half a days drive away. I remember the millions of refugees that thronged into Calcutta, taking up every available free space on the side of the highways, shanty towns.

    I used the occasion of Remembrance Day to write about my own trip to Ste Mere Eglise and Omaha Beach earlier this year on the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings.

    • Thanks for sharing this. I think that I tend to forget that I am indeed very fortunate not to have experienced such traumatic events. It is something that, in Europe, we forget a bit too easily!