Remembrance day in Canada is always a solemn affair. It is a day that we have the opportunity to remember our history in all its pride, tradition, pain, misery, honour, and anguish. It is a bittersweet mixture of mourning and pride stirring our hearts in awakening the memory of war and to honour those who have participated and continue to participate. In Canada, Remembrance day is quite solemn. It is with a modest gesture we salute our armed forces and heavy hearts we recall the sacrifices made and struggle we have endured. “The glorious dead” is emblazoned on many a monument but our celebrations are notably quiet, our moment of silence unwaveringly enacted.
I think this is the first Remembrance day that I haven’t been in my native country to participate in. Canada and France have a long history from the new world’s perspective and our alliance in the world wars led me to believe that Remembrance or Armistice day would be similarly marked in both countries. This is not so.
Paris outraged, Paris broken, Paris martyred, but Paris liberated
I’ve found in France that war memorials are marked with pomp and circumstance, the bloom of flags and pressed formal uniforms accentuated with the shiny and full sound of brilliant marches. It’s more than national pride, it’s a celebration. People are happy! For the French armistice day means something quite different than to us Canucks. It’s the day that the invading forces are banished from their land. The bombing of their hometowns ceases and their life, land and culture once again preserved. Back home we are reminded of the losses suffered. The folks who crossed the sea to foreign lands but never came back. It’s memory is earmarked with the chilling boom of guns and silent contemplation, abstaining from over-glorification.
We attended the Armistice day celebrations around Arc de Triomphe, where there would be marches, parades, speeches, silence, trumpets, flowers and wreaths. Strangely enough the pomp is reserved for the President and a few distinguished brass who get to sit in the few ringside seats available. The rest of the rabble are blockaded from participating, corralled into pens a block away who hold up their iPads to try and catch a glimpse. There is no silence, there is no formation or bowed heads, there is no confetti or salutes. Most of the people who showed up spent their time laughing and sitting on eachother’s shoulders snapping blurry pictures and smoking cigarettes. The combination of the regal pomp and the distracted pseudo-celebration was a disappointment indeed.
bleuet de France
One interesting thing I discovered was the the bleuet de france – cornflowers worn on lapels instead of the poppy. The tradition is the same in that cornflowers grew easily in the land destroyed by shelling. It also hearkens to the term “bleuets” who were the young conscripts who donned the blue uniform which replaced the red pants worn by older soldiers, so the term refers to these men, their youth and their naivete. The practice of wearing cornflowers on lapels comes from 1916 in which war wounded were given the task of manufacturing these badges to provide revenue to wounded veterans, and later became a symbol of rehabilitation. It also serves as an alternative to the Poppy, which many fear is becoming too commercial and losing its integrity.
«Les voici les p’tits « Bleuets » These here, these little “Bleuets”
Les Bleuets couleur des cieux These Bleuets the color of the sky,
Ils vont jolis, gais et coquets, Are beautiful, gay, stylish,
Car ils n’ont pas froid aux yeux. Because they are not afraid.
En avant partez joyeux ; Merrily, go forward
Partez, amis, au revoir ! Go on, my friends, so long!
Salut à vous, les petits « bleus », Good luck for you, little “blues”
Petits « bleuets », vous notre espoir ! » Little “bleuets,” you are our hope!
–Alphonse Bourgoin, from Bleuets de France, 1916