November 11 is a bank holiday in France. Brass bands play in the streets and citizens meet around war memorials in each town for a ceremony. But what do the French celebrate on November 11? The day is called « jour du souvenir » or « jour de l’armistice » because it is when the armistice that ended World War 1 in 1918 is commemorated. It is also the occasion to think of sacrifices from other wars.
A ceremony is held in each district, generally attended by the mayor and other political figures. Citizens walk in procession behind the brass band in the streets, and they stop in front of the war memorial if the town has one at 11am. It is indeed at 11am, on the 11th day of the 11th month, that the armistice was signed, and this symbolic time was maintained for the commemoration. Once in front of the war memorial, the mayor or another political figure makes a speech and reads the names of the soldiers from the town who died at war during WW1. After each name, people say « mort pour la France » (died for France), all in unison.
Sometimes in France, but mostly in Anglo-Saxon countries, citizens wear poppies in their buttonholes. The poppy symbolizes the soldiers who died at war, as, after a battle, the fields, which used to be bare, are covered in these red flowers because of the lime left by the bombs. In France, cornflowers were also used because they reminded of the colour of French soldiers’ uniforms during the war, but this tradition was progressively lost.
November 11 is also an opportunity to pay tribute to the Unknown Soldier, a non-identified body killed during WW1 and now buried under the Arc de Triomphe. Symbolically, it is a way of remembering all the soldiers who died during the war, even if one does not know who they are.
Now, with the war long behind us, November 11 is an occasion to take time to remember the horrors from the last century and to better understand history.