Yesterday, November 11, 2014, French talk radio host Eric Brunet (RMC) discussed and debated Remembrance Day with his guests — two historians — and several callers.

Remembrance Sunday

Brunet and his family were in London at the weekend to see our Remembrance Sunday commemoration in person. One of his callers also travelled from France to be in our capital on that day.

Both said how dignified the ceremony was. They discussed whether France should adopt a similar remembrance.

I have only ever seen it on the BBC. It is an incredibly moving commemoration such that I have watched it annually for nearly 25 years. To give my overseas readers an idea what it is like, the Daily Mail has an excellent article accompanied by a selection of photographs. You will feel as if you had been there.

The ceremony begins with a solemn remembrance of the soldiers for the first hour. Massed bands play classical dirges and laments, a two-minute silence is observed at 11 a.m. and wreaths are laid at the foot of the Cenotaph. The Queen lays the first wreath, followed by members of the Royal Family, who have all served in the Armed Forces or Royal Navy. The Prime Minister and political party leaders each present one, followed by the many Commonwealth High Commissioners. The Bishop of London conducts a brief service. Afterward, he, the Queen and dignitaries leave in silence.

The walk past of veterans then begins. The massed bands turn to upbeat, morale-boosting marches and popular songs from the First and Second World Wars. Each group presents a wreath to be laid at the Cenotaph.

The BBC’s David Dimbleby emphasised this year that this has never been a military march, but an opportunity for those who have served Britain to collectively remember their comrades who died in war and to share memories of the battlefield.

There has been talk now and then whether Remembrance Sunday should continue. However, several thousand veterans and bystanders attend every year. The televised broadcast lasts nearly two hours. This year, the centenary of the beginning of the Great War seems to have captured the public imagination. Not only did more than 10,000 veterans participate, many of them elderly, but thousands more spectators who lined the pavement.

Whilst the national remembrance takes place in London, smaller ceremonies and services take place up and down the country at local war memorials.

Should other countries like France adopt a similar ceremony to that at the Cenotaph? Remembrance Sunday is uniquely British. The French have their own commemorations. This year, President François Hollande was at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe before inaugurating a new, traditional monument at Notre Dame de Lorette, near the site of the three battles of Artois, which took place between 1914 and 1915. As many French soldiers died in those battles as in Verdun. The new monument lists the names of 580,000 troops from France and her colonies who died during the Great War.

The important thing is that we never forget. Ceremonies of remembrance help to keep these sacrifices of courage and valour intact.

Poppies or cornflowers?

In Britain, the tradition is for members of the public to wear poppies from the first of November through to Remembrance Day on the 11th. This tradition begins in October on television, particularly the BBC, where guests receive poppies prior to being interviewed. Whilst viewers have criticised this as overkill — why not just start in November, as is customary? — I find it useful to begin contemplating our national day of remembrance before the event.

In France, a few people wear cornflowers (bleuets) instead of poppies. This article from Le Monde shows François Hollande with one; note that the onlookers behind him are not wearing them.

In another article, Le Monde‘s Clément Martel explains why the French chose this wildflower, also present in the Great War battlefields. As we have the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, the French have ‘Bleuets de France‘. And there is more to the story:

… the cornflower is less well known in France than its British counterpart. In addition to being a symbol of life despite the many deaths, ‘cornflowers’ was the name given to new soldiers arriving in their still-immaculate sky blue uniforms. It was in 1925 when it became a symbol with an initiative from two nurses: Charlotte Malleterre et Suzanne Leenhardt created the ‘Bleuet de France‘, the proceeds of which would go to the upkeep of those injured in the Great War. Residents of Les Invalides [originally a military hospital, as its name implies] made cornflowers out of fabric …

Beginning in 1934, the flowers the veterans made were sold on the streets and, the following year, the government made official the sale of cornflowers on Remembrance Day … Since then, the cornflowers have been made by the disabled. If the tradition has been slowly lost, it came back in 2012, when Nicholas Sarkozy championed a law declaring that November 11 commemorate ‘the remembrance of all France’s [war] dead, not just those from the Great War’.

The difference in charitable giving differs dramatically between Britain, where poppies are de rigueur, and France, where the cornflower is worn much less often.

The paper reports that the British Legion collects the equivalent of €49.8m whereas the Bleuets de France makes only €1.1m.

Another commemoration which has captured France’s imagination is the dramatic field of poppies around the Tower of London, more about which in another post this week.