Why the French Wish They Were Like the British: World War I Commemorations

Travels Along the Western Front #4

The commemoration of World War I differs markedly depending on which side of the English Channel you are on.

Even just in France, you can see the difference between the French and British World War I cemeteries. You also find it in the ceremonies (or lack thereof) and in the numbers and kinds of people you meet visiting WWI sites.

And the French I’ve met on this trip admit as much.

The French volunteers at WWI sites are passionate about “les poilus.” They would love to commemorate the Great War like the British. In fact, they rue the fact that they do not. But those who care deeply here in France are a small minority.

They inevitably tell me the same thing: they wish France was more like the United Kingdom.

Last week in the countryside surrounding Verdun, I visited a restored “ouvrage” or defense structure. It had been bought and restored by an association of five French friends. I spoke with their president, a stocky rugby fan in his 50s. At first he thought I was British and complimented us “Anglo-saxons” on our strong commemorative culture. He told me that he has been fascinated by the Third Republic era military structures around Verdun since he was a boy. So it was a dream come true to be able to restore one and turn it into a museum.

During the work, they found the French equivalent of doggie tags. With painstaking research they managed to track down the next of kin and contacted them. He told me that many simply hung up on him; they didn’t even care. Right now, he is experiencing a tourist boom, but his biggest fear, he told me, is that after this November 11 local interest will evaporate forever.

In the United Kingdom, wearing a poppy in the lead-up to November 11 is practically a social obligation. I have been told that there is an equivalent French tradition with the bleuet. If that is the case, in the seven years I have lived in France, I have not seen a single bleuet sold, bought, or worn. In contrast, you can’t walk down a single street in the United Kingdom right now without seeing a poppy.

Yesterday, I observed a similar dynamic as I watched my French friends react to the unveiling of a British work of art to commemorate the World War I dead at the Tower of London. Their response: “Why can’t we do anything like this?”

Clearly, something is different. I see something. The French themselves recognize there is a difference. But what exactly? And why?

After all, the French and British lost equivalent numbers of men during the war. They both fought together on the winning side. The war was even fought on French soil. You would think that the French would be more attached to those millions of men who died defending their country on their own soil.

And yet they’re not.

I’ve discussed this question with a few French historians, and the best answer about why World War I is commemorated differently actually has more to do with World War II than World War I itself.

In World War II, Britain was bombed but never capitulated. British soldiers fighting on the continent escaped the Nazis at Dunkirk and returned in Normandy four years later. Films are regularly made about both episodes.

Can you think of a single film about the French military effort in WWII?

There is a reason why no blockbuster has ever been made about the French military in WWII. France surrendered to Germany after a pitiful effort that has gone down in history as the “Phony War.” Thanks in large part to Charles de Gaulle and to the few French who made up the real Resistance, the majority of the French were able to save face. Because, in point of fact, the majority of the French collaborated with the Nazis, in small ways and big.

But that’s about it…the French managed to save face.

It comes as no surprise then that there is a collective amnesia about 1940–1945 in France. A while back, I bought a laminated study guide for French students that listed every leader in French history from Clovis in the 5th century to Emmanuel Macron today. I was surprised to note that they simply leave out the period 1940–1945. No note that it was under Nazi occupation. No mention of Vichy or Petain. Just a blank. Five years erased from 1500 years of continuous French history.

When I first studied abroad in France, our professor of French history and culture informed us in all seriousness that even if many French did not actively take part in the Resistance, they all “resisted in their heart.” One has to wonder how many Jewish schoolchildren were saved by the resistance in their hearts…

If you poke and prod too much beneath the myth of the Resistance, you will quickly find uncomfortable truths. And although time has made it easier, since 1945 it has generally been too hard for too many to confront those truths.

It’s also worth noting the institutional structure behind most of the British commemoration of World War I. British WWI commemorations, whether selling poppies in the UK, commemorating the British dead daily at the Menin Gate in Ypres, or elsewhere are led by the Royal British Legion. Founded in 1921 for veterans of the First World War, it has a continuous history since then. British veterans of the second war, some of whom had fought in the first, had no desire to forget their service from 1939 to 1945.

This is simply not the case in France. There is no equivalent institution, and even if it existed, it would be tainted by the Phony War and the Nazi Occupation. The British Royal Legion has continued to support British veterans up to the current day in a way that is simply impossible in France.

So you may find French individuals — academics, researchers, family members — who care deeply about their ancestors who served and died in the Great War. But what happened in France from 1940 to 1945 has rendered impossible a French institution like the British Royal Legion, to say nothing of its commemorations. The years of the Nazi occupation created a black hole from which French historical memory and patriotism are hard-pressed to escape.


UPDATE (Nov 15, 2018):

I was in the Paris metro last week and a middle-aged woman stopped me as we got off together.

“You’re wearing a poppy,” she said as she gestured at the pin I had bought in Flanders.

“Yes.”

“I love the English. They do it so much better than we do. No one buys bleuets.”

I nodded, “I thought it would be different this year, given that it is the centenary.”

“Oh no, no one cares,” she replied. Then she continued. “My husband was in the military for 35 years. Rose to the rank of [I didn’t recognize the French term]. But he got out in 2015. The budget cuts were awful. And the new computerized pay system they put in place was an absolute disaster.”

“Ah,” I responded. “So that was before Macron?” in reference to Macron’s budget cuts which ended up inducing the resignation of the French head of the army.

“That’s right, it was under Hollande. But Macron doesn’t like the military either. You know de Villiers resigned because of him.”

By that point it was clear we were going different directions. This career military wife complimented me on the poppy once again and as we parted, added, “All that is to say, I really love the English.”