Tuesday, 11 November 2008
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning...
This morning in a small Normandy village we stood, like countless others, and remembered those who never made it home. I find Remembrance Sunday in Britain moving but at least the French commemorate the end of The Great War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month and not, as we British do, the nearest convenient weekend. It does seem almost disrespectful to arrange the day to suit modern calendars and working practices as opposed to the actual day the war ended.
I get very weepy seeing ex-servicemen weighed down with revived memories and clinking medals and thinking about what they and their comrades did for us. "When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave life today". Today was no exception. The local pompiers were out in force standing to attention with their shiny helmets in one hand and decorated Tricolors in the other. The mayor read a statement from the minister thanking foreigners who had come to fight and die on French soil in la der des ders (the war to end all wars). When he made particular mention of the British and Commonwealth soldiers, the Frenchman patted me on the back, and I took refuge behind my sunglasses even though it was threatening to rain.
A local bugler played the Sonnerie aux Morts - the French equivalent of the Last Post - and there was a minute's silence. The silence was broken only by a middle-aged café owner who decided to sweep his terrace at that very moment. A small local band played a valiant if somewhat weedy rendition of La Marseillaise. My mother-in-law told how during the Second World War people from the village successfully hid British and French Canadian servicemen from the Nazis in secret mushroom farms. (The Frenchman advises me to be wary of local legends about wartime heroics. He may be right - I cannot find any reference to this - but who knows?) I wished I had brought my paper poppies from London.
After the ceremony, I put a couple of euros into a tin being rattled by an old soldier who, judging by his age and medals, was a veteran of World War II. He takes my hand in both of his. They are worn and weathered, their fading veins like smudged lines on an old battle plan. They are surprisingly warm. He smiles and says: "Thank you. Thank you."
I say: "No. Thank you."