Armistice Day in France: Echoes of Past Conflicts

On Friday, around fifty people gathered in the warm November sunshine at the war memorial in our village. This was Armistice Day, the 11th November, the day in 1918 when the guns fell silent along the Western Front at 11 am, marking the end of one of the most catastrophic wars in history. It was the first time we had attended the commemoration since before Covid.

Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday in the UK, but the commemorations of those who have fallen in war take place in France on Armistice Day, on whichever day it happens to fall.

Commemoration ceremonies

In towns and villages throughout France, people assemble at the war memorial to hear a speech delivered by the maire. These memorials, often erected a few years after World War I, are a litany of loss. It’s achingly sad to read the lists of names, especially the sombre rollcall from World War I. Sometimes the same surname is repeated three, four, five times. Few families were spared.

In our village, a detachment from the military camp in the commune formed a guard of honour. Other uniformed services (firemen and gendarmes) also attended.

Military guard of honour. It may be illegal to photograph the military, so if you don’t hear from me for a while…

Unfortunately, the war memorial is situated at a junction with a busy main road. The maire’s discours was swallowed up by traffic noise and by the dodgy amplifiers. I caught the odd phrase, like something remote seen through a mist.

I was surprised that the commemoration didn’t continue as usual at the Resistance Memorial, further down the street. This marks the spot where a resistance action took place in 1944.  

World War II resistance memorial

Receding into history

We nodded at acquaintances in the gathering. Nobody is alive now who fought in World War I, 104 years after its conclusion. Only a tiny handful of people who were born during that war are still living. In a decade or so, it will be the case for World War II.

A few young people and children were there, but not many. I began to wonder if these ceremonies appear out of date and lacking in relevance to younger people. Wars in which French people took part directly are receding into history, kept alive by fragments of memory or stories passed down by forebears.

For World War I in particular, the historical focus tends to be on the military campaigns and the experience of those who fought or nursed at the front. This is important, of course. In our département, Tarn-et-Garonne, alone, 5,223 men were killed, about 3% of a population of 182,500, not to mention those maimed physically and psychologically. This terrible loss marked the French psyche for decades afterwards.

Refugees in World War I

What happened behind the lines is sometimes given less attention. For example, population displacement during World War I had repercussions well beyond the theatres of war.

I recently learned that from September 1914, Tarn-et-Garonne received many refugees who fled the combat zones and the German advances. Some were French but many were Belgian or from Alsace-Lorraine, regions annexed by Germany in 1871. Workers were also drafted in from other countries, such as Serbia, to take the place of farmers and agricultural workers who were at the front.

In 1916, there were 2,401 refugees in the département, which had a population of around 182,000. By July 1918, their numbers had swelled to 8,300. A prefectorial decree gave subsidies to people who were prepared to accommodate them: 1.50 FF per adult and 50 centimes per child.

The influx of refugees was not so great here as in other parts of France that were closer to the front. An official report stated that relations between locals and refugees in Tarn-et-Garonne were nearly always good, and refugees’ help on the land was appreciated. The report said that locals had shown “considerable generosity and had given a great deal to alleviate the suffering of their displaced compatriots”.

However, refugees from Alsace-Lorraine (mostly women and children) were treated with suspicion as possible German spies. The authorities placed them under surveillance in two institutions in the département. They were sometimes allowed out to work but could only travel with a permit. As the war progressed, fear of German spies intensified, even down here.

Prisoners of War

The département also received its quota of German prisoners of war. They were dispersed throughout France. Some were even sent to Corsica. Being an island, it was more difficult to escape from.

Around 500 German POWs came to Montauban, where they were imprisoned to begin with in l’Arsenal. They were later moved to a barracks elsewhere. They were put to work on the railway, built their own huts or constructed factory workshops.

Banks of the Tarn in Montauban. I don’t suppose the POWs saw much of the town.

Later, farmers lacking labourers could ask the Préfet for help from German POWs. One wrote in 1918, asking for five “boches”, as he called them, to help in his vineyard for five days “sans nourriture”. There is even a story of German World War I POWs locked up at night in a shed a few kilometres from here while they worked on the land during the day. A few officers did manage to escape, but they were picked up near the Spanish border.

The German POWs were not released until 1919. By that time, 134 of them had died and were buried in the cemetery in Montauban. The cause of their deaths is not clear, but living in such close quarters, possibly malnourished, they might well have been victims of “Spanish” flu.

I haven’t said anything about bereaved families, French POWs, or other groups affected by the war. It’s a big subject, since virtually no one was unaffected, as is always the case in wartime. That’s for another time.

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