Armistice Day in France

The 11th of November is widely marked in Europe and North America and may also be called Remembrance Day or Veterans Day. It marks the signing of the armistice between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France, which ended hostilities on the Western Front of World War I. The Armistice came into force at 11:00, being the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. This is the official date marking the end of World War I, though fighting continued in the Russian Empire and also in the Ottoman Empire for some further time.

In France this day is called Armistice de la Première Guerre mondiale. As an official public holiday, schools, banks, offices and most shops are closed. In common with many other countries, the day is marked by one minute of silence at 11:00, when people reflect on the sacrifices made in wartime. The day has also become a general mourning for the dead of all wars in which France has fought since WWI.

At an official level, the day is marked by parades and speeches. Old military costumes and vehicles may be worn and paraded through cities and towns. People gather at the various war memorials which exist in almost every town to honor their local dead. Wreaths, garlands and flowers are placed at these memorials and also at plaques honoring resistance fighters. These plaques are a common feature of many French cities. Special church services of remembrance are also held on this day.

Major ceremonies of mourning are also held at important battle sites across France, with the President of the République appearing at a different one each year. The French national flag is often flown at half-mast or when carried in military parades it may be carried diagonally, rather than upright. One such site in Paris is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which is under the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. This tomb contains the body of an unidentified soldier who died in the especially bloody Battle of Verdun. The body was buried in the tomb on November 11, 1920. Three years later a flame was lit at the tomb as an eternal flame of remembrance and it has burned their ever since. This tomb is taken as a symbol of all who died in World War I.

Privately people visit war grave sites and cemeteries to tend the graves of dead soldiers and family members. Cities may put on special buses to provide transport to more remote cemeteries. Chrysanthemums are the flowers most often placed on the graves, so much so that in France that common garden flower is almost never seen outside of that time, or outside cemeteries.

Although both mark the end of wars, the mood at Armistice Day is significantly more somber than on Victory Day. This likely reflects the differences between the two wars. World War II is seen as the defeat of an evil regime and the end of a brutal occupation. In contrast, Word War I saw 16 million dead and 20 million wounded in a war about imperial power, not morality. It ended with victory for the Allies, but not joy.

When is Armistice Day?

Armistice Day is not a floating holiday and always falls on November 11 of each year.