Thursday, 12 November 2015

Armistice Day

So, yesterday was Armistice Day (or, Just A Random Day for the British, because apparently they don't believe in holidays the way the French do <sigh>). To celebrate, Simon and I watched Is Paris Burning? and that led me to two considerations.

My great-cousin twice removed (or something like that) arriving just in time to take credit.

First, the story of the liberation of Paris during WWII is just great. And so typically Parisian. Seriously. I mentioned it before, it's part of the compulsory curriculum created by me for my A Level students (Lord help them).

If you put it into a dialogue, it would go something like this:

The scene is August 1944. The Allied Forces have brought the front line all the way to Mantes, 50km away from Paris.

Parisians to the Allied Forces:  Fantastic, you're nearly here! When shall we fight?

Allied Forces: Actually, the plan is more to go AROUND Paris and on to the German border, because, you know, we want to get to Germany quickly and, I don't know, get this thing over and done with. 

Parisians: Great! So, when shall we fight?

Allied Forces: No, you don't get it, you don't fight, we go AROUND you.

Parisians: Ok. And when are we fighting?

Allied Forces: No, no, no, no, no! The relief effort we would have to send to millions of starving Parisians would slow us down! YOU. DON'T FIGHT. Ok?

Parisians: Aaaaah. Got it. We don't fight. No problem.

Parisians go away.

Parisians return.

Parisians: So, as you said, we freed ourselves. The fighting was great. Now you just need to come over and hang around, because we can't hold for very long. Cheers guys!

Allied Forces: Face palm. 

Parisians: Seriously, it was so much fun! We got to do the barricade thing again! Aaah, barricades! They are just great. Really bring the generations together. So, when are you guys coming?

Allied Forces: Bury face in hands.

French Part of the Allied Forces: Look guys, we know them, Parisians are like that, it's easier for everyone if you just go along with their plan. Seriously. We've got, like, centuries of experience at dealing with Parisians

Allied Forces: 

French Part of the Allied Forces: Besides, you can't really say you've got France, if you haven't got Paris. Ask the 1871 Prussians.

Allied Forces:

French Part of the Allied Forces: Look, we're just going to go over there now. See you in a bit.

Allied Forces: What exactly just happened?

Général Leclerc. Totally my favourite.

Now you know.

The second thing it made me think about though, Parisianism aside,  is that it is quite funny to think about what Armistice day means to people nowadays (apart from offering yet another opportunity for politicians to disgrace themselves over a poppy). 

I did a seminar the other day on the Vietnam War, and even though most of the students, of their own admission, had absolutely no understanding of how the war had come about, they were unanimously adamant in condemning the American Army. Pretty much without a trial. I had to make them go through WWI, WWII, Irak, Syria and Libya before they even admitted that the Americans weren't just always itching to get involved in any fight.

They also had no notion of a war that could be necessary. 

You see, they are ten years younger than me (more or less, I'm eternally young), and my own generation is already quite removed from WWII. For me, the people who did the fighting weren't my grandparents. My grandparents were children at the time. The Great Generation is my great-grandparents' generation. I didn't meet a single one of them (to be fair, both my Mum's grandfathers died before the war, and of my dad's grandfathers, one died in Dunkerque [which is why I don't take it kindly when my son-of-an-un-drafted-boot-maker father-in-law says things like "well, the French just didn't want to fight"], and the other was too old to be drafted).

War has simply ceased to be something we have any kind of intimate knowledge of. The families involved in the army are always other. I don't know a single soldier. And I think we may be the poorer for it. There simply aren't any narratives of making this kind of sacrifice around. The empty rhetoric of politicians is seen as just that, and I don't know many people who actually agree that one is supposed to be willing to die for his own country. Everything has been so sanitised and politicised  that we barely cheer for our own side anymore. And it makes me wonder what would happen if we were to face similar challenges to those encountered by the Great Generation. What would we do?

Apart from Paris. We know what Paris would do.


FYI, in case we would all choose to go AWOL, I know a lot of anti-conscription songs from the Napoleonic wars, my Dad used to sing them to me at bedtime (I had a weird childhood), so just give me a call!


  1. My son is enthralled with WWII right now, and since he also happens to be studying it for school, I am going to make him read this.

    1. He should watch the film! (Is Paris Burning?) My brother and I loved it when we were in our own WWII obsession phase!