The cornflower memorial near Les Invalides, Paris.
The First World War was an historic watershed, in terms of its violence, duration and international nature. It marked the end of an era.
The end of the Great War in 1918 left a legacy of more than 20 million wounded and invalided, some severely disabled, who could no longer work. In addition, in the immediate aftermath of the war, all the effort was directed toward reconstruction, whether that be economic, human or infrastructure, and separate to programmes put in place by the State, private co-operative initiatives and associations of all sorts were born.
It was in this context that the Bleuet de France (Cornflower of France) saw the light of day.
The story of the creation of the Bleuet de France begins, having come out of the First World War, at the Institution Nationale des Invalides (the national military hospital and nursing home in central Paris). At its heart are two women of the time, listening to the suffering of their contemporaries: Charlotte Malleterre (daughter of the Commandant of the Hôtel National des Invalides) and Suzanne Leenhardt, both nurses at the Institution, who wished to help the disabled of the First World War. From 1925 they created a workshop for the pensioners of Les Invalides in which they made cornflowers from fabric in order to give them back some sort of normal life and partly support their needs by the sale of the flowers.
The wild cornflower was chosen as the national symbol of remembrance, but why? Several hypotheses exist.
- as a memory of the trenches, where new recruits would arrive in their blue uniforms and were dubbed bleuets by the older poilus (beardies).
- the wild cornflower, in the chaos wrought by man, despite the horror of the trenches, continued to grow on the field of battle.
- in hommage to the blue, the colour of the nation, the first colour on the tricolor flag.
Then in 1991 the National Veterans and Victims of War Office decided to take on the administration of the work, which had been declining for some years. From a workshop making flowers a charity supporting veterans and victims of war has come through the 20th century with its goals intact and active.
Today, at the beginning of a new century, the work of the Bleuet de France continues on new fronts, promoting alongside traditional social actions the transmission of memory as a real vector of solidarity between generations.
For those of you who want to read all that in French, here it is.
A poster calling for volunteers to help maintain and care for the graves of French soldiers in France and overseas, especially those which no longer have family to care for them. Le Souvenir Français is an organisation dedicated to maintaining the memory of those who have died for France.