If you find yourself studying abroad in the UK, or indeed in Commonwealth countries, you might notice that in the first two weeks of November, many people wear a red flower pinned to their breast. Well, that flower is a poppy, and it’s worn to commemorate Remembrance Day -- an important date in the UK calendar that’s been held since the end of World War One.
To clear up any confusion, let’s take a quick history lesson to better understand what Remembrance Day is, how and when its commemorated, and how the poppy came to be the symbol of this event.
In short, Remembrance Day (also known as Armistice Day) is celebrated to show respect, and to mourn all the soldiers who have fought and died while on duty with the British armed forces, and indeed to honour the lives of their allied countries during conflict.
During The First World War (1914-1918), which you may have heard referred to as The Great War, a total of around 40 million lives were lost as the “Allied Forces” of The British Empire, France and a whole host of others including the colonies they occupied, defeated the “Central Powers” of Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire (modern day Turkey).
King George V initiated the tradition in 1919, the year the war officially ended with the signing of the The Treaty of Versailles in France.
Since its origins, Remembrance Day has grown into a huge commemoration, particularly in the UK, which honours the dead from all wars and armed conflicts the country has been involved in. These include World War Two (1939-45), The Gulf War (1990-91) The Iraq War (2003-11), and the War in Afghanistan (2001-21), and the Troubles in The North of Ireland (1968-98).
So how do people celebrate, or commemorate it? Well, the most common way is by wearing the aforementioned poppy pinned to the breast or laped. Aside from this, there are ceremonies throughout the country at War Memorials, churches and often schools. Meanwhile, government members and the Royal Family come together at the Cenotaph in London for a memorial service. In case you’re wondering, a Cenotaph is a statue built as an “empty tomb” in memory of people who have died elsewhere, usually during a monumental event like a war or other tragedy.
At 11am, there is usually two minutes of silence held to reflect on the loss of life, tragedy of war, and sacrifice of the soldiers who fought.
As well as this, you might hear the song “The Last Post”, a military song played on a Bugle that traditionally brought a day at battle to an end, and is usually played at military funerals in the modern day. You may also hear people reading a poem called “In Flanders Fields”, which was named after the infamous WW1 battlefields in Flanders, an area in modern day Belgium and France.
11.00, 11/11. Eleven AM on the 11th day of the 11th month is the moment the treaty (or armistice) was signed to put a stop to the violent encounters of WW1.
Essentially, this was the moment all those involved agreed to set down their weapons, even though the war didn’t officially end until the following year.
We mentioned the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae above, remember? Well the inspiration for that poem was the enduring sight of poppies which grew in many battlefields in France and Belgium -- in fact they flourished in the soil that was dug up and churned by gunfire and exploding shells. In the poem, McCrae makes reference to poppies growing among the graves of the dead, and the popularity of the poem led to people wearing artificial poppies in memory of the dead.
It’s worth mentioning that these artificial poppies are made and sold to raise money for charities which support ex-servicepeople and their families, so in buying one you’ll be helping someone somewhere!
Now that you’re up to speed on the meaning behind Remembrance Day, let’s leave you with a few famous sayings and quotes which have stood the test of time and help us remember the tragedy of wars, and the loss of human life it causes:
"When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today." Rudyard Kipling, The Old Issue
“To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.”
Thomas Campbell, Hallowed Ground
"They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them."
Laurence Binyon, For The Fallen
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow Between the crosses, row on row, That mark our place; and in the sky The larks, still bravely singing, fly Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
John McCrae, In Flanders Fields
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