We believe that some stories should never be forgotten, and perhaps none more so than those of the people who bravely fought for the freedom of our country, whose voices might fade if it weren’t for those who proudly remember them today.
As the UK prepares to commemorate the WWI Centenary this Sunday and unites to thank all those who have served and sacrificed, we take a closer look at some of the words that best capture the meaning and spirit of remembrance.
The poppy is worn by millions every year as a symbol of remembrance and hope. Bright red Flanders poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are a delicate but resilient flower that grew in the thousands and flourished even in the middle of chaos and destruction of the battlefields of WWI. This poignant image was first brought to the public attention in spring 1915. Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, had lost a friend in Ypres and shortly afterwards was inspired by the sight of poppies growing in battle-scarred fields to write a now famous poem called ‘In Flanders Fields’.
As documented by the Royal British Legion, McCrae’s poem inspired an American academic, Moina Michael, to make and sell red silk poppies which were brought to England by a French woman, Anna Guérin. The (Royal) British Legion, formed in 1921, ordered 9 million of these poppies and sold them on 11 November that year. The poppies sold out almost immediately and that first ever ‘Poppy Appeal’ raised over £106,000; a considerable amount of money at the time. This was used to help WW1 veterans with employment and housing.
The symbolism of wreaths to honour and celebrate those we have lost can be traced as far back as the time of Ancient Greece, where they were used to represent a circle of eternal life. In Europe, evergreen wreaths were laid at the burial place of early Christian virgin martyrs, the evergreen representing the victory of the eternal spirit over death.
By the Victorian era, the symbolism of flowers had grown to become an elaborate language, and the symbolism of flowers used to make wreaths was no exception. Today, it is a tradition to lay wreaths of poppies at the tombs of soldiers and at memorial cenotaphs during Remembrance Day
To commemorate is more than to just remember. The verb ‘commemorate’ is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as to “recall and show respect for (someone or something)” or to “mark or celebrate (an event or person) by doing or producing something”. It originates from the late 16th century: from Latin commemorat- ‘brought to remembrance’, from the verb commemorare, from com- ‘altogether’ + memorare ‘relate’ (from memor ‘mindful’).
The Cenotaph is a war memorial on Whitehall in London. Its origin is in a temporary structure erected for a peace parade following the end of the First World War. After an outpouring of national sentiment it was replaced in 1920 by a permanent structure and designated the United Kingdom’s official national war memorial. An annual Service of Remembrance is held at the site on Remembrance Sunday, the closest Sunday to 11 November (Armistice Day) each year.
The first wreath was traditionally laid on behalf of the nation by the Queen but, beginning in 2017, Prince of Wales, as the queen’s representative, lays the first wreath. Wreaths are then laid by senior members of the Royal Family.
Image from http://www.defenceimagery.mod.uk and reused under the OGL
Wreaths are then laid by the Prime Minister (and other Commonwealth leaders if they are present), the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of the other major political parties; the Foreign Secretary; Commonwealth High Commissioners; the Irish Ambassador (since 2014); representatives from the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force; the Merchant Navy and fishing fleets; and finally, the civilian emergency services.
After the ceremony, a parade of veterans, organised by the Royal British Legion, marches past the Cenotaph. Each contingent salutes the Cenotaph as they pass and a great many wreaths are handed over to be laid at it.
An armistice is defined as a formal agreement of warring parties to stop fighting. It is not necessarily the end of a war, since it may constitute only a cessation of hostilities while an attempt is made to negotiate a lasting peace. It is derived from the Latin arma, meaning “arms” (as in weapons) and -stitium, meaning “a stopping”.
Today, the word ‘armistice’ is synonymous with the end of WWI. It was the Armistice of 11 November 1918, 100 years ago, that ended fighting on land, sea and air in World War I between the Allies and Germany. Also known as the Armistice of Compiègne from the place where it was signed, it came into force at 11 a.m. Paris time on 11 November 1918 (“the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month”) and marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not formally a surrender.
Although the armistice ended the fighting, it needed to be prolonged three times until the Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919, took effect on 10 January 1920.
At the conclusion of the two minute silence at the Cenopath, the “Last Post” is sounded by the buglers of the Royal Marines.
The “Last Post” is bugle call within British infantry regiments and is used at Commonwealth military funerals, and ceremonies commemorating those who have been killed in war. Its duration varies typically from a little over one minute to nearly three minutes. For ceremonial use, the Last Post is often followed by “The Rouse”, as during the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph.
The use of the Last Post in Remembrance Day ceremonies has two generally unexpressed purposes: the first is an implied summoning of the spirits of the Fallen to the cenotaph, whilst the second is to symbolically end the day, so that the period of silence before the Rouse is blown becomes in effect a ritualised night vigil.
In common usage, a veteran is defined as anybody who has served in the armed forces. Although the term can be applied to any former serviceman or woman, it is perhaps most frequently used as a respectful title for those who served in the first and second world wars.
The last living veteran of World War I (28 July 1914 – 11 November 1918) was Florence Green, a British citizen who served in the Allied armed forces, and who died 4 February 2012, aged 110.
Today, poppies are worn as a symbol of respect for all veterans.
In observing the various traditions associated with Remembrance – and especially on this centenary year – we are ultimately saying thank you to all who have served for the freedom and peace that they have given us through their sacrifice.
This year, Remembrance Day is particularly poignant as we commemorate the centenary of the end of the First World War, 1918-2018. Led by the The Royal British Legion, this year the nation says Thank You to all who have served, sacrificed and changed our world.
According to the National Archives, more than one million British military personnel died during the First and Second World Wars, with the First World War alone accounting for 886,000 fatalities. In total, around six million men from the UK were mobilised in WWI. Since 1945, there has been a total of 7,186 British military deaths in conflicts, with 1968 being notable as the only year in which no British personnel were killed on operation.
Over the years, British military personnel have bravely sacrificed their lives not just for freedom here at home, but for the freedom of others around the world. On Remembrance Day, we unite to commemorate the sacrifice of each and every one.
The First Two Minute Silence was held in London on 11th November 1919. It was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 12 November 1919 as follows:
“The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.
The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.
Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of ‘attention’. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain … And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.”