The meaning of Remembrance Day

Updated August 10, 2017

Every November -- and, increasingly, well into October -- lapels all over the country sprout a crop of bright red paper poppies. The poppy is as much a part of the British autumn landscape as grey clouds and wet pavements, and has become a symbol of national identity. In fact, however, this immemorial British custom has varied international roots, and the customs associated with it have changed subtly over the years.


The symbols which were to become closely associated with Remembrance Day -- the two minutes' silence, the poppy and a number of war poems -- all had their origins during the years of the war or shortly afterward. Considering that almost a century has passed since the first Remembrance Day, the continuity is remarkable.

The image of the poppy which was to become associated with Remembrance Day comes from a poem by Canadian doctor and soldier John McCrae. McCrae, who had just survived weeks of intense fighting at the second battle of Ypres, wrote the poem partly to commemorate a dead comrade. "In Flanders Fields" was published in "Punch" in December 1915 and became an instant sensation; its lines were used in charity and recruiting drives by numerous organisations, both in the UK and in Canada. More than anything else, this poem fixed the image of the poppy as the symbol of death and sacrifice in the trenches of Flanders.

The other poem most often heard on Remembrance Day is Laurence Binyon's "For the Fallen", which is read at most Remembrance services. Binyon wrote his poem in 1914 as a response to accounts of high casualties at the battle of the Marne. Unlike McCrae, Binyon did not serve in the war -- he was already over 40 when it began -- although he did volunteer in a hospital in France.

The final major symbol of Remembrance Day is the two minutes' silence, observed at 11 am on November 11th to commemorate the end of fighting. This custom was first observed in 1919. The initial suggestion probably came from Australian journalist Edward Honey, who advocated a commemorative silence in a letter to the London Evening News in May 1919. Although Honey's suggestion was for five minutes, the suggestion was implemented as -- and remains -- two minutes.

The poppy spreads

John McCrae's poem was not enough to make the poppy an international symbol of commemoration; that would come during and after the war through the actions of a group of people, most notably an American YWCA worker named Moina Belle Michael.

Moina Michael's fascination with the poppy as a symbol of respect for the war dead began with the publication of "In Flanders Fields" in the American magazine "Ladies' Home Journal" in 1918. Michael, who was attending a YWCA conference in New York, later recounted that reading the poem was a profoundly spiritual experience for her, in which she felt as if she were being directly addressed by the spirits of the dead. She purchased and distributed a number of artificial poppies to delegates at the conference and began a campaign for the poppy as a national symbol of remembrance.

Anna Guerin, a French YWCA member, took up Michael's idea of the poppy as a symbol of remembrance. Over the next several years, she began to raise money for post-war restoration by selling cloth poppies made by French women, children and disabled veterans. After success in France, Guerin began to expand her campaign to other countries, including Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom.

Guerin's attempt to introduce the memorial poppy in the UK was a success. She met in person with British Legion founder Douglas Haig in 1921 and persuaded him to adopt the poppy as a symbol for the legion. Sales of artificial poppies for charity, modeled on Guerin's successful campaign in France, began shortly before Remembrance Day in 1921 and have continued ever since.

Ironically, although the practice of selling and wearing red poppies originated in the USA, it failed to take root there to the same extent that it did in Canada and Britain. Although some veterans' groups do still make and sell poppies, they are far from the ubiquitous sight that they are in the UK.

Changing commemoration

Remembrance Day events began immediately after the war and have been continuing in one form or another ever since. Over time, however, the nature of those events has changed -- subtly in some ways and dramatically in others.

The first observation of two minutes' silence in 1919 was a dramatic moment. Electricity was even cut to London's trams, leaving the city with a much lower level of background noise than today. The national mood was a curious combination of sadness and relief; the high cost of the war was a major national trauma, but the fact that peace had finally been achieved after long years of fighting made the occasion a happy one for many. The First World War was Britain's first genuinely traumatic war in generations; most 19th-century conflicts had been fought far from home, usually against opponents with little hope of resisting the might of the British armed forces. Heavy casualties, deprivation at home and attacks on British soil were new experiences.

Attitudes toward Remembrance Day services changed during the run-up to the Second World War, and even more so during the war itself. Although the day continued to be observed, the fact that the promised peace of 1918 had failed to last diminished public enthusiasm for it, as did the need to focus on the conflict at hand. The end of the Second World War saw the date of official ceremonies shifted to the nearest Sunday to November 11th. Remembrance Sunday was to commemorate the dead of all wars, not just the First World War.

Although elements of the Remembrance Day observance have remained consistent for decades, they haven't always been consistently observed. Even the two minutes' silence on the 11th fell out of common practice for years until a campaign by tabloid newspapers raised awareness of it again in 1996.

Remembrance and dissent

Although nominally a non-political act of commemoration, Remembrance Day has not been without controversy. The perceived glorification of war is seen by many as inappropriate in a day commemorating war's victims. As literary critic Paul Fussell has pointed out, despite its elegaic tone, "In Flanders Fields" is a very aggressive poem, urging the reader to continue to fight. Today, opposition to this aspect of the day is particularly strong in some areas, such as the Catholic community of Northern Ireland, which have a poor relationship with the British military.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, protestors often disrupted Remembrance Day events, including the main service at the Cenotaph in London. Many of these demonstrators were veterans protesting the lack of jobs and social services for those returning from the war. To them, the day demonstrated society's hypocrisy in praising dead soldiers while failing to provide for living ones. Similar protests occurred in the 1930s, a period in which many felt that the lessons of the First World War were being ignored.

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About the Author

Dr James Holloway has been writing about games, geek culture and whisky since 1995. A former editor of "Archaeological Review from Cambridge," he has also written for Fortean Times, Fantasy Flight Games and The Unspeakable Oath. A graduate of Cambridge University, Holloway runs the blog Gonzo History Gaming.