The meaning of Remembrance Day

Written by james holloway | 13/05/2017
The meaning of Remembrance Day
Poppy wreaths, seen here at the Cenotaph, commemorate the dead of the First World War. (Danny Martindale/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

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 meaning of Remembrance Day
(Hemera Technologies/ Images)

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.

The meaning of Remembrance Day
British Legion founder Douglas Haig adopted the poppy as a symbol. ( Images)

Changing commemoration

Remembrance and dissent

The meaning of Remembrance Day
Some dissenters feel that Remembrance Day ceremonies tend to glorify the tragic cost of war. ( Images)

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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