Remembrance – Commemoration not Celebration
November 1, 2020

by Ian Langworthy, Historian and Battlefield Guide

In remembering those killed in conflicts since World War I, we are not glorifying war or approving of it as a means of settling disputes, but honouring the memory of the hundreds of thousands of men and women who died in those wars.

Although memorials to those killed in earlier conflicts exist in many towns and villages, Remembrance as we know it, organised on a national indeed international scale, started after World War I. With over 750,000 dead and without a town, village, street or family untouched by war it was inevitable and right that national commemoration should be made.

The Cenotaph in Whitehall and the grave of the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey became the centres and symbols of National Remembrance. “The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” (the date and time that the war ended in 1918) was chosen as the date and time for the nation to remember their dead by two minutes of quiet reflection. At that time and on that date throughout the period between the two world wars everything; traffic, work, people, noise stopped for two minutes. After World War II it was decided to move the national commemoration to the Sunday nearest the 11th November, preceded by the commemoration in the Albert Hall
the evening before.

However, in the last 25 years or so it has become common for towns and villages and organisations to commemorate the actual time and date on whatever day of the week it falls. The poppy is synonymous with remembrance in this country and throughout the Commonwealth. The poem “In Flanders Fields” written by Colonel John MaCrae, a Canadian surgeon, whilst serving in Ypres (Wipers to the British troops) is almost certainly the best-known poem of World War I.

Its reference to “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row…” was the inspiration for the poppy being adopted as the symbol of remembrance. This was initially due to the efforts of an American, Moira Michael and a French woman, Anna Guerin. Both had a passion that the poppy should be used as a symbol of remembrance and artificial poppies were made and sold to raise money for the families of those killed.

It was Guerin who showed the silk poppies to the secretary of the newly formed British Legion. The first poppy day was held in 1921 and it was so successful it was decided to repeat it and in 1922 thirty million poppies were ordered. Despite the enthusiasm of their countrywomen neither the US nor France adopted the poppy as their symbol of remembrance.

The white poppy is worn by some people and this has caused controversy. The Peace Pledge Union and its supporters who wear the white poppy are commemorating all the victims of the war, whether civilians or military; they also wish to show a commitment to peace and are opposed to the glorification of conflict.

Remembrance is carried on to honour the dead of British and Commonwealth countries not just by their own. Every evening at 8.00 pm 365 days a year come rain or shine whether no one attends or if there are hundreds, members of the Belgian Fire Brigade, representing the people of Belgium in general and Ypres in particular, sound the Last Post at the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres. This ceremony honouring those killed in the area has taken place every evening since 1928 only stopping when the Germans occupied Ypres between 1940 and 1944. On the very day that the Germans left Ypres in 1944 the Last Post sounded again. Each year in Holland, Dutch children lay flowers on the graves of soldiers killed on the attack on Arnhem (a bridge too far) in 1944 on the anniversary of that battle and such events happen throughout the world where British and Commonwealth soldiers have died.

And we have not even mentioned yet the very important work of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Initially set up by Fabian Ware as the Graves registration Committee to record the date and place of soldiers killed in battle, the Commission is responsible for the establishment and care of the many hundreds of military cemeteries throughout the world as well as individual headstones in local cemeteries. The headstones for the war dead are the same irrespective of rank, it being part of Ware’s vision that there should be equality in death. The cemeteries be they large or small and wherever situated in the world are beautifully maintained by CWGC gardeners planted where possible with flowers that would be found in an English country garden.

The spirit of remembrance is best captured in two epitaphs used in most ceremonies large and small. The words of Lawrence Binyons poem “For the Fallen” the verse of which ends with the words “We will remember them” and the Kohima epitaph which ends “ for your tomorrow we gave our today”.