Remembrance Day (also known as Poppy Day, Armistice Day or Veterans Day) is a memorial day observed in Commonwealth countries to remember the members of their armed forces who have died on duty since the First World War.
Remembrance Day is observed on November 11th to recall the official end of World War I on that date in 1918. The major hostilities of World War I were formally ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918 with the German signing of the Armistice. The day was specifically dedicated by King George V, on November 7th 1919, as an observance of members of the armed forces who were killed during World War I.
Every year on November 11, Canadians offer a silent moment of remembrance for the men and women who have served, and currently serve their country during times of war, conflict and peace. More than 1,500,000 Canadians have served in Canada’s military and sadly the country has lost more than 100,000 fallen heroes. They gave their lives and their futures so that we may live in peace.
The red remembrance poppy has become a familiar emblem of Remembrance Day due to the poem “In Flanders Fields”.
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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Its’ opening lines refer to the many poppies that were the first flowers to grow in the churned earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders, a region of Europe that overlies parts of Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. Canadian physician and Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae is popularly believed to have written it on May 3rd, 1915 after witnessing the death of a fellow soldier and beloved friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. The poem was first published on December 8th, 1915 in the London-based magazine Punch.
In 1918, American YWCA worker Moina Michael, inspired by the poem, vowed to always wear a red poppy as a symbol of remembrance for those who served in the war. At a November 1918 YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ conference, she appeared with a silk poppy pinned to her coat and came bearing 25 more for fellow attendees. She then campaigned to have the poppy adopted as a national symbol of remembrance. At a conference in 1920, the National American Legion adopted it as their official symbol of remembrance.
Following the First World War, a French woman Madame E. Guérin, suggested to British Field-Marshall Earl Haig, a founder of the Royal British Legion, that women and children in devastated areas of France could produce poppies for sale to support wounded Veterans. In 1921 she sent her poppy sellers to London, where they were adopted by Field Marshal Haig. The first of these poppies were distributed in Canada in November of 1921, and the tradition has continued ever since. It was also adopted by veterans’ groups Australia and New Zealand.
A white poppy is also not uncommon. Some people choose to wear white poppies as a pacifist alternative to the red. The white poppy and white poppy wreaths were introduced by the UK’s Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1933. Today, white poppies are sold by Peace Pledge Union or may be home-made.
On November 11 especially, but also throughout the year, we have the opportunity to remember the efforts of these special individuals. In remembering, we pay homage to those who respond to their country’s needs. On November 11, we pause for two minutes of silent tribute, and we attend commemorative ceremonies in memory of our war dead.
I want to conclude with another poem, this one by Mary Elizabeth Frye. While this text has no direct correlation to Remembrance Day, Canadian composer Eleanor Daley has set the poem to music as a part of a Requiem – entitled “In Remembrance”. It is often sung in Canada as part of memorial and remembrance services.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep” by Mary Elizabeth Frye (1932)
Do not stand at my grave and weep,
I am not there; I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamond glints on snow,
I am the sun on ripened grain,
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight.
I am the soft starlight at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.
“The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive the Veterans of earlier wars were treated and appreciated by their nation.”
– George Washington