November 11 is Remembrance Day, acknowledged across the globe by British Commonwealth countries with a resounding plea: “Lest we forget.” The day was first set aside on 7 November 1919 by King George V, that his subjects might pay tribute to their fallen friends and family members who served in the First World War. Originally called Armistice Day, this day was eventually set on the 11th day of each November as Remembrance Day. Veterans of WWI and WWII have traditionally taken a pivotal role in the local memorials of the day, however as few of these original soldiers remain to represent their fallen comrades, current members of the armed forces in Great Britain, Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries have taken on the symbolic role.
As the first Armistice Day was held at Buckingham Palace by King George, so too does the current reigning British monarch host an annual Remembrance Day memorial service. In London, three separate events are organized during the week of Remembrance Day, culminating in a public memorial service on the second Sunday in November. Today, the Queen’s husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, is attending a formal Remembrance Day service and opening the Field of Remembrance at Westminster Abbey. The Duke’s role in the service is to lay a cross before the wooden crosses representing the Graves of Unknown British Soldiers from WWI and WWII. Following the Last Post, played on trumpet, the Duke of Edinburgh meets with veterans from past and more recent military conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
This Saturday, November 9, Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family will attend the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall. The Festival is presented by the Royal British Legion, who has scheduled musicians James Blunt, Katie Melua and other famous British singers and songwriters to put on a show and bring in funds for the Legion. Saturday’s Festival is completely sold out.
Finally, the Queen and family will attend the Remembrance Day service at Whitehall this Sunday, November 10, to lay wreaths on the Cenotaph, a war memorial built in 1920 by Edwin Lutyens. This memorial was originally a temporary structure, created by participants in the peace march through London following the end of the First World War; people were so enamored of it, however, that a permanent structure was contracted.The Whitehall service audience will keep 2 minutes of silence, as is traditional, to reflect on the tragedy of war and pay tribute to fallen soldiers.
At 11 am, November 11, with respect to worldwide time zones, this same 2 minutes of silence will be enacted in Commonwealth countries the world over. Schools, railroad stations and most public address systems will creak on at 11 o’clock to announce a moment’s silence, and even in the most crowded of schoolrooms and train stations, people are respectfully quiet and pensive.
Remembrance Day is often referred to as “Poppy Day,” a monicker that has become popular because of the tradition of wearing a paper or felt poppy over one’s heart in solidarity with the fallen soldiers. Thanks to Canadian WWI soldier John McRae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields,” poppies are recognized internationally as the sign of Remembrance.
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.
By Mandy Gardner
Royal British Legion – Festival of Remembrance