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Many countries have a special day to remember those that fell in their wars; America has Veterans Day, while France has Armistice Day. The British commemorate those who fought, and are still fighting, in wars for their country on Remembrance Day.
The British Remembrance Day is always held on the 11 November. This is the day that World War One ended in 1918, when the armistice was signed in Compiègne, Northern France, at 5am. Six hours later, the fighting stopped, and to commemorate this there is a two minute silence in the UK at 11am, every 11 November.
The period of silence was first proposed by a Melbourne journalist, Edward George Honey, in a letter published in the London Evening News on 8 May, 1919, which subsequently came to the attention of King George V. On 7 November, 1919, the king issued a proclamation which called for a two-minute silence:
All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead.
As well as the two-minute silence, there are marches around the country by war veterans. The Royal Family, along with leading politicians, gather at the Cenotaph, a large war memorial in Whitehall, in London.
The nearest Sunday to the 11th is called Remembrance Sunday, when church services are held in honour of those involved in wars, and wreaths are laid on the memorials which have a place in every town. Many two-minute silences are followed by a lone bugler playing The Last Post, reminiscent of times of war when trumpets were as much a part of battle as bayonets. A poem called 'For the Fallen' is often read aloud on the occasion; the most famous stanza of which reads:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Fourth stanza of 'For the Fallen' by Laurence Binyon (1869 - 1943)
These words can be found adorning many war memorials across the country. The author, Laurence Binyon, was never a soldier but certainly appreciated the horrors of war.
Remembrance Day is taken very seriously, with disrespect being avoided at all costs (which is why the vandalisation of the Cenotaph on 1 May, 2000 was seen as such a horrific crime). If 11 November falls on a weekday, schools, workplaces and shopping centres generally attempt to observe the silence, although some people choose to ignore their attempts and go about their business regardless.
Remembrance Day is also known as Poppy Day, because it is traditional to wear an artificial poppy. They are sold by the Royal British Legion, a charity dedicated to helping war veterans, although they do not have a fixed price - they rely on donations.
The motto of the British Legion is Remember the dead; don't forget the living, and they are campaigners for issues relating to war veterans, especially elderly ones.
The poppies are worn because in World War One the Western Front contained in the soil thousands of poppy seeds, all lying dormant. They would have lain there for years more, but the battles being fought there churned up the soil so much that the poppies bloomed like never before. The most famous bloom of poppies in the war was in Ypres, a town in Flanders, Belgium, which was crucial to the Allied defence. There were three battles there, but it was the second, which was calamitous to the allies since it heralded the first use of the new chlorine gas the Germans were experimenting with, which brought forth the poppies in greatest abundance, and inspired the Canadian soldier, Major John McCrae, to write his most famous poem. This, in turn, inspired the British Legion to adopt the poppy as their emblem.
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.
John McCrae (1872 - 1918)
The American Moira Michael from Georgia, was the first person to wear a poppy in remembrance. In reply to McCrae's poem, she wrote a poem entitled 'We shall keep the faith' which includes the lines:
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
She bought some poppies, wore one, and sold the others, raising money for ex-servicemen. Her colleague, French YMCA Secretary Madame Guerin, took up the idea and made artificial poppies for war orphans. It caught on.
In November 1921, the British Legion and Australian Returned Sailors and Soldiers' League sold them for the first time.
The tragic events in New York on 11 September 2001, left ever increasing numbers of people feeling stronger than ever the need for peace. This, in turn, prompted the manufacture of white poppies to represent peace. They are not a new idea, though. In fact, they date from 1933, having been designed by a UK Women's Guild. The British Legion was invited to produce them twice, in 1933 and 1988, but they not only declined, they also refused to accept the proceeds from them, because they were seen as disrespectful by some soldiers. They are having a surge in popularity once again as people stop feeling as safe as they once did.