Each year, as we head into November stalls selling paper poppies set up around the UK. Whilst many of us know that the Royal British Legion use the funds raised to support veteran troops, much of the history of Armistice day and the meaning of the poppy has been lost. This year, the Royal British Legion are asking the nation to ‘Rethink Remembrance’. In this blog, we’ll be exploring the history of Armistice Day, Remembrance Sunday, and the iconic paper poppy.
What is Armistice Day?
On 11th November 1918, the Allied Forces and Germany signed the Armistice which ended World War I. After three days of negotiations, the government in Berlin ordered the German delegation, led by Matthias Erzberger, to sign any terms that the Allies offered. Officially the Armistice was signed at 5.10am, but arms were not laid down until 11am when the message reached troops. However, due to the messages being delayed to some Western fronts, fighting continued through the day, with more than 10,000 men killed, wounded or reported missing on 11th November 1918.
From 1919 onwards, Armistice ceremonies were held on 11th November to mark the end of World War I. This is not only observed in Britain, but in other WWI Allied countries like France and Belgium, as well as other Commonwealth countries.
Two Minutes of Silence
Following the war, South Africa observed minutes of silence, which began in the UK when Sir Percy Fitzpatrick suggested it to Lord Milner. At 11am on 11th November we observe two minutes of silence to reflect on the lives lost, as well as those left behind. The significance of this date does mark the end of the First World War, but we now commemorate all those affected by war – those who lost their lives, wounded veterans, active servicemen and women, as well as the families and communities who support them. Although we are in Britain, it is important to recognise that people from all over the world have fought alongside British troops; we recognise and commemorate all those who have been affected, regardless of nationality, race or religion. As such, after the Second World War ended in 1945 the day has also become known as Remembrance Day.
You may have experienced the Two Minute Silence at school, or when in your community. Schools will often mark the silence using an announcement, or the school bell. It is a mark of respect to observe this silence.
To avoid stalling important work such as factory production, Remembrance Day was observed on the closest Sunday to 11th November from 1939. This year ceremonies will be held on 12th November.
Although this tradition has remained to this day, many people across the country still observe a Two Minute Silence on 11th November, and others lay wreaths of poppies at local War Memorials on the 11th, as well as Remembrance Sunday.
A televised ceremony is held on Remembrance Sunday each year, at the Cenotaph in London. In attendance are the Queen, members of the Royal family, the Prime Minister and other politicians, serving servicemen and servicewomen, as well as veterans of the Armed Forces. The public turn out in their thousands to pay their respects. The Queen is the first to lay a wreath of poppies at the foot of the Cenotaph, followed by others. At the ceremony the Two Minute Silence begins with the playing of ‘The Last Post’ and ends with the playing of the ‘Reveille’.
The iconic paper poppy we see today did not start out as paper, nor the significance of the poppy begin with it.
In 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae witnessed the death of a close friend at Ypres. Shortly after, he noticed poppies blooming in scarred battlefields. The delicate but resilient flowers pushed up through the dirt, bringing colour back to the once rich countryside. McCrae wrote his now famous poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, drawing inspiration from the fields he saw coming back to life.
An American academic, Moina Michael, was inspired by McCrae’s poem to make and sell silk poppies. A French woman, Anna Guérin, brought the silk poppies to Britain. The Royal British Legion had formed in 1921, and ordered 9 million silk poppies that year. On 11th November 1921 the poppies quickly sold out, raising £106,000; this considerable amount of money was used to help veterans with employment and housing. Two poppy factories soon set up in London and Edinburgh, which still stand today. As well as making poppies to sell in order to raise money for the Royal British Legion, these factories employ disabled veterans.
The poppy is:
- A symbol of hope and Remembrance
- Worn by millions of people
- Red, for the natural colour of field poppies
The poppy is not:
- A sign of death, or support for war
- A reflection of political leaning or religion
- Red, for the colour of blood
‘In Flanders Fields’ – John McCrae
For the 2017 Poppy Appeal, the Royal British Legion created a video depicting a modern take on ‘In Flanders Fields’. Their campaign to #RethinkRemembrance hopes to remind us of the meaning of the poppy. You can watch it here: