With Armistice Day looking very different this year, Jen takes us back to the origin of this important occasion…
Freeman Brothers Funeral Directors was first established in Horsham, West Sussex in 1855. The company now has three further offices – in Billingshurst, Crawley and Hurstpierpoint – across the county, and continues to serve these communities with dedication and dignity. The business has operated through every Armistice Day since the event’s genesis in 1919, and with circumstances in 2020 meaning that things are very different, the team wanted to share the history of the event, to bring comfort as we are unable to gather in person. Funeral Support Assistant, Jen Bolt, covers the topic here…
‘The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also… It was a silence which was almost pain… and the spirit of memory brooded over it all.’
The first Remembrance Day must have been a profoundly moving experience. Just one year on from the cessation of the war, its effects would have been both humbling and painfully raw to a population still mourning sons, fathers and brothers; still searching for an outcome that would justify the immense loss of life suffered throughout the Commonwealth. This report, published in the Manchester Guardian the following day, on 12th November 1919, deftly illustrates the extraordinary power of the first silent vigil in bringing a bustling, industrial city to a standstill with a quietness its reporter referred to as “so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility.”
Over the century that has followed and under the careful guidance of the Royal British Legion, who took over the organisation of Remembrance Day ceremonies in 1921, Armistice Day has developed into something more than simple commemoration with the addition of ritual, poetry and symbolism. One of the most prolific and recognisable symbols – the poppy – grew from humble beginnings to encapsulate a great range of feelings and emotions; it has been – at times – both comforting and divisive.
Despite often appearing in cultivated gardens as part of a ‘meadow flower mix’, wild poppies will only grow organically in the absence of other flowers and in churned earth, hence often being seen in fallow fields lately harvested. As such, they are known to have been the first flower to break through the fields of battle, once the guns had fallen silent, becoming a symbol both of the cessation of war and the persistence of nature to overcome suffering and brutality. The duality of the symbol is critical: the beauty and delicacy of the flower offers hope for the better world that was promised whilst its frailty and scarlet colour reminds us of the violence and bloodshed that was its cost.
Similarly, the remembrance ceremony itself is intended to mimic the night vigil that soldiers in the trenches would sit over the bodies of the dead, both to ensure lifelessness and protect against further mutilation by the enemy. Across the Commonwealth, such ceremonies are comparable: a silence of one to two minutes is usually observed, accompanied by the laying of wreaths at the cenotaph (from the Greek, meaning “empty tomb”). Gun salutes are often sounded, an exhortation from Laurence Binyon’s Ode to the Fallen is recited and The Last Post is usually heard, followed by a national anthem to highlight the patriotic nature of the celebration. Where a religious service is included, hymns and prayers may also be offered.
Such acts of commemoration are popular around the world, with many countries outside of the Commonwealth holding their own military commemorations – known as Veterans’ Day in the USA and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand – at various significant times of the year.
Despite the popularity of such ceremonies and national holidays, this mode of memorial has never been without division with critics questioning the possible hypocrisy of such annual rituals in a world where war and violence still hold sway: these troubling questions leave some pondering the emptiness and futility of the Remembrance gesture. In his popular play The History Boys for example, the dramatist Alan Bennett called commemoration ‘the best way of forgetting something’, echoing the sentiment of poet Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (1878-1962) in his poem, Armistice Day, 1932:
The buzzer sounds, and at our benches, we
Stopping the lathes, two minutes, silently
Mourn for the lads who fell; then turn again
To make arms, for killing other men.
Written in the Interwar era, Gibson’s poetry highlighted the irony of a period in which the population both mourned and memorialised victims of the “war to end all wars” while suffering increasing anxiety that the political and civil unrest were not over and quietly making preparations in the event of another impending war.
As we now know, that war – and many more – certainly came, bringing with them their own barbaric atrocities and further loss of life. Armistice Day has therefore broadened its scope, honouring not only those who died in the First World War but “pay[ing] tribute to the men and women of the Second World War generation, and to those of today’s, who have served and sacrificed to defend our nation. We remember the collaboration of the Commonwealth and Allied nations who stood shoulder to shoulder then to secure our freedom and the communities coming together today to protect us all.” (Royal British Legion, 2020)
Gibson himself applied for active service in the army, feeling honour-bound to do so, but was rejected four times before eventually being accepted as a Private in the Motor Services corps in October 1917; later, as an officer’s clerk. Unable to fight on the front line, Gibson directed his talents to writing poetry that highlighted, to the British public, the plight of those soldiers who went; specifically, the mental anguish they endured.
Sadly, much of Gibson’s work was overlooked by his contemporaries, being overshadowed by the work of better-known war poets who drew on first-hand experience. With the benefit of hindsight, and our modern understanding of the long-term impact such atrocities can have on mind and body, Gibson’s war poetry is now more widely recognised as an insightful warning about the damage the war would cause.
Happily, research and experience have given us a far better understanding nowadays of the toll warfare can wreak and it is thanks to the year-round work of the Royal British Legion, and other charitable organisations that help to raise awareness and support service men and women, that so-called ‘Poppy Day’ is no longer just about remembrance but looking to a brighter future for all those who serve or have served in the military.
Sadly, the effects of this year’s pandemic and the current lockdown will undoubtedly impact the 2020 appeal with parades and gatherings cancelled and many poppy sellers unable to man their pitches due to shielding and self-isolation. Showing trademark resilience however, the Legion have found alternative opportunities for the public to show their support including a huge range of fundraising and promotional items available to purchase from their website, posters to download and print at home and even special fundraising challenges to complete, all based around the number 11. Like the poppy itself, they have found a way through the dark times to keep inspiring others.
Whatever long-term impact the pandemic may bring, as we look forward to 2021 we note that this coming year will mark the centenary of the Royal British Legion and its important work, both on Armistice Day and all year round. We at Freeman Brothers sincerely hope that gatherings will once again be permitted in order to mark this important occasion. Until then, we’ll continue to buy our poppies and tune in to see the cenotaph, supporting in spirit if not in person.
‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.’ – Binyon, 1914
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