Lest We Forget - A Look Into Remembrance Day

Lest We Forget - A Look Into Remembrance Day
On May 28, 2000, the body of an unknown Canadian soldier who died in France during the First World War was transported on a horse-drawn carriage to the National War Memorial in Ottawa. Chosen from one of 1,603 unknown Canadians buried in the vicinity of Vimy Ridge, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has become a focal point for commemoration each November 11th. Every subsequent year, scores of red poppies, letters, photos, and flowers have been placed on the grave of the Unknown Soldier in a tradition that began as a spontaneous commemoration of Canadian soldiers and their service to the Commonwealth. 

Although this particular practice is a relatively recent phenomenon, the history of commemorating Canadian Armed Forces each November is nearly a century long and began at a time when the Canadian people could imagine a time without war, in which future generations would need a day to look back and commemorate the sacrifices of a generation of young men who died in service to their country. 

Remembrance Day memorializes the symbolic end of World War I on November 11, 1918. Although the war was not officially over until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, hostilities formally ended "at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month" in 1918 with the signing of an armistice by representatives of the Allied Forces and Germany. One year later, King George V held an Armistice Day remembrance at Buckingham Palace. In the same year, it was suggested that a two-minute silence be held at exactly 11 o'clock a.m. local time as a sign of respect. First proposed by South African Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, the first minute symbolically honours the 20 million soldiers and civilians who died during the war and the second minute is dedicated to the wives and families of the fallen soldiers. Similar ceremonies spontaneously arose in other Commonwealth and non-Commonwealth countries as the world attempted to understand the violence and destruction of the First World War and come to grips with the political, social, and economic changes it had generated around the globe.

Throughout the late 1910's and early 1920's, the observance of Armistice Day continued and continued to evolve. Red artificial poppies first appeared in 1921 and were adopted by the American Legion who were inspired by the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields". The flowers were worn as a commemoration of American soldiers killed during the war, but the poem was written by a Canadian physician, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. He penned the poem on May 3, 1915, a day after witnessing the death of his friend and fellow soldier, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Like many countries of the British Empire, the use of red poppies became an official symbol of remembrance in Canada and is now worn during the two weeks before 11 November. It is a tradition that the poppies be worn on the left lapel or near the heart. 

In 1931 the Canadian parliament amended the Armistice Day Act creating a national holiday to be observed on the 11th of November each year. It was at this time that the name of the holiday was officially changed to Remembrance Day. Though it was only 13 years after the cessation of hostilities and the end of the First World War, the pervasive belief - or possibly hope - was that World War I would be the last war. Referred to as "The Great War", few could imagine that a decade later the world would once again become embroiled in conflict. Nor could anyone imagine that World War II would become the bloodiest war of all time. In an amazing show of patriotism, many veterans of World War I enlisted once again when Canada entered the war in 1939, less than 21 years after the end of the First Wold War.

After the conclusion of the Second World War, it was decided the holiday should be a day to memorialize all Canadian soldiers who died, not only during the First World War but in any conflict. The Department of Veterans Affairs states that the holiday is a day "...for The men and women who have served, and continue to serve our country during times of war, conflict and peace". Although it is most strongly associated with the cessation of hostilities in the First World War, veterans of the Second World War, the Korean War, and all armed conflicts in which Canadian Armed Forces have served are also to be honoured.

Remembrance Day was created at a time when the country could envision a future in which Canadians would no longer face the horrors of war. Although several conflicts have marred the peace since 1918, the hope for peace has not faded. It has been nearly a century since the end of the First World War, and each November, the holiday still serves as a vital reminder of the sacrifices of war and of the men who gave their lives for the Commonwealth.