All this week Britain and its commonwealth have been celebrating Remembrance Day. This is a significant year, as it was 100 years ago that the Britain and France fought the Germany Empire in the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle on the Western Front during World War I. Over a million men were either killed or wounded during this 5 month offensive, making it one of the bloodiest battles in history. On the first day alone, July 1, 1916, the British lost over 19,000 soldiers, with twice that many wounded. Most died in the first hour of the attack, many within the first minutes.
In many parts of Europe, there are memorials in the town square commemorating their war heroes, usually with the words “Lest we forget”. Veterans Day differs from Memorial Day in that it honors surviving veterans, rather than memorializing fallen soldiers.
Historically, Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, commemorating the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.) At 5 am on that day, Germany signed the Armistice (truce) in the Forest of Compiegne and the order was given for a cease-fire, after 4 years of war.
In Malta and South Africa, the day is called Poppy Day, and in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, it is called Remembrance Day.
In The Beatles song Penny Lane, there is a reference to the popular practice on this day:
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray
…to benefit veterans, the poppy being a symbol of sacrifice, referring to poppies of the Flanders Fields of WWI. Poppies grow alone and in soil that has been turned over.
In the United States in 1919 President Woodrow Wilson issued an Armistice Day proclamation, but it was not until Congress first passed a resolution in 1926, and then passed a bill 12 years later that it became a federal holiday. But WWI, “the War to end all wars” was not the final war, and of the 16 million who served in WWII, more than 400,000 died. Birmingham, Alabama organized a “Veterans Day” parade on November 11, 1947 to honor all of America’s veterans for all wars. In 1953 townspeople in Emporia, Kansas called the holiday Veterans Day in gratitude to the veterans in their town. Soon after, Congress passed a bill introduced by a Kansas congressman renaming the federal holiday to Veterans Day. In 1954 President Eisenhower proclaimed November 11 as Veterans Day asking Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace.
J.R.R. Tolkien as a student was a member of the ‘Tea Club and Barrovian Society’, a small group of friends from King Edwards’ School in Birmingham. When they went off to Europe as soldiers, all but one of Tolkien’s friends died at the Battle of the Somme or later in the war. Lt. Tolkien’s Signals Battalion served in the northern section of the Somme and captured Ovillers during the war. He was returned to England 100 years ago this week after contracting trench fever. While recovering in a hospital back in Staffordshire he wrote about his experiences, and many ideas of the battles of the War of the Rings and the Fall of Godolin later appeared in The Lord of the Rings, The Book of Lost Tales, and The Silmarillion. He said that Hobbits were “a reflection of the English soldier,” reflecting “the indomitable courage of quite small people against impossible odds.” Tolkien later acknowledged that the “Dead Marshes” (in his book The Two Towers), with their pools of muck and floating corpses, “and the approaches to Mordor owe something to Northern France after the Battle of the Somme” where he recalled that when it rained, the craters of No Man’s Land became lakes in which the bodies of men from both sides floated.
In old age, two things happen: first, you begin to lose your memory, and second… I can’t recall right now. I for one am in favor of memorials, tributes, and parades. This is one of the reasons I created a tribute webpage for my father, a World War II soldier and hero who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. HBO picked up his story and had featured it originally on their website back when they ran the Dachau episode “Why We Fight” of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Hanks miniseries Band of Brothers, based on the novel by Stephen Ambrose. Get yourself a copy of the DVD and watch it. It will be good for your memory.
Some have said that we are raising up a generation who knows less about their own history than any generation before them. Let that not be our legacy for the future. Let us remember, recognize, and preserve the memory of those who came before us and what freedoms we now enjoy because of their sacrifices.
“Lest we forget.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian