A professor once commented, “We write things down so we can forget them.” Now, of course, this is true in the limited sense of writing down appointments so we don’t have to worry about missing meetings. But that’s just it; we do forget things. As individuals, we forget things that are important to us. Companies seem to have little in the way of corporate memory so that they might do things better the next time. Countries forget the things that have occurred in their past, things that make them unique. In many parts of the world — Europe in particular and several of the former British Commonwealth countries specifically — there are memorials in the town square commemorating their war heroes, usually with the words “Lest we forget.”
Historically, Veterans Day used to be called Armistice Day, commemorating the ending hostilities of the western front of World War I on November 11, 1918 (the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.) At 5:45 am on that day, Germany signed the Armistice (truce) in the Forest of Compiegne and the order was given for a cease-fire for later that morning, after four years of war.
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.
The initial inspiration for the use of the remembrance poppy in association with this holiday was the 1915 WWI poem by Canadian soldier, poet, and physician John McCrae “In Flanders Fields” in which poppies were the first flowers to grow above the graves of soldiers who had died in Flanders, Belgium.
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…
In Malta and South Africa, the day is called Poppy Day, and in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United Kingdom, it is called Remembrance Day.
In the Beatles song Penny Lane, John Lennon makes reference to the popular practice on this day. He had met Nurse Cadet Beth Davidson on Penny Lane in Liverpool when she was a young woman carrying a tray of poppies to sell:
Behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout
The pretty nurse is selling Poppies from a tray
to benefit veterans, the poppy being a symbol of sacrifice.
Let there be memorials, tributes, and parades. Let us remember, recognize, and preserve the memory of those who came before us and what freedoms we now enjoy because of their many sacrifices.
This is one of the reasons I created a tribute webpage for my father, a World War II veteran and hero who liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. HBO picked up his story and had featured it on their website back when they ran the Dachau episode 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.
“Lest we forget.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian