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Poppies on small wooden crosses that say 'In Remembrance'

The history of Remembrance Day

Image: Pixabay

Every November, the United Kingdom remembers the thousands of individuals who have died in conflict. But what is the story behind the nation collectively gathering around the Cenotaph, or the wearing of poppies, and is there a difference between Remembrance Day and Remembrance Sunday?

Remembrance Day: Saturday, 11th November 2023 - honours the dead from the First World War.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend the catastrophic loss of life that defined World War I. It was the first war that was truly mechanised to maximise damage as it was the first time the battlefield had seen light-machine guns, the use of aircraft in combat, tanks (or ‘landships’ as they were then known) and lethal chemicals.

The young men, from all walks of life, that followed Field Marshal Douglas Haig into battle were completely unprepared for the sheer intensity, and horror, of what lay before them.

In total, there were 17 million deaths and 21 million wounded on both sides, a figure that significantly dwarfed those of previous wars in Europe. On 1st July 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, the British Army alone lost 57,470 personnel in a single day.

When was the first Remembrance Day?

At 11am on Armistice Day, on 11th November 1919. The event, inaugurated by George V, was held in Buckingham Palace, following a banquet the previous evening to honour the French Republic.

A permanent version of Armistice Day is better known as 'Remembrance Day' and occurs every 11th November. The time and date are significant as WW1 ended on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

Which countries remember the lives lost during WWI?

All 56 member states of the Commonwealth and those that were directly involved, such as France and Belgium. For some Commonwealth countries, like Canada, it’s a public holiday, but in the UK, Remembrance Day is acknowledged nationally by two minutes of silence at 11am. War memorials up and down the country are adorned with wreaths and a diminishing few remember family members, friends or acquaintances that made the ultimate sacrifice.

Why do people wear poppies to acknowledge Remembrance Day?

Shortly after the end of the First World War, the former battlegrounds in France, now acting as silent witnesses to the events that had unfolded, played host to vast blankets of bright red poppies. The soil, fertile from the dead, was the perfect environment for the flower, its sheer existence, announced by its bloodred countenance, made it a fitting tribute to those who had died.

On 15th May 1921, The Royal British Legion was formed to raise money for those affected by WWI by the simple act of buying and wearing a poppy.

Poppies were inspired by a Canadian poet and an American academic.

Canadian doctor, Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, first saw poppies in Flanders in 1915 and the sight inspired him to write 'In Flanders Fields', before the effects of war claimed his life three years later.

The poem inspired American academic, Moina Michael, to campaign for the poppy to become an official symbol of remembrance across the United States, Canada, Australia, and the UK. Her cause was helped by Anna Guérin, who persuaded the founder of the British Legion, the former Field Marshal Douglas Haig, now Earl Haig, to adopt the poppy as an emblem of British remembrance.

When they were introduced on 11th November 1921, they sold out, raising £106,000 (about £5 million in today’s money) to help those left injured or bereaved by the war.

The Poppy Factory celebrates its centenary in 2022.

The Poppy Factory was founded in Richmond, Surrey in May 1922 by Major George Howson MC, a British Army officer who was awarded the Military Cross in 1917. He received £2,000 from the British Legion to open a poppy-making factory. His intention wasn’t just to supply poppies to the Royal British Legion, it was to employ veterans wounded during the First World War.

Less than a decade later, the factory was making nearly 30 million poppies a year. Today a team of about 50 people, primarily disabled former British military personnel, work all year round in the original, one-hundred-year-old Poppy Factory.

Remembrance Sunday: 12th November 2023 - honours the dead from all wars, including WWI and WWII, right through to the present day.

The National Service of Remembrance is held annually at The Cenotaph in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday. British and Commonwealth soldiers, sailors, airmen and women come together with members of the emergency services and civilians as a reminder of all those that have died in conflict since WWI.

Each year, 10,000 veterans participate in the March Past, overseen by Royalty and representatives from both sides of the House of Commons and the Lords.

Take part in Remembrance Sunday or Remembrance Day

Buy a poppy - They’re available nationally. If you’re concerned about the environmental impact of your poppy, some supermarkets will recycle them for you at no extra cost, or you can donate money directly via the British Legion website.

Observe two minutes silence - At 11am on 11th November the nation stops for two minutes to remember those who have served and those who lost their lives because of warfare.

Attend the Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph as a spectator - Visit the website of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport for details.

Visit the National Memorial Arboretum in Burton-on-Trent - A special Remembrance Sunday service is open to everyone from 10am.

Attend a memorial ceremony in your neighbourhood - Discover how you can help remember on a local level by contacting the Royal British Legion.

Be mindful - People have different opinions, some might not be as dedicated to the wearing of poppies to commemorate days of remembrance, while others may even regard it as a politicised relic. Others, however, may have lost loved ones in combat, or are veterans that have witnessed unimaginable suffering. Either way, the best way of acknowledging these two days of remembrance is, first and foremost, to respect the opinions of others.