Armistice Day: Why we remember, 102 years on

Director of the Allied Forces Heritage Group Ian Reed, known for his work commemorating UK/France wartime cooperation, explains the history and symbols of Remembrance Day and why it is still important today

11 November 2020
French Soldiers advance during the Battle of Verdun (February 21 to December 18. 1916) There were almost 1 million casualties during 10 months of fighting, one of the longest and costliest battles in history.
By Ian Reed

Stopping the cycle of war

In 1859, Austria invaded Sardinia and fought France (11 weeks); in 1864, Prussia and Austria invaded Denmark (9 months); in 1866, Prussia invaded Austria (5 weeks) and in 1870 France declared war on Prussia (6 months).

In all these wars the outcomes came within just a few weeks or months. Reparations or land transfers were duly paid by the losers, then everyone went back home and prepared for the next war.

This had gone on for centuries. A Roman general once famously expressed, “the intelligence of Man has never changed – only machinery improves”.

In 1914, some of this generation still thought along the same basic lines, except that this time weapons manufacture had improved dramatically and the two opposing forces were so equal that a stalemate resulted in static trench warfare which lasted three-and-a-quarter years (39 months), in which millions died.

On November 11, 1918, the guns eventually fell silent to mark the end of hostilities between the nations of the Allied (or Entente) Powers and The Central Powers, during what was after named The Great War.

The guns had stopped because of an agreed “cease-fire” – an Armistice – not a clear victory. In fact, German soldiers on the front line were not beaten and in most cases were in strong fighting positions and many were incredulous that everything stopped so suddenly.

The subsequent feeling of unfairness in the crippling reparations made against Germany by the peace treaties was one of the overriding reasons which gnawed into the German subconsciousness and motivated them into a second, more deadly, international conflict only 20 years later.

Whatever the reasons to go to war, the real cost in the lives of ordinary civilians and mainly conscripted armies was too much. The increasing democratisation of the world’s major nations now meant that all powerful heads of state were no longer able to direct their nations’ politics. Every voter now had a say, and the people wanted this cycle stopped.

The creation of major recognisable symbols against the carnage of modern warfare began to be established even before the “War to End All Wars” had ended. 

It is a recognition that successive generations never really learn from their predecessors and the term “we will remember them” is a way in which each generation verbally passes down to the next, how so-called civilised nations can so easily decline into barbarism and destruction of their people. 

A lesson as relevant today as it was then.

The unknown warrior

Following World War One, the sorrow and outrage of the huge death toll of the nation’s youth was unimaginable, but it was also the knowledge that the type of warfare now waged destroyed human beings at an industrial level. 

It gave rise to the symbol of “The Unknown Warrior”, and for Britain this was to recognise the 517,773 sons, brothers, fathers, uncles or friends whose bodies had either been totally destroyed or were no longer recognisable, to be identified or given a proper burial.

In 1916, the Reverend David Railton, serving as an army chaplain on the Western Front, conceived the idea of recognising this fact when he noted the number of burial crosses marked “Unknown”. 

He suggested that one of these unknown soldiers should be “buried alongside the kings of England” at Westminster Abbey, and eventually plans were drawn up to make this happen.

On the night of November 7, 1920, the body of one unknown British soldier was randomly chosen from the many at a special ceremony at Saint Pol-sur-Ternoise in the Hauts-de-France region.

A coffin containing the remains was escorted to Boulogne by the entire French 8th Infantry Regiment, who stood with it overnight in a guard of honour. The next day, it was taken in a mile-long procession accompanied by over a thousand French schoolchildren, French cavalry and troops, to where Marshal Ferdinand Foch (Supreme Allied Commander), took the salute before the coffin was loaded onto the destroyer “HMS Verdun”, bound for England.

On November 11, 1920, the coffin with the Unknown Warrior was carried in procession on a horse-drawn gun carriage through central London followed by King George V and the royal family and placed inside and near to the entrance of Westminster Abbey, where it lies today.

On the very same day, France brought their selected Unknown Warrior from Verdun to the chapel beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and two months later it was laid to rest in the centre of the Arc where it resides today.

On November 11, 1921, the US buried their Unknown Warrior at the Memorial Amphitheatre, Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

The flowers

Cornflowers, daisies and poppies on an embroidered greeting card sent from the Western Front in 1918. AFHG Collection

During the Great War, postcards from the battlefields were often made with three flowers, namely the poppy, cornflower and the daisy, which had grown amongst the devastated countryside.

Bombs, artillery shells and mines which had exploded over the fields of Northern France and Belgium for three-and-a-quarter years had destroyed most things on the surface. 

It unearthed millions of tonnes of soil and exposed ancient plant seeds, which then bloomed in abundance where nothing else grew.  

In itself, the imagery of the red poppy was not missed by the people who witnessed it. It seemed to exactly reflect the blood and carnage of the battlefields and was expressed so emotionally by Canadian army physician, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae’s 1915 poem ‘We Shall Not Sleep’ later named ‘In Flanders Fields’, written before he died at the British General Hospital in Wimereux in January 1918.

Mr McCrae had initially dismissed the poem but it was retrieved by a colleague and on December 8, 1915 his poem was published in Punch magazine. 

By 1916 it was appearing in regional newspapers and soon after “poppy days” began to take place in England, particularly in the North East and Yorkshire where significant numbers of British Army troop recruitment had taken place. 

Pressed flowers were often sent home from the trenches and the symbolism of the red poppy became embedded into the connection with the war in France. Soon after, the poppy symbol began to appear across the British Empire and the Commonwealth and the USA.  Lectures and fund-raising drives for the injured and orphans were commonplace, and the poppy began to symbolise them all.

It is perhaps ironic that the promotion of the Flanders Poppy had been driven by a French lady and an American lady of French descent yet in France the cornflower or “bleuet” is the French national symbol of Remembrance.

The Frenchwoman behind the Remembrance Day poppy

The pale blue cornflower matched the “blue horizon” colour of the uniforms of the new French conscripts of 1915 (most under 20 years of age) who were recruited to shore up the huge casualties suffered by the French Regular Army, who still wore the traditional French uniform with red trousers. These new fresh troops were soon labelled, “Bleuets” and the name stuck.

The use of the Bleuet as a badge of French national remembrance was created in 1916 by Charlotte Malleterre and Suzanne Lenhardt, head nurse at Les Invalides national military hospital in Paris. Ms Lenhardt was the widow of an infantry captain killed in 1915, and sister of Général Gustave Léon Niox, and Ms Malleterre was the wife of Général Gabriel Malleterre.

They organised workshops to manufacture the Bleuet cornflower badges from paper and sold them at public events throughout the war. 

The money was used to support ex-servicemen and after the war the Bleuet began to be recognised nationally following its adoption on September 15, 1920, by the Mutilés de France (The Injured of France) and the Federation Interalliee des Anciens Combattants (Veterans Affairs) as the “eternal symbol” for all those who had died for France.

Today the Bleuet is still a recognised symbol of French Remembrance and although the physical Bleuet has changed in appearance several times, it is still sold in large numbers each year, even in the UK.

Mr Reed is the director of the Allied Forces Heritage Group. You can find more information about the group on their website: https://afheritage.org/

Read more about Armistice Day:

How France will celebrate Armistice Day this year

Britons in France can order their poppies by email

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