Remembrance in Other Countries

A gusty Tuesday evening saw our audience listening to the November speaker, Christine Gregory, who took us on a tour of remembrance traditions in other countries. We, of course, immediately think of our own observancies here each year in November; but how many of us are aware that the commemoration was known as Armistice Day until 1946, when it was renamed Remembrance Day thus embracing all who died in the two World Wars? Many who fought in the First World War were drawn from the British Empire and their nations now choose to remember their war dead in subtly different ways to those of the United Kingdom's arrangements. For instance, ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand on 25th April initially derives from commemoration of the disastrous Gallipoli landings in World War I, when those countries suffered over 10,000 casualties. Nowadays, this memorial day remembers casualties of all conflicts and is a public holiday. November 11th is also marked in Australia with nationwide ceremonies led from the national war museum memorial in Canberra. This building also houses Australia's iconic war sculpture of "Murphy and Simpson". Simpson was a medical orderly in World War One and Murphy was his donkey, who transported wounded soldiers from the battlefield. Both have assumed a legendary status in Australia - despite Simpson's dubious life history (his true name was John Simpson Kirkpatrick).

India possesses a large war memorial in Delhi, designed on similar lines to those in the United Kingdom and dominated by a cross of sacrifice. Many Indian soldiers died fighting with allied forces in both the First and Second World Wars. Indian soldiers were active in Northern France as early as November 1914. A memorial service is held at Kranji War Cemetery, Singapore, on 11th November. Here lie four thousand graves not only of military personnel but also of women and children who were captured and sadly died after the fall of Singapore. The cemetery also accommodates a memorial to the 24,000 personnel who fought in Malaya and Indonesia, who have no known grave.

We are all familiar with our own local war cemetery on Cannock Chase where 27 British and 73 New Zealand servicemen are buried, together with prisoners of war. Most died in the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic. A small, intimate cemetery, this is dwarfed in size by the largest, Tyne Cott, in Belgium with 12,000 headstones. The nearby Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres carries 55,000 names of the missing inscribed on its walls.

Away from the British Empire nations, other countries also choose to remember those lost in war, but in a variety of ways. Veterans' Day in the USA is marked on 11th November. Likewise, France remembers on 11th November with ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triumph in Paris. The Dutch nation commemorates the fallen on 4th and 5th May, the anniversary of liberation in 1945. The 4th marks a day of solemn respect whilst the 5th has a more celebratory tone. Poland's remembrance day is also 11th November, but for different reasons; it marks the country's liberation on 11th November 1918 and is known as Independence Day. Further commemorations are held a little earlier, on 31st October and 1st November, when All Saints' Day is marked by Poles visiting relatives and remembering those who have passed on, often by visiting cemeteries, not in sorrow but in celebration of past lives. Finally, Argentina now marks the Falklands War with a remembrance day on 10th June each year.

In conclusion Christine explained the origins of that symbol of remembrance, the poppy. In John McCrea's well known poem, "In Flanders Fields", we find the first reference to the poppy flower's ability to restore life to apparently lifeless areas. A secretary working in the YMCA headquarters in New York read the poem in November 1918 and was moved by its imagery. Her name was Miona Micheal. She bought twenty-four artificial silk poppies from a local department store and wore one the same evening at a meeting, only to find that her action attracted much attention. The rest were soon bought by others who wanted to wear a poppy too. However, despite her efforts to popularise its use, nothing happened. Then, in 1920, the American Legion, the equivalent organisation to the British Legion, adopted the idea. It then spread across the Atlantic to France and Anna Guerin, working at the French YMCA headquarters adopted the idea. In 1921, the first British Legion Poppy Day Appeal was launched.

On a lighter note, Christine finished by telling us about Bassett's jelly baby sweets. What, you may ask is the connection with remembrance? In 1918, at the Armistice, Bassetts resolved to create a range of new celebratory sweets, which they called peace babies. These became the forerunner of the modern jelly baby!

Those who braved the windy conditions were rewarded by a well researched presentation on a topic that many of us think we know much about. How wrong we were.

Roger Hockney
November 2015