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October - November 2009
Remembering the fallen: Remembrance Day
by Anil Mehta
Remembrance Day – a day of remembrance for the dead of two World Wars falls on 11th November of the year, the day WWI ended in 1918. However, in Britain it is actually observed on the Sunday nearest to the 11th November (hence Remembrance Sunday), which is 8th November this year. Before WWII, it was known as Armistice Day, however, the 2nd World War followed barely 20 years after Armistice, so Remembrance Sunday now commemorates those who died in both the wars. Each year, on this day, a two minute silence is observed in honour of those who died serving their country. In the US, it’s known as Veteran’s Day.
On Remembrance Sunday there are special thanks giving church services and wreath-laying ceremonies at war memorials up and down the country, the most famous of which is at the Cenotaph, the national war memorial in London where the monarch accompanied by members of the royal family lays wreaths of red poppies on behalf of the nation, joined by political leaders, members of the arm forces, and other dignitaries. The solemn ceremony honours those who died fighting in the two wars.
Designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens (the architect of New Delhi), the Cenotaph was erected in 1920, in the middle of Whitehall near the Houses of Parliament. It is an austere structure, made in Portland stone inscribed simply with the words ‘The glorious dead’. It takes the form of a tomb (stone coffin) on top of a high plinth which is just as well since the word ‘cenotaph’ derives from the Greek meaning ‘empty tomb’ describing any monument erected in honour of persons whose remains lie elsewhere. Wreaths at the front of the monument and three fixed flags on it are its only decoration. Lutyens opposed Christian symbolism such as the Cross on the monument and made it secular on the grounds that the fallen were not all Christians.
After the wreath-laying ceremony there follows a parade of war veterans. Poppies so prevalent in the field of Flanders symbolise the bloodshed of the Western Front (WWI). Wreaths of paper poppies are placed on World War memorials throughout the nation and poppies are sold to raise money for war veterans, hence the alternate name ‘Poppy Day’ for Remembrance Day.
In addition to Cenotaph, the tomb of an unknown soldier was created in London’s Westminster Abbey in 1920 where the remains of an unknown soldier were put to rest in a ceremony to symbolise thousands of unknown soldiers. Still in London there is yet another memorial, Memorial Gate, on Constitution Hill (a road to the RHS of the Buckingham Palace leading to Wellington Arch) to honour and remember men and women from the Commonwealth nations who served with the British Armed Forces during the two wars.
Another worth visiting war memorial in the country is the National Memorial Arboretum, near Lichfield, Staffordshire with the magnificent Armed Forces Memorial (AFM) at its heart. It pays tribute to the 16000 men and women who lost their lives in the line of their duty since 1948 including as a result of terrorist actions or while on UN peace-keeping missions. All in all It contains some 130 memorials of national importance spread over 150 acres of countryside.
A visit to the war memorial provides the sense of history and national pride. It also offers an opportunity to pay tribute to those who died in the service of the nation. As the traumatic events of wars fade from human memory and become history, tributes should continue to be paid to all those who have served their country well and made the ultimate and most selfless sacrifice.