This past November 10, Germany played England at Wembley Stadium, coincidentally or not on the eve of Armistice Day. From just watching on TV, the moment of silence shared by both teams, representing countries that had waged two brutal world wars against one another, is something I’ll remember.
As an American, I found the holiday somewhat confusing. First, there are actually two holidays within the same week—Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday. Armistice Day, November 11, the same day as our Veterans, marks the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany in 1918 to end World War I. Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to November 11, is to remember the more than one million British and Commonwealth soldiers who died in the world wars, as well as subsequent and ongoing conflicts. Effectively, it’s the UK’s Memorial Day, but not in May.
A second, major difference are the traditions—donning red poppies in honor of the fallen and a national silence to commemorate the moment of armistice. These practices were widely observed and carry with them deep historical and ongoing cultural significance, as I would discover.
The red remembrance poppy is everywhere in the United Kingdom (I was in Edinburgh on the 11 and 12 and noticed no shortage there either), mostly worn as a lapel. For the match, the German and English Football Associations granted a special exception to usual player rules so they could wear poppy armbands.
In Flanders, poppies grow when the earth is disrupted in early spring. In 1915, ’16, ’17, and ’18, this is just what happened: the shelling and trenches of the war caused poppy seeds to germinate, often replacing the corpses from battle. Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields,” after burying his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, shot down in the Second Battle of Ypres of 1915 in western 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, short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
What is now a UK tradition began in the United States: Professor Moina Belle Michael first conceived of the poppy as a symbol for remembrance after reading this poem. Michael herself is an important historical figure: she was in Germany when the war broke out, took a leave of absence from the University of Georgia to train YWCA overseas workers once America entered, and later taught classes for disabled veterans and sold silk poppies to raise funds in support. Today, the SS Moina Michael and a commemorative 3-cent US Postal Service stamp honor the “Poppy Lady,” even though the poppy as a symbol of remembrance is largely unknown in the States.
Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, the author, was also a professor, of pathology at the University of Vermont. He died from pneumonia in the winter of 1918, months before the end of the war, but not before attaining some fame. Initially published anonymously, later issues would reveal his name. Throughout, his words were used to in Europe to remember the soldiers and remind the Americans of the ongoing loss of life across the pond. This poem I had never heard before is recited, and even memorized, across many Commonwealth nations.
The other tradition is more familiar—a two-minute moment of silence on Armistice Day at 11am to mark the beginning of the ceasefire. What I found distinctive, however, was the circumstances of the original silence in 1918. The war was effectively over; negotiations were to begin. But instead of jubilation, the original recognition of the end of violence was a moment of reflection and mourning. The Times of London called the moment in 1919 referred to it as “a great awful silence.”
The Marshall Commission brought Professor Sir Hew Strachan, a military historian at University of St. Andrews, to discuss Britain, World War I, and American entry with current Scholars. His points highlighted differences in our national memory and, by extension, challenged the idea—the one that I had learned in school—that American involvement outright “won” the war. Rather, there were a multitude of critical points where, if not for the bravery and sacrifice of the English and Commonwealth, the war could have been lost well before our arrival. The narrative I knew was not just insensitive, but incomplete. I had discounted the four years of carnage before our one year of involvement, as decisive as our entry may have been.
From this conversation, I better understood the original moment of silence, 99 Armistice Days ago. The war was not so much an unqualified victory, as it was a favorable outcome, with better terms for the Allies than the Axis Powers. England had sustained such loss that armistice also represented the end of a painful chapter. America, on the other hand, had lost far less (2 percent of all Allied casualties says Wikipedia) and was poised for success and growing influence in the post-War 20s.
In the months since, I have tried to understand why these holidays and traditions in the United Kingdom made me feel different from my Veterans Day and Memorial Day experiences at home. I had participated in parades and other celebrations where I felt pride and gratitude. In the UK, I felt grief and regret.
One thought I had was the history of Europe, the proximity of various nation-states, and repeated cycles of conflict and reconciliation. War is simply closer to home, sometimes even taking place in the homeland. This closeness—geographically, historically, and personally—leaves fewer illusions as to what war actually is.
My favorite class in undergrad was The Logic of War by Professor Ian Hopper (purposefully ironic for some cases, as we’d learn). From Assyria to the Apache homelands to modern-day Afghanistan, we learned that warfare is invariably a gruesome affair, rife with starvation, amputation, insubordination, and, of course, death. Even accounts of lopsided success weren’t without costs for the victor. The details of the cold, wet, and bloody battlefields are still stunning to me, even as someone who had studied politics, decisions to go to war, and veteran services in the aftermath.
Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday brought back these lessons of the realities of war in ways that Veterans and Memorial Days hadn’t—the poppies worn by so many and the somber moment(s) of silence. For national remembrance, maybe our Memorial Day is sufficient. But I’d still suggest our two holidays are too far apart, almost exactly six months from each other. Juxtaposed together, as they are in the UK, may create a similar, sobering effect. More institutionalized, national customs or cues for remembrance could help as well. As far as I can tell, we are an outlier in not donning poppies or some other symbol.
Beyond Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, there are other reminders for the rest of the year. Every major London rail station and many underground stops have memorials to railway workers who joined the services and lost their lives. As someone who is chronically early for travel bookings, I enjoy finding them as I pass the time.
Most towns have memorials too—and likely all university towns I would bet. In all, there are 70,000 in United Kingdom, Channel Islands, and Isle of Man. Some you can’t miss. Others you might walk past every day without realizing, as I did the one in Oxford on St. Giles Street.
This UK experience has led me to ask how we can have the reality of war, in its totality, enter our national psyche as Americans, as it did mine on Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, so we truly remember. We recognize the severity of PTSD, for instance, but how do we become more aware of the actual trauma that is the source of this pain. This sort of clear-eyed deliberation is something we owe those who serve and a lesson we can learn from our closest ally.