27 June 2019

The act of Remembrance is how many countries commemorate the lives of soldiers and civilians who have served in conflict.

The principal date of Remembrance in the UK, Commonwealth and USA is Armistice Day on 11 November, when there is a two minute silence at 11am to commemorate the end of the First World War. In the USA it is called Veterans’ Day. The anniversaries of important battles, such as D-Day, are also commemorated by veterans, serving members of the armed forces, politicians and the public.

Teenager giving a speech at the ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, watched by members of the public and veterans

Photo by the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr

Remembrance Sunday services are on the nearest Sunday to the 11th. On Remembrance Sunday the Queen, Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, and other dignitaries from the UK, Commonwealth and it’s allies lay Remembrance wreaths at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. The ceremony has sometimes been attended by the President of Germany. There is also a parade by veterans of the armed and civilian services, including disbanded regiments and veterans' associations.

Aerial view of Remembrance Day Parade at Cenotaph in London

Photo by Mez Merril on Wikimedia Commons

The Royal British Legion’s annual Festival of Remembrance is held at the Royal Albert Hall on the Saturday evening before Remembrance Sunday. The Legion’s Annual Poppy Appeal raises millions of pounds from the sale of red poppy pins, which are given to veterans of the British army and the families of soldiers who have died in conflict.

The purpose of Remembrance is best described by the simple epitaph on the Memorial to the Second World War Battle of Kohima in India: ‘When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow, we gave our today.”

Why is Remembrance important?

Remembrance is important because it is a public acknowledgement of the service and suffering of soldiers and civilians in conflicts. This concern became increasingly popular in the 19th century and veterans of the Crimean War erected the Guards Memorial to the Crimea in 1861.

In the USA, a memorial statue to soldiers of the Spanish-American War (1898), called the ‘Hiker,’ after their nickname, was so popular that at least 50 copies were made and installed in cities around the country. Similar statutes of ‘Doughboys’ and ‘Iron Mikes’ represent soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.

Bronze statue of a 'Hiker,'soldier of the Spanish American War

Photo by Jim Henderson on WikimediaCommons

Remembrance as we know it today started after the unprecedented casualty rates of the First World War.

The total military deaths of the First World War superseded all previous wars. Over 42 million troops of the Allied Powers died. Germany and the other Central Powers lost over 65 million soldiers. 1.7 million Russians soldiers were killed in the war. In 1924 the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing was unveiled by Field Marshal Herbert Plumer, inscribed with the names of 54,395 Commonwealth soldiers who were never recovered from the battlefield. A bugler has played 'The last Post' at the gate every evening since 1928.

Original photograph of the dedication of the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in 1927; army officer on a platform giving a speech

Photo by UVicLibraries on Wikimedia Commons

There are many untold stories of hardship and deaths in war, from the arctic convoys that delivered supplies to the far north of Russia during the Second World War, to the experiences of National Servicemen in the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960). As veterans of these experiences become older and frailer, Remembrance of their service has become increasingly important.

Close-up of Arctic Star medal in white box; white star with red circle in the centre and gold border, with legend 'the arctic' on top of the circle

Photo by SPVA/MOD on Wikimedia Commons

Almost 40,000 troops of the USA and its allies, and hundreds of thousands of Korean and Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed in the Korean War (1950-1953), but its memory has been so neglected that those who do remember call it the ‘Forgotten War.’ Since the 1990s, however, many memorials in the USA, UK and Australia have been erected to commemorate those who served in it.

View of Korean War Memorial Wall in Washington DC at night, depicting contemporary photos of soldiers sandblasted onto a granite wall

Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr

Why has Remembrance changed?

Remembrance has changed as the focus has shifted from an emphasis on victories in war to the service of soldiers who fought in them.

War memorials can be controversial because some people view them as a glorification of war, rather than commemorations of the people who were killed in it. This sentiment is sometimes shared by veterans, who feel that politicians used triumphal monuments as justifications for their decisions to go to war.

The grandiose design of the Menin Gate Memorial caused the veteran and celebrated poet, Siegfried Sassoon, to describe it as a ‘sepulchre of crime.’ However, the impact of the First World made people question this focus on celebrating victories, rather than remembering the soldiers who died in battle. The simplicity of the Cenotaph in London made it very popular when it was constructed to celebrate Peace Day in 1919.

Unlike other services in the Second World War, RAF Bomber Command did not receive a campaign medal and a memorial was not installed for decades because the tactic of bombing civilians to reduce morale was so controversial. The death rate for bomber crews was incredibly high; 55,573 killed out of a total of 125,000 airmen.

Frontal view of Bomber Command Memorial, featuring realistic sculptures of members of a bomber crew, adorned with poppies and wreaths

Photo by David Holt on Flickr

A memorial to Bomber Command was finally unveiled in 2012 in Green Park at a ceremony attended by the Queen. So many tickets were sold that some had to be returned so that all surviving veterans could attend it.

Close-up of several sculptures on the Bomber Command Memorial

Photo by Loz Pycock on Flickr

One of the most positive changes in Remembrance is the inclusion of groups whose service and deaths were forgotten.

Aboriginees and Torres Straits Islanders have served in every military conflict that involved an Australian army corp, even though they were not actually recognised as citizens until 1967, and were officially banned from the armed services. An entire battalion of Torres Strait Islanders was raised during the Second World War. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial was finally unveiled in Canberra in 2013.

The USA’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial, erected in the 1980s, was the first depiction of African-American Hispanic soldiers on the National Mall. A National Native Americans Veterans Memorial will be installed in Washington DC in 2020.

Photo by GOT0 on Wikimedia-Commons

In 2017 a memorial to African and Carribean soldiers who served in the British Army was unveiled in London.

Memorials in many countries, including the UK and USA, commemorate women who served in the women’s auxiliary armed forces, and on the homefront in occupations previously dominated by men who were on military service.

Close-up of woman working on electronics in an aircraft factory during World War Two

Photo by David Bransby on Wikimedia Commons

These memorials demonstrate how the traditions of remembering conflicts from decades ago are still important in a world which has changed so much since the Versailles Treaty was signed on 28 June 1919.