Remembrance Day: A Day of Pride or Sorrow?

Remembrance Day was oddly sunny and warm this year. I reflect on the history of Armistice Day and what it means for us a century later.

 Today’s weather is glorious. I’ve never seen such a summery Remembrance Day. Neither has the weather office. We’re enjoying record-breaking warmth and sunshine when we’re used to enduring rain, sleet and grey, gloomy skies.

The brilliant weather might have attracted a record turnout in other years. With the pandemic, gatherings had to be limited in size across the country.

Having witnessed a lifetime of Remembrance Days, I can’t shake the impression that the weather during both world wars was equally dreary and bitter throughout. It wasn’t, of course. The world wasn’t black and white before they invented colour film, either.

The 11th of November Has a Provocative History

The 11th of November has a provocative history. As readers will know, it began with the armistice ending the First World War. All fighting suddenly halted at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Choosing this iconic end time consigned over 11,000 men to die between the time the leaders signed the paperwork and the ceasefire’s beginning. That’s only one of countless callous decisions enacted in that futile conflict.

Communities around the world felt the need to gather on the first anniversary of that armistice. In countries involved in the debacle, just about every town had lost one or more young men to the fighting.

 No Appetite for Parades or Pageantry

The gatherings were funereal. There was no appetite for parades or pageantry. They were occasions to come together to console one another for the grief of their losses.

After those first gatherings in 1919, the expressions of grief became an annual tradition. The motto behind those ceremonies was, “Never Again!” It was called Armistice Day back then, and it still is in Britain and much of the world.

Here in Canada, starting in 1931, our parliament renamed it Remembrance Day. The government decided to make the day official to “remember all the members of Canada’s Armed Forces who have died in action.”

 Poppy Tradition from the Epic Poem “In Flanders Fields”

As all Canadians know, the red poppy symbolizes Remembrance Day. That tradition comes from the epic poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian field surgeon John McCrae, who served in WWI.

Something interesting developed in Britain starting in 1933. The Co-operative Women’s Guild began wearing and handing out white poppies to mark Armistice Day.

Why the colour change? The guild wanted to send a different message to the public. In their minds, the red poppy had become politicized and detracted from the original intent of the first Armistice Day gatherings.

 In Their Minds, Red Poppy Had Become Politicized

Many people interpreted the red poppy as representing only fallen British soldiers while excluding the other victims who lost their lives in the war. They also believed that the red poppy marginalized the original rallying cries of “Never Again!” and “No More War!”

The purpose of the white poppy was to refocus on the original intent of Armistice Day. The white poppy campaign’s threefold aims were to mourn all war victims, commit to peace, and challenge war’s glorification.

There’s been tension back and forth between veteran groups like the Royal Canadian Legion and peace groups like the Canadian Voice of Women for Peace ever since the white poppies started appearing in Canada.

Outward Sign of a More Profound Difference of Opinion

As we know, this isn’t about simple colour preference. Nor is it a trivial trademark dispute as the Legion has sometimes claimed. The clash over symbols is the outward sign of a more profound difference of opinion about the true meaning of Remembrance Day.

Are we mourning the victims of war, or are we honouring those who purchased our freedom? Are we remembering those who died because war is futile? Or are we pledging our willingness to “Take up our quarrel with the foe,” as McCrae wrote in his influential poem?

I noticed this today as I ran my errands around town. One local business had proudly planted a sizable Canadian flag in their front yard. A few streets away, the Legion Hall was discretely flying their flag at half-mast, just as they would if one of their members had passed away.

A Day of Pride or Sorrow?

Is the Act of Remembrance a day of pride or sorrow? Are those who died heroes or victims? If we get right down to it, the question everyone’s trying not to ask is, “can we justify war?”

 World War I prompted this controversy over Armistice Day, but it’s a bad example. To this day, nobody can pinpoint what the First World War was supposed to be about.

 It was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Instead of arresting the assassin, Austria-Hungary declared war on the entire nation of Serbia in 1914.

Trance-Like March Toward Global Conflict

A tangled jumble of treaties and alliances drew much of Europe into a trance-like march toward global conflict. As a result, 16 million young men died in an unbroken line of trenches 475 miles long.

We often hear the Battle of the Somme mentioned on Remembrance Day. What we may not remember is that over more than four months, a million men suffered and died to gain seven miles of land.

If World War One was a bad example, was World War II a good war, or at least a necessary one? Most people think so. Of course, without World War I, World War II wouldn’t have arisen.

Wiping Out Civilians and Entire Cities

World War II entailed wiping out civilians and entire cities. The darkest example of that was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States, one of the “good guys.”

Over 50 million civilians died directly because of World War II. Another 20 million died of famine and disease related to the conflict.

In recent years, peer-reviewed studies have shown that non-violent resistance is ten times more effective than violent campaigns. There were some brilliantly successful campaigns against the Nazis that used peaceful civil disobedience rather than force. Sadly, they weren’t well supported or rolled out nationally.

Could Non-Violence Have Defeated the Nazis?

Could non-violence have defeated the Nazis more effectively than global war? We’ll never know, but Gandhi believed that it could have. 

He argued that although there would have been enormous sacrifice and loss of life with non-violent resistance, the war had also caused unimaginable hardship. 

For the first time, I bought a white poppy this year. I also bought a red poppy. From now on, I think I’ll wear them both.

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
Remembrance & White Poppies
The Tragic Futility of World War I
Nonviolent resistance proves potent weapon
Don Cherry, Poppies and Cancel Culture
UN Peacekeeping: 8 Point Plan to Build Beacon of Hope
Happy International Day of Non-Violence
Covid Ceasefire Ignored as Wars Rage On

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