Remembrance Day is the day Australians remember those who have died in war.
In 1918 the armistice that ended World War One came into force, bringing to an end four years of hostilities that saw 61919 Australians die at sea, in the air, and on foreign soil. Few Australian families were left untouched by the events of World War One, which was supposed to be ‘the war to end all wars’. Most families had lost either a father, a son, a daughter, a brother, or a sister.
At 11am on 11 November we pause to remember the sacrifice of those men and women who have died or suffered in wars and conflicts and all those who have served during the past 100 years.
What are the origins of Remembrance Day?
At 5am on 11 November 1918, three German government representatives accepted the armistice terms presented to them by the allied commander, General Foch of the French Army. The demands of the armistice included the withdrawal of German forces to the east bank of the Rhine within 30 days; immediate cessation of warfare; and surrender of the German fleet and all heavy guns with no further negotiations until the signing of the peace treaty.
The armistice became effective at 11am the same day, and as the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium, ending four years of hostilities. The cease-fire was made permanent the following year when members of the Commonwealth and the League of Nations signed the Treaty of Versailles. People across the world celebrated the war’s end.
More than 416000 Australians volunteered for service in World War One. Of these, 324000 served overseas. More than 60000 Australians were killed, including 45000 who died on the Western Front in France and Belgium and more than 8000 died on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.
In Australia and other allied countries, including New Zealand, Canada and the United States, 11 November became known as Armistice Day – a day to remember those who died in World War I. The day continues to be commemorated in Allied countries.
After World War II the Australian Government agreed to the United Kingdom’s proposal that Armistice Day be renamed Remembrance Day to commemorate those who were killed in both World Wars. Today the loss of Australian lives from all wars and conflicts is commemorated on Remembrance Day.
In October 1997, the Governor-General issued a Proclamation declaring 11 November as Remembrance Day. So, it has become a day to remember the sacrifice of those who have died for Australia in wars and conflicts. The Proclamation reinforced the importance of Remembrance Day and encouraged all Australians to renew their observance of the event.
The central element of Remembrance Day ceremonies is the one minute silence. This was first proposed by a Melbourne journalist, Edward George Honey, in a letter published in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919. At 11am on 11 November 1919, Australians, for the first time, paused and stood in silent tribute to the men and women of the Australian Imperial Force who died on battlefields in the Middle East, Gallipoli and Europe.
Why are poppies worn?
In May 1915, Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps was working in a dressing station on the front line to the north of Ieper, Belgium, when he wrote the poem, below, ‘In Flanders Fields’.
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.
In 1918 Moira Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, ‘We shall keep the faith’, in which she promised to wear a poppy in honour of our dead and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.
Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With All who died.
We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valour led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.
It was French YMCA Secretary, Madame Guerin, who in 1918 conceived the idea of selling silk poppies to help needy soldiers. Poppies were first sold in England on Armistice Day in 1921 by members of the British Legion to raise money for those who had been incapacitated by the war. The practice began in Australia the same year, promoted by the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League of Australia (now known as the Returned & Services League of Australia – or RSL).
In the lead-up to 11 November each year, the RSL sells red poppies for Australians to pin on their lapels, with proceeds helping the organisation to undertake welfare work.
Since 1921 wearing a poppy has enabled Australians to show they have not forgotten the Australian servicemen and women who have given their lives in wars and conflicts.
Why do we remember the ‘unknown’ soldier?
Twentieth century warfare resulted in millions of unknown dead resting in unknown graves. Of Australia’s war dead from World War I and World War II, 35527, or about 35 per cent, have no known graves.
The names of many Australians who died in World War I appear on memorials along the Western Front, including the names of about 18000 men of the Australian Imperial Force, who have no known grave.
In 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1918 armistice, the Australian Government exhumed the remains of an unknown Australian soldier from the Western Front for entombment at the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Memory, Canberra. The Unknown Soldier’s remains were exhumed from the Adelaide Cemetery, near Villers-Bretonneux on the Western Front. A State Funeral was held on Remembrance Day 1993.
Before proceeding to the Hall of Memory, the Unknown Soldier’s coffin was placed on the Stone of Remembrance outside the Memorial where the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, delivered a eulogy:
. . . We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45000 Australians who died on the Western Front, one of the 416000 Australians who volunteered for service in World War I . . . and one of the 100000 Australians who have died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us.
As Australia’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in the Hall of Memory, World War I veteran Robert Comb, who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil from Pozieres, France, over the coffin and said, “Now you’re home, mate“.