Remembrance Day is celebrated on November 11 in Canada and in other countries. The day commemorates the veterans who gave their lives in battle during World War I, World War II, and subsequent conflicts. In Canada, the day is marked by two minutes of silence at eleven o'clock in the morning and by the wearing of red poppies.
History of Remembrance Day
The first Remembrance Day was held all over the commonwealth in 1919. That year it was called Armistice Day. Armistice Day celebrated the end of World War I on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month (November 11, 1918, at eleven o'clock in the morning). Since then, Remembrance Day in Canada has been celebrated every year to not only mark the end of World War I but also to commemorate the many Canadians who have given their lives in wars, military conflicts, and peacekeeping missions. In 1921, the sale of poppies began in France, a Remembrance Day tradition that has continued in Canada and in many other countries.
Perhaps the true history of Canada's Remembrance Day lies in the memory of the soldiers who have died protecting Canada and the commonwealth. In World War I, over 600,000 Canadians volunteered for duty. More than 172,000 were wounded and 66,000 were dead by the end of the war. Many Canadians distinguished themselves in service and showed remarkable bravery fighting at Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge, Ypres, Bourlon Wood, and Mons. During World War II, more than one million Canadians and Newfoundlanders (at the time Newfoundland was not yet part of Canada) served in the war. More than 47,000 died in the North Atlantic, Dieppe, and Normandy. Again, Canadians distinguished themselves in service and played a major role in the Normandy Landings of June 6, 1944 (D-Day), which were crucial in putting an end to the war. In the Battle of Normandy, 5,021 Canadians were killed. In the Korean War, 26,791 Canadians served their country, and 516 Canadians were killed in the conflict and in later Korean peacekeeping missions.
How Remembrance Day Is Celebrated Today
In Canada, the celebration of Remembrance Day begins a few weeks before November 11 itself. Each year, two weeks or more before November 11, veterans sell poppies outside of stores, in government office buildings, and in other public places. In some cases, instead of veterans selling poppies, there are donation boxes with poppies set up in stores. Canadians make a donation and get a felt red poppy with a black center. Canadians wear these poppies in the weeks approaching Remembrance Day by pinning the poppies to their lapels. Donations gathered from the poppies go toward veterans' hospitals and veteran programs. In some years, special Canadian coins are released with the poppy. Poppies are chosen because this is the flower that grows among the white crosses that mark the graves of soldiers who died overseas in the two world wars.
November 11 itself is a statutory holiday in most Canadian provinces (the exceptions being Québec, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador). On this day, in much of Canada, schools and many businesses are closed. Many cities have special ceremonies to commemorate those who have died for the country and to celebrate the veterans who are still alive. Flags are flown at half-mast; at war memorials across the country wreaths are laid, and a military salute is given to the soldiers who have served in the war. In some cities, speeches are given by officials or by veterans and sometimes the names of local veterans and local soldiers who have died in battle are read aloud.
The National War Memorial in Ottawa usually has a large celebration involving Canada's prime minister and members of Parliament. This service from Ottawa is usually broadcast on radio and television across the country. The Ottawa service also usually includes the laying of wreaths at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is next to The National War Memorial and it contains the remains of a Canadian soldier who was exhumed from a World War I cemetery close to Vimy Ridge. The Unknown Soldier is symbolic of all Canadians who gave their lives in battle.
At eleven o'clock in the morning, all Canadian radio stations, television stations, schools, and places of business require that everyone stop for two minutes of silence. Whether a Canadian is shopping, driving, or doing business, he or she is expected to stop and lower his or her head in respect for those veterans who have died in Canada's military missions. Once the minutes of silence are over, everyone returns to their day. Most city celebrations at war memorials are timed so that the minutes of silence fall during the ceremony.
In Flanders Fields
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian doctor and teacher who travelled overseas to take part in both the South African War and World War I. Born in Guelph, Ontario, McCrae was quick to sign up for service. In World War I, he was brigade-surgeon to the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery. During April 1915, McCrae and the First Brigade of the Canadian Forces Artillery were near Ypres, Belgium, an area commonly called Flanders. In the trenches there, the men saw some of the heaviest fighting of World War I, and McCrae had to treat many hundreds of soldiers. The brutality of the war and the many fatalities deeply affected McCrae, especially when one of his close friends was killed. The friend was buried with an improvised cross and when McCrae saw poppies beginning to grow around the cross, he was inspired to write his famous poem "In Flanders Fields."
McCrae's poem was first published in England in 1915 and instantly became very popular. It was reprinted in newspapers and on posters and was used to raise war bonds in Canada. It was widely translated. As a result of the poem, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of the war. For writing the poem, McCrae (who died of pneumonia in 1918) has achieved the status of a hero in Canada. His poem is read at virtually all Remembrance Day ceremonies, and Canadian children are taught his story and are taught to memorize his poem in school.