Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Eleventh hour

Acting Queensland Premier Anna Bligh and Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman led the dignitaries at the Brisbane Remembrance Day commemorations in the city today. At 11 am local time, they laid wreaths at the Anzac Square shrine. The ceremony was repeated in cities and towns throughout Australia to mark the 88th observance of the end of World War I. One hour prior to the Brisbane event, the Prime Minister, Governor-General and Defence Minister attended the Canberra ceremony and observed a minute's silence at 11am Australian Eastern Daylight Time. 61,000 Australians died and another 150,000 were wounded in the so-called Great War, the war to end all wars.

The event commemorates the time of day the war ended. At 11am on 11 November 1918 the guns of the Western Front finally fell silent after more than four years of brutal trench warfare. The allied armies of Britain, France and the US had repelled the German invaders. With American tanks, the balance of war swayed towards them as they inflicted heavy defeats upon the Germans in the final four months of the war. In November the Germans accept terms of unconditional surrender and called for an armistice to end the war. The poetic timing of the event, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, helped to cement it in grateful public affections. Up to 13 million people died in the conflict that destroyed the empires of Germany, Austria, Russia and Turkey.

In May 1919, an Australian journalist Edward George Honey wrote a letter to the London Evening News in which he proposed a respectful silence to remember those who had given their lives in the war. The letter caught the attention of King George V and on 7 November he issued a proclamation which called for a two minute silence. On the first anniversary of the armistice four days later, the two minutes' silence was instituted as part of the main commemorative ceremony at the new Cenotaph in London. In Britain, the second Sunday of November is now known as Remembrance Sunday. At 11am on this day, a two minute silence is observed at war memorials, cenotaphs, religious services and shopping centres throughout the country.

11 November 1920 was the second anniversary of the armistice and the commemoration gained added significance when it became a funeral. Four years earlier a British chaplain at the Front in France noticed a make-shift grave marked by a rough wooden cross across which was written "An Unknown British Soldier". Four years later he wrote to the Dean of Westminster to convey a remembrance of that scene. The Dean was impressed by the story and led a campaign to honour the war dead in this fashion. As a result Britain buried the remains of an unknown soldier from the battlefields of the Western Front. He was interred with full military honours in Westminster Abbey. The French also buried an unknown soldier at the Arc de Triumph in Paris. The London entombment attracted over one million people within a week to pay their respects at the Unknown Soldier’s grave. On November 18 a temporary stone sealed the grave, inscribed with the words "A British Warrior Who Fell in the Great War 1914-1918 for King and Country. Greater Love Hath No Man Than This." Within ten years, most other allied nations adopted the tradition of entombing unknown soldiers.

The red poppy was a symbol for death, renewal and life long before the War that made it famous. The poppy’s seeds can remain dormant in the ground for many years, but will blossom spectacularly when the soil is churned. When the war got serious in the fields of Northern France and Belgium, the soil was badly churned by the violence of battle. It didn’t take long for red poppies to appear.

In 1915, the Canadian doctor Lt Col John McCrea was at the terrible battleground of Ypres when he wrote the poem “In Flanders Field” which starts
“In Flanders Field the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place…”
The poem has achieved near-mythical status in Canada, and is one of the nation's proudest symbols. The poem features on the Canadian $10 note and most Canadian Remembrance Day ceremonies will feature a reading of the poem. In 1918 the American Moira Michael wrote a poem in reply called “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. Poppies were first sold in England on Armistice Day in 1921 by members of the British Legion to raise money for war victims.

Poppies come in many different colours. But in Remembrance Day ceremonies, the poppies are almost always red to signify the blood sacrifice. A leading British religious think tank is now asking Christians to wear white poppies symbolising “Christ's peace” for the Armistice Day commemoration. Jonathan Bartley, director of Ekklesia, suggested that the white poppy is far more in keeping with Christianity than the red variety. Bartley went on to say while “the red poppy implies redemption can come through war, the Christian story implies that redemption comes through non-violent sacrifice.” The society stated they had no problem with the red poppy but asked that white ones be available too.

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