Remembrance Day I: Observances in Canada & the UK

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada and the UK. It is Veteran’s Day in the US.

I like the concept of Remembrance Day. There should be a time expressly set aside for remembering the people war touched, for recalling how wars have affected all of us.

For weeks before Remembrance Day the Canadians and the Brits wear large bright red felt poppies visible thirty yards away. The wearers – about half the people you see – cross all demographic and political lines.

What I like most is the silence when observing the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. It is not followed by cheering or flag-waving. It stands alone.

One November a decade ago I was in London for Remembrance Sunday. I joined a throng which had gathered in Whitehall in the cold and wet for the wreath laying at the Cenotaph. The crowd was quiet but as 11 drew close it silenced.

I couldn’t see the Queen or the Prime Minister or any of the ceremony. The only voice I heard was that of an Anglican divine reading a few spare prayers. Then, quietly, it was over and a parade of veterans began. I don’t recall any cheering. Just applause, muffled by the gloves many wore.

Very gradually, the crowd became louder, but the noise came primarily from children and the parents trying to pacify or control them. Conversations began. The old soldiers continued to march or be wheeled by. Slowly the wet, chilled onlookers ebbed toward distant tube stations.  In their midst, I thought of how mourners had left a memorial service for a 24-year-old suicide.

That evening, in prime time, the BBC rebroadcast the ceremony and parade.