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Modern history

What does Remembrance Day commemorate?

"In Flanders fields the poppies blow..." On Sunday 11th November, Remembrance Day services are held in villages, towns and cities across the Commonwealth of Nations (an association of states, nearly of which are former members of the British Empire). Including a two-minute silence held at 11 a.m. precisely, the services commemorate the contribution of Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women involved in both World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1939–45), as well as later conflicts. Remembrance Day falls on the anniversary of the Armistice, 11th November 1918, the day on which fighting in World War I came to an end. What led to the end of hostilities? Why does the two-minute silence begin at 11 a.m.? And why do we wear red poppies to mark the event?

French soldiers in a trench on the Western Front, 1917French soldiers in a trench on the Western Front, 1917

World War I

World War I began with a German advance into northern France in August 1914. This was halted by British and French troops at the Battle of the Marne in September. By the end of the year, fighting along the Western Front had turned into stalemate, with neither side able to make headway. 

Weapons such as machine guns, grenades and long-range artillery (field guns and mortars) proved devastatingly effective. As a defence against them, soldiers on both sides dug deep ditches in the ground, which expanded into a system of trenches that stretched from the English Channel to Switzerland.

The Remembrance Day ceremony is based on the traditional night vigil over soldiers who had fallen in battle. It was held both to ensure that they were indeed dead (and not just unconscious), but also to guard them from being mutilated by the enemy, or dragged off by scavengers. The vigil began with The Last Post, the common bugle call at the close of the military day, and ended with The Rouse, the first bugle call of the morning.

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