More about Poppy Day
The 11th of November is also the date of my grandmother’s birthday – she was born in 1914, the year World War I started. Her father died during the war and is buried in Flanders Fields, the fields whose poppies gave their name to Poppy Day. I don’t recall if she was born while he was away on duty or if he actually got to see his daughter before he went off to war. But whatever the chronology of events, to all intents and purposes she never got to see him as she would have been too young to have remembered him had he been around during and after her birth. Towards the end of her life she used to get drunk and maudlin about several things, mostly the death of her daughter, my mother, but sometimes she’d talk about the father she had never known.
Many years after her death, my brother inherited a lot of family odds and ends on the death of my uncle. Amongst those items were four letters written to my grandmother by her father from the battle front. Although my brother inherited all of the items as my uncle and I were no longer on speaking terms, he and I shared the items – I got to keep the letters. I wish I could transcribe them here but they are at my home in Cape Town.
They make terribly poignant reading.
On reading them, you can imagine the pain and longing of a young soldier fighting in the terrible conditions of the First World War and thinking of his young daughter at home. You can also imagine how a young girl who never knew her father reacted to receiving those letters from her mother. And you can imagine how a strong woman who led a fascinating life to the fullest hung on to those letters all her life and how they would still affect her towards the end of her life.
My children never knew my grandmother but they are terribly moved when they read the letters written by their great great grandfather.
Update on the origins of Remembrance Day:
Doing a bit more googling on Remembrance Day, I came across some information that suggests that an Australian, Edward Honey, suggested the idea of the commemorative silence 5 months before Sir Percy FitzPatrick. Quoting from the article:
The concept of a remembrance silence appears to have originated with an Australian journalist, Edward George Honey, who had served briefly in World War One with an English regiment before being discharged due to ill health. Honey was born in St Kilda, Melbourne, in 1885 and died of consumption in England in 1922.
In 1962, a group of Melbourne citizens formed a committee to obtain recognition for Honey as the man 'who taught the world how to remember'. For many years, a South African politician, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, had been credited with the idea. The Melbourne committee succeeded in establishing that 'the solemn ceremony of silence now observed in all British countries in remembrance of those who died in war' was first published by Edward Honey.
Honey published a letter in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919 under the pen name of Warren Foster, in which he appealed for five-minute silence amid all the joy making planned to celebrate the first anniversary of the end of the War. 'Five little minutes only', he wrote, 'Five silent minutes of national remembrance. A very sacred intercession … Communion with the Glorious Dead who won us peace, and from the communion new strength, hope and faith in the morrow. Church services, too, if you will, but in the street, the home, the theatre, anywhere, indeed, where Englishmen and their women chance to be, surely in this five minutes of bitter-sweet silence there will be service enough'.
No official action was taken on the idea, however, until, more that five months later, on 27 October 1919, one Lord Milner forwarded a suggestion from his friend, Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, to the King's private secretary, Lord Stamfordham, for a period of silence on Armistice Day, 11 November, in all countries of the British Empire.
Sir Percy wrote, 'When we are gone it may help bring home to those who will come after us, the meaning, the nobility and the unselfishness of the great sacrifice by which their freedom was assured'.
King George V was evidently very moved by the idea and took it up immediately. There is no record that Sir Percy was prompted by Honey's letter in the London Evening News, but with the King, both Honey and Sir Percy attended a rehearsal for a five-minute silence involving the Grenadier Guards at Buckingham Palace. Five minutes proved too long and the two-minute interval was decided upon.
On 7 November 1919 the King issued a proclamation asking 'that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for the brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities … so that in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead'.
Some more links:
Wikipedia - includes some information on South African celebrations of the event