After all these decades of UK travel, I finally managed to plan Remembrance Day in London, the heart of wartime Albion. It’s the 99th Remembrance Day and while the oldest soldiers have faded away, their spirit never dies and is being honored today.
Remembrance Day is huge all over the UK, but especially here in London. I walked among throngs of people, in a sea of poppies. They’re on coats, hats, umbrellas and children’s prams and bonnets. I even saw a dog on a leash with a poppy! It’s somber and sobering, yet also incredibly uplifting: these Brits really mean it when they say “Lest We Forget”. It’s a remembrance, an honoring, introspection but also a celebration of – cliché but true – the triumph of good over evil.
The end of Empire
Informally known here as Poppy Day, November 11th especially honors those who perished in World War One. The “Great War” as it is known in the UK had an enormous influence on what was then the British Empire.
Over the period 1914-1918, Britain and its Commonwealth nations saved Europe from the hordes of the Kaiser. But victory came at a terrible price. Lives and treasure lost was catastrophic and spelled the beginning of the end of an Empire where the sun never set. And despite their enormous sacrifices, they still might not have managed it, had not the Americans come to the rescue, after 3 years of slaughter and nerve gas attacks, in 1917.
What’s in a date?
The date and time of Remembrance Day is what it is because the guns of WW1 finally fell silent at 11:00am on 11/11 in 1918. And every 11/11 at 11am, the crowds fall silent too, respectfully bowing their heads for the traditional 2 minutes silence. There may be fewer World War survivors, but there are recent and current wars, with people commemorating personal pain, loss and grief. The organizers are serious about silence: they ask not to click with cameras, as that may be insensitive to others.
In Flanders Fields
But, why Poppy Day: why is everyone wearing poppies, where does that come from? Well, there is a famous poem by Canadian Lt. Colonel and physician John McRae called “In Flanders Fields”. He wrote it when his buddy and fellow soldier Lt. Helmer died at Ypres in 1915. It begins with “In Flanders fields the poppies grow, Between the crosses, row on row”.
The poppy, a delicate flower, started growing by the thousands on the unimaginable horror of the battlefields. Perhaps it promises the return of life, its red color symbolizing the blood spilled by all those “going over the top” and never returning.
Interesting fact – can’t really use “fun” fact in this somber context: did you know the word “Kaiser”, for the German Emperor, is a bastardization of “Caesar”? English-speakers usually pronounce “Caesar” as “SEE-zer”. But, in old Latin, the C before an A was a K and the AE more of a Scottish “Aye” sound. Try it: “Caesar” = Kaiser! Two thousand years later, those Romans are still with us…
Rutledge and the ruthlessness of war
As described in some of my other blogs, I love British Isles detective series. Did you know there is one set right after WW1 featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge? It’s by author Charles Todd, a pseudonym for an American mother-son writers duo. The stories capture the period right after WW1 and survivors pain and guilt very well.
Rutledge suffered shell shock in WW1, and is haunted by the spirit of Hamish MacLeod, his Scots Corporal. Hamish died while with him in Flanders but lives on in Rutledge’s mind. He comments, sometimes bitter, sometimes insightful, in his Scots burr. Hamish also serves as an early-warning system, sensing approaching danger: “ ’Ware! ”
The books are good reads, telling an engrossing mystery story but they’re different from your average harmless detective series. They pull you into WW1 and its devastating aftermath, less and less visible these days. Such inconceivable carnage!
Participation today was huge indeed: those aforementioned throngs coming out on a cool crisp but sunny and dry day, a treat indeed. And that’s just the spectators. Under the auspices of the British Legion MC, there were Horseguards, veteran associations, regimental clubs, civic organizations, and lots of bagpipers. One band conveniently marched by my spot: here’s a little 30-second video clip.
Security is essential these days
Of course, most of the area was cordoned off. Police, fencing, concrete barriers, armed personnel. Even the Horseguards looked seriously ready to gallop as soon as needed! But soon afterwards, the participants and the crowds dispersed, and the fences were removed.
Peace in the park
After the ceremonies, prayers and speeches, many of us headed from Whitehall to Saint James’s Park right behind the Horseguards. People were strolling along, enjoying peaceful scenes under the fall colors of the trees, watching the ducks and other birds. There’s also the Saint James’s Café for lunch or just a spot of tea.
With everything becoming more relaxed, even the bobbies on duty cracked an occasional smile!
A Royal touch
The poppies will return tomorrow on Remembrance Sunday, with more parades and ceremonies. But unlike almost every year of the past 65, Queen Elizabeth won’t lay the traditional wreath! In her stead, she’s asked her son Charles, Prince of Wales to represent her. But Mum, age 91, and her 96-year-old husband will be watching from the balcony at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. As will the world, always fascinated by the British Royals!
Remembrance in the USA
Meanwhile, back in the USA… it’s Veterans Day today! Vets will enjoy hearing your “Thank you for your service”, but here’s a thought. How about going a little beyond those well-meaning words, if you can? There are many worthy causes helping veterans and their families. Whatever you can do will be appreciated, and you’d be serving them after they served you. A bit of personal remembrance if you will. After all, we can live our lives in freedom thanks to those old heroes from oh so long ago as well as the new ones of today!
Well, it’s dinner time here and while I may be an old soldier myself, I have no plans to fade away! Signing off live from London, a long-held wish fulfilled, and saluting heroes fighting evil worldwide…
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
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