Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remember, Remember

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in the UK, which we celebrate in America as Veteran's Day. In America it's celebrated as a day where you remember veterans of all wars, and there are parades but no one really pays a lot of attention. Any why is it on November 11th? I admit, I couldn't have told you until yesterday.

Here Remembrance Day is Armistice Day - the day that the Great War (World War I) officially came to an end. America kind of sat that one out until the victor was clear, but it devastated Europe in a completely unprecedented manner. We were taught the dates and details: Archduke Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Red Baron, trench warfare. But it was always something that happened at a distance - a great distance. Here it was something that happened, well, Here. Right here. Every small town I've been to in the UK, even the tiny ones like Kettlewell, have a Great War memorial for the WWI dead.

They added names on after World War II.

I also noted there is still room for more names on many of the memorials.

Yesterday I saw something I've never seen before. The entire nation observes two minutes of silence at 11 AM on Armistice Day, to mark the exact time when the war ended. I've seen moments of silence before and typically people just kind of carry on with their business. Not here. Our entire office stopped doing what they were doing and we all watched the ceremony on the television, when one of the last three Great War vets in the UK laid a wreath on the memorial. Someone mentioned later he was 112 years old. He looked like he was about to cry. No one in our office said or did anything other than watching the television to see this happen, and our two minutes of silence lasted about five minutes in total.

It was sobering to see how deeply the Great War still affects people here. As the 'first modern war' it could (arguably) be said that it had the greatest impact on the 20th century because of the new technologies employed and the sheer mechanical savagery of killing others, and not only did it have a profound impact on European political structures but also on the attitudes of the people here. When people accuse the French of being dirty peaceniks, maybe the reason for that is that they have seen more than their fair share of some of the worst slaughter ever visited on other human beings.

It's certainly a stark contrast to America, that's for sure.

I'm still not 100% certain what yesterday meant to me, but it was one of those singular experiences that I will remember for a long time to come - which, I suppose, is the point.

Also, I have to point out Diamond Geezer's side-by-side poem from yesterday - it's quietly profound in its own right.


Christina said...

hey- just wanted to leave you a small comment to let you know we actually celebrate the same in canada. the schools actually do 1 hour ceremonies. we do the 1 minute of silence and have a veteran come to give a speech. we watch videos. a lot of schools actually go to the city's war memorial statues. all work offices actually get the day OFF. i'm surprised that you're surprised by that country's commitment to it, as it's pretty normal to do those things in canada too :)

Jason said...

That's really interesting - it's odd because in America we really didn't celebrate Veteran's Day at all, apart from a day off school and some parades, which seem to have gone out of fashion recently.