Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tuesday Talktime: The 11th Hour of the 11 Month.

It is easy to forget why certain things are important. Michelle Styles explains a bit of the history behind poppy day and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

A hundred years ago, the guns were booming and Europe was in the middle of the muddy and bloody quagmire that became the First World War, a war where four empires: German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman fell. And then the guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11 day of the 11 month of 1918.
 In the Middle East, in particular, the world is still suffering the consequences of an ill-thought out peace settlement with lines drawn on a map (think Turkey's reluctance to help the Kurds in its border with Syria as but one example).
Growing up WWI was there but WW2 was of more significance as my paternal grandfather served in the US Navy ( I would go visit him on Veterans Day as it is now called in the US). It is also a more easily understood war with discrete battles. WWI tends to be just muddy and hard to follow or at least I found it that way.  However, once I moved over to the UK, I began to understand the huge significance of the date and the war memorials.
Out of the thousands of parishes in England and Wales, only 41 have been positively identified as Thankful Villages (ie everyone returned home from WWI). All the others have WWI memorials.
Most schools and universities (if they  date from before that time) have war memorials. Some universities like Leicester were founded specifically because so many were lost.
And every end of October/beginning of November brings out the poppy sellers. Every shop counter seems to have a box.And many more are sold in schools and on the doorstep. The money raised goes to support the work of the Royal Legion in the UK.
The poppy was chosen as a symbol after the poem In Flanders Field by Canadian poet John MacCrae.  The first verse is:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
The poppy was first used by the American Legion in 1921 but is now used the world over, particularly in Britain. In fact Remembrance day is often affectionately known as poppy day.
An early view of the installation from wikipedia
The installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London graphically illustrates the over 800 thousand who fell. It is an evolving installation and will taken down on the 12th. The ceramic poppies will then be shipped out to new homes. The money raised from the sale will go to benefit several service charities. In fact the whole point of the poppy appeal is to benefit the charities which work so closely and tirelessly with men and women who have risked their lives in the service of their country.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier UK
The desire to honour the dead of WWI also led to the creation of the Tomb of Unknown Soldier. The idea originated with Rev David Railton who won the Military Cross in WWI for saving an officer and two soldiers under heavy fire. He was serving as a chaplain. He was very moved by a simple cross over an unknown solider of the Black Watch. One body to represent all the unidentified bodies and a place for people to grieve.  At first he had no response from the British government but was reluctant to let the idea go. He eventually enlisted the aid of  Dean of Westminster and the idea took flight.
The whole interment of the unknown solider was done with the utmost caution. On 7 November 6 coffins containing unidentified remains were exhumed from  battlefields in France and examined to make sure they were British. Then the coffins were shipped to London where Brigadier General Wyatt choose one of the coffins.   First in Britain, swiftly followed by France. The United States unveiled their tomb in 1921. The US has created tombs for soldiers from other wars.
Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
It is why the attack on the Canadian Memorial was so profoundly shocking earlier this year. The Tomb of Unknown Soldier represents the best and the bravest who died gave their blood and their future so we might enjoy the benefits of living in a free country.
It is easy to forget about their sacrifice. But every time, I have gone to a war memorial or to a war cemetery, I try to think about the brave men and women who paid the ultimate price so that I can live how I want to and don't have to be afraid of a knock on my door telling me that what I write is seditious or treasonous.
So today of all days, it is important to remember the brave men and women who gave their time, their blood and their very existence so that we might enjoy the freedom to live our lives.
It is right that we should honour them on the 11th Day of the 11th Month at the  11th hour when the guns fell silent.

Michelle Styles writes warm,witty and intimate historical romances for Harlequin Historical. Her next book Taming His Viking Woman will be published in February 2015. To learn more about her books, please visit www.michellestyles.co.uk 

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