It was on the 11 th hour of the 11th day of the 11 th month that the guns of World War I fell silent. Unfortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the war to end all wars, as advertised. There have been far too many more that followed.
Canada has been marking Remembrance Day in one form or another since 1919, a year after the hostilities ceased. This year marks the 90 th time we stop at 11am and reflect on the freedom that came at such a great cost.
But there are a lot of things you may not know about the annual event that might surprise you. Did you know that Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving Day were once celebrated at the same time in Canada? Or that the most famous war poem of all time, “In Flanders Fields”, was rescued from a garbage can?
And whatever happened to those poppies with the green centres?
Here’s a look at some of the hidden history of the day that marks a very well known one.
It Started At Thanksgiving
Most kids are taught in schools that Remembrance Day coincides with the exact date and time the guns fell silent in World War I – the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.
And despite the fact we’re giving thanks to veterans for their amazing sacrifices during the wars, it’s hard to connect Remembrance Day with Thanksgiving. But at one point, both were marked at the same time.
From the late 1800’s until 1921, Thanksgiving Day in Canada fluctuated between various dates, first being held on a fixed Thursday in November, then switching to October.
By the Roaring 20s, the feds for some reason decided to hold Thanksgiving and the newly named “Remembrance Day” at the same time – November 11th.
It stayed that way until 1931, when the turkey and stuffing were moved back a month, leaving the 11th day of the 11th month to a more traditional observance of recalling past wars and those who fought for our freedom.
It’s become as much a part of Remembrance Day as two minutes of silence. But where did this enduring symbol of regretful recall begin?
It’s said to actually stretch back to the Napoleonic Wars. A 19th century writer is believed to have made the observation that the bright red flower, the colour of blood, seemed to sprout on the formerly barren fields after the battles had ended.
In 1915, Canadian Lt.-Col. John McRae noticed that poppies were growing in a graveyard in Ypres, a place where they’d never taken root before.
It appeared the bombing runs and rubble of WWI had caused the formerly chalky soil to become rich in lime, allowing the flowers to spread.
When he penned his famous poem about “Flanders Field” where the ‘poppies blow between the crosses row on row’, it further cemented the red marker as a sign of war – and peace.
But it didn’t end there. In 1918, a New York woman named Moina Michael is thought to have started wearing a poppy to commemorate those who died in the all too many wars.
It was seen by a French visitor two years later, who took the idea back to her home country and began selling the symbol to raise money for poor children.
By 1921, the poppy arrived in Canada and remains the definitive symbol and fundraising campaign for war vets here.
Whatever Happened To Green Poppy Centres?
Nothing is permanent, including this enduring symbol of the war. Poppies were made with a black centre for years, until they changed to green in 1980. That was supposed to reflect the colour of the hills in Flanders. But then somone realized the real thing is black, and they reverted to the original colour after 2002.
Why You Can’t Wear Them After November 11 th
Most people don poppies about two weeks before Remembrance Day. But you shouldn’t be sporting them in the days afterwards, although many do, thinking it’s a sign of respect. The poppy is actually supposed to be left on the tomb at the place where the ceremony is held, a final sign of respect for the fallen soldiers who never came home. Or they can be worn for the remainder of the day. But once November 12th comes, the poppies should be gone.
How Do You Keep Them From Falling Off?
Communications director Bob Butt of the Canadian Legion in Ottawa offered these practical suggestions to CityNews.ca
“If people weave the pin in, it shouldn’t fall off,” he explains. “Instead of just sticking it in once or twice, stick it into the fabric four or five times. The other option is to put something on the back to keep it from slipping off. You can put a piece of tape on or a piece of rubber off an eraser. Or you can bend the pin up.”
Why don’t they just use a better pin? “It becomes extremely expensive and we’re not out to cost people more money.”
But he admits he has no solution to the problem of the black centre falling out.
In Flanders Field
The world’s most famous war poem was itself almost a casualty of war. It was written by a Canadian doctor, Lt.-Col. John McRae, who fought in the South African War as well as WWI.
When a former friend and student named Lt. Alexis Helmer of Ottawa was killed by a mortar on May 2, 1915, McRae, already sick of war and the death that accompanies it, was forced to act as the chaplain at his service.
A day later, sitting in the back of an ambulance in Ypres overlooking a graveyard, he used his anger and his anguish to compose a poem that came to be known as “In Flanders Field.”
It took him all of 20 minutes.
But McRae ultimately decided his handiwork didn’t adequately express his grief and actually threw the poem away.
Fortunately for history, a fellow officer retrieved the paper and it was eventually published in the English magazine “Punch” in December 1915, on its way to Remembrance Day status as one of the most poignant reminders of those who are long gone, but definitely never forgotten.
The Last Post
Its mournful notes can bring tears to the eyes of old soldiers and their loved ones, but where did this famous bugle call originate?
It’s believed to have started in the British Army back in the 17th century, when an officer, accompanied by a bugler, would check to see whether soldiers were in their barracks for the night.
The first post meant his rounds had started and those still not back at base should return.
More notes were sounded along the way, until the ‘last post’, which indicated the sentries were in place for the night, and that soldiers should retire for the evening.
It later changed into the symbol we know today, played at military funerals and on Remembrance Day, signifying that the dead, like those ancient soldiers in their barracks, can rest in peace.
The 11th Hour of the 11th Day in the 11th Month
Every school kid knows why we pause at 11am on Remembrance Day. It’s because that was the day the Germans signed the Armistice that ended World War I.
But did you know that pen was actually put to paper at 5am – not 11? According to the terms laid out by the Allies, the peace accord came into effect six hours after the signing , which is why the 11th hour is recalled as the moment when the ‘guns fell silent’.
What Was In The Actual Agreement?
Here are the terms of the Armistice signed at 5am on November 11th, 1918.
1. Effective six hours after signing.
2. Immediate clearing of Belgium, France, Alsace-Lorraine, to be concluded within 14 days. Any troops remaining in these areas to be interned or taken as prisoners of war.
3. Surrender 5,000 cannon (chiefly heavy), 30,000 machine guns, 3000 trench mortars, 2,000 planes.
4. Evacuation of the left bank of the Rhine, Mayence, Coblence, Cologne, occupied by the enemy to a radius of 30 kilometers deep.
5. On the right bank of the Rhine a neutral zone from 30 to 40 kilometers deep, evacuation within 11 days.
6. Nothing to be removed from the territory on the left bank of the Rhine, all factories, railroads, etc. to be left intact.
7. Surrender of 5000 locomotives, 150,000 railway coaches, 10,000 trucks.
8. Maintenance of enemy occupation troops through Germany.
9. In the East all troops to withdraw behind the boundaries of August 1, 1914, fixed time not given.
10. Renunciation of the Treaties of Brest-Litovsk and Bucharest.
11. Unconditional surrender of East Africa.
12. Return of the property of the Belgian Bank, Russian and Rumanian gold.
13. Return of prisoners of war without reciprocity.
14. Surrender of 160 U-boats, 8 light cruisers, 6 Dreadnoughts; the rest of the fleet to be disarmed and controlled by the Allies in neutral or Allied harbors.
15. Assurance of free trade through the Cattegat Sound; clearance of mine fields and occupation of all forts and batteries, through which transit could be hindered.
16. The blockade remains in effect. All German ships to be captured.
17. All limitations by Germany on neutral shipping to be removed.
18. Armistice lasts 30 days.
Is It A Legal Holiday?
It depends on where you’re asking that question. The problem is in the definition. In some places, it is, in others it seems to be quasi-official and you get paid for working it but there’s some dispute about who gets it off.
Remembrance Day is officially declared some kind of holiday in the following provinces:
- New Brunswick,
- Nova Scotia,
- Newfoundland and Labrador,
- Northwest Territories,
And there’s Manitoba, where things get downright confusing. Businesses must legally close on November 11th – but only between 9am and 1pm. Does that make it a legal holiday or just a partial one?
In Nova Scotia, it’s a holiday and if you’re on shift, they’re required to give you an extra day off. But you can’t refuse to work that day and while most stores are closed, some industries are exempt – meaning they don’t get an extra paid day off. One of them is, for some unknown reason, Christmas tree operations and harvesting.
While banks and government offices are closed here on that day and some places operate with limited hours, Ontario and Quebec remain the only two provinces where Remembrance Day isn’t actually a holiday, a fact that has spurred great debate among residents living in both areas.
Sources: Heritage Canada/Canadian Legion/Federal Government