Remembrance Day: Carrying the Torch of Our Ancestors
Every year at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, countless people around the world will stop what they’re doing and fall silent. Some will cease conversation with loved ones in favor of solemn contemplation, others will halt the work they’re laboring away on to pray, but above all, no matter where they are or what they are doing, they will take a moment to remember.
Remembrance Day marks the end of World War I and is a memorial to remember those who died in the line of duty. Like Veteran's Day, Remembrance Day stems from the original Armistice Day and falls on November 11th. At 11 a.m. a two-minute silence is observed to pay homage to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.
While Remembrance Day’s very existence is due to the somber circumstances surrounding one of the greatest wars the world had seen to that point, observing the day isn’t intended to fill you with despair. In fact, it can do quite the opposite. It can be a day that fosters gratitude, love, and even hope.
As I’ve learned more about this special day, I’ve gained a fondness and interest in the symbolism of the poppy and how it came to forever be connected with Remembrance Day.
When Britain declared war on Germany at the start of World War I, Canada, being a dominion of the British Empire became engaged in the war as well. They sent soldiers, supplies, and even doctors to aid in the war. One of those doctors was Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. As he spent time with his fellow soldiers and aided those in need, he forged very real friendships with those he served around. One day, after feeling immense sorrow due to one of his close friends dying in the war, McCrae observed blankets of vibrant red poppies springing up out of the very earth that, no too long before, had been gruesome battlefields. It’s there, next to fields of vibrant poppies, that McCrae penned the famous poem “In Flanders Fields.”
“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.
We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”
As John McCrae’s “Flanders Fields” grew in popularity, so did the symbolism of the poppy. Poppies blooming out of war torn soil came to signify the hope that could one day grow out of despair. It’s common to see poppies being worn on Remembrance Day (and even around Memorial Day in the United States) as a token of remembrance and hope.
What should we remember? While the obvious is to remember the sacrifices of those that have gone before us, I think it’s meant to be much deeper than that. In the final stanza of “Flanders Fields” John McCrae writes, “from flailing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.” It points to a genuine responsibility we have to not only remember what our ancestors stood for but to carry the metaphorical torch forward for what they were trying to build.
We often live our lives as if we are each the main character in a story, and in a sense, we are the main character in our story. But when I think of the intricacies of the human experience, my thoughts, desires, and dreams, I realize there are roughly 8 billion other people on this planet experiencing the same thing. On top of that, there are generations and generations of those who lived before. It makes feel small, seemingly insignificant. It’s similar to how you feel when you stargaze on a clear night and it registers how miniscule our planet is and that we only get to experience a small stitch of time. It’s not just about our story. There’s a bigger story than our own to be told. There’s a torch to be carried.
This time of year is filled with choice opportunities to remember our ancestors, whether they served in the military or not. October is National Family History Month, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day occur in November, and after that we have the holiday season which allows us time to gather with our families and practice traditions new and old.
Learning about the lives of our ancestors is among the best ways I can think of to honor them. You can learn about them by looking at any surviving pictures of them, read recorded memories of them such as a journal or obituary, or speak to a senior member of your family about what they recall from the lives of family who have passed on. Simply gaining an understanding about the time period in which they lived can help in knowing what fears, dreams, or lifestyles they had.
Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” meaning the best way to progress is to gain understanding from those who preceded us. By standing on the shoulders of giants, we can be filled with gratitude, love, and even hope. Take a moment this Remembrance Day to ponder, learn about, and appreciate the sacrifices of those who have gone before.
Learn about this histories of war torn countries, and countless sacrifices by reading some of our impactful war memoirs and information books including The Hiding Place, And There Was Light, Short War Histories, or Plane Spotter’s Guide. You might even consider a small but beautiful piece of World War I history, an authentic Soldier Table that pays tribute to the main European Allied troops of WWI. Shop our Remembrance Day collection for these and more.
Historic photos in this article are from the Library of Congress Archives.