Earlier I posted about the American observance of Veterans Day on November 11. The same date is known as Remembrance Day in Great Britain and Commonwealth countries such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Like the original holiday here in America, it was established to commemorate the Armistice ending World War I and the servicemen who fought and fell in it. In contrast to our more casual observance of Veterans Day, however, Remembrance Day is a solemn occasion apparently participated in together by most people in the countryside, in villages and towns, and in the great cities of the Commonwealth. Church services, tolling bells, and moving ceremonies are held, which in London include the Queen and other members of the Royal family, military and civilian leaders, and especially veterans of all units and branches of service. Poppies (or pins resembling them) commemorating the fallen are commonplace (this tradition began in the USA in 1918 and was adopted in England in 1921--read the story here). Two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. ("the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month") are observed everywhere.
Watch a BBC video here of this past week's Remembrance ceremony at Whitehall in London, to see just how reverent an occasion this is!
Why can't we celebrate Veterans Day in America this way? Aside from the dignified pageantry of the Whitehall ceremonies, I'm most impressed with the way in which this day seems to be observed by the British (and other Commonwealth) people together, as a great family. There are certainly some who don't participate, but I sense that this day is much more prominent in the lives of most than is Veterans Day among Americans. Perhaps it's because the Great War, which prompted this day, is carved so much more deeply into the psyches of the British and Commonwealth peoples than ours has been etched by any conflict Americans have been part of since at least the Civil War (more than one million dead, over 2 percent of the entire British and Commonwealth population, in four short years). Just from what I've seen remotely through the Internet and otherwise, Britain seems to be crusted over with plaques memorializing those who fell in WWI and II. And how close Britain came to national extinction in WWII is still a vivid memory for millions of English men and women. We Americans can thank God that we haven't had to suffer quite so much loss, collectively, as have our brethren in Europe. But the "United" States could surely use a reverential national observance to bring us fully together as a people, if but for a day.
To this observer, the crowning moment of any Remembrance Day ceremony is the playing of the Last Post. Originally a bugle call used in British Army camps to signal the end of the day, the call is now used at Commonwealth military funerals and ceremonies commemorating those who have fallen in war. It thus has a similar origin and current use as Taps here in America. However, while Taps is very simple and becalming, Last Post is more complex and includes rousing as well as reverent passages. At the risk of indulging in too much of a good thing, I'm going to treat you to three renditions! The first is played crisply on a single bugle, with appropriate military tribute scenes.
The second version of Last Post is played in a slightly more stately fashion by the Royal Marine Buglers at the 2008 Remembrance service at Whitehall. This gives you a sense of the call's majesty when played by massed bugles as part of a most solemn ceremony.
There's quite a story behind the third rendition. Since 1928, Last Post has been played every evening at 8 p.m.--that's 365 days a year, rain or shine--by buglers of the local Last Post association at the war memorial at Ieper (Ypres), Belgium, known as the Menin Gate. This is done to commemorate the British Empire dead at the Battle of Ypres during the First World War, and to express the gratitude of Ypres citizens towards those who gave their lives for Belgium's freedom. The only break in this tradition was during the four years of the German occupation of Ypres from 20 May 1940 to 6 September 1944, when the ceremony moved to Brookwood Cemetery in England. On the evening that Polish forces liberated Ypres during WWII, the ceremony was resumed at the Menin Gate, even though heavy fighting was still going on in other parts of the town. Here is one evening's performance, recorded in 2006:
MAGNIFICENT! The veterans of our British and ANZAC allies will indeed never be forgotten.