THIS SUNDAY AT 11 A.M., life throughout much of the British Commonwealth will come to a halt as citizens observe two minutes of silence to commemorate those who died in the service of their countries.
Known as Remembrance Day, Poppy Day or Remembrance Sunday, the holiday marks the anniversary of the end of the First World War. In keeping with tradition, at precisely one hour before noon local time, observers will pause for two minutes of silence that symbolizes the moment the guns finally fell silent on the Western Front on Nov. 11, 1918.
Remembrance Day is observed in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. It’s also marked in Kenya, Mauritius, Bermuda, and Barbados – all countries that fought for the British Empire in the so called War to End All Wars.
In honour of Nov. 11, we here at MHN thought it would be fitting to examine how different countries commemorate their war dead, whether today or any other day of the year. While the overwhelming majority of visitors to this blog are from the U.K., Canada and the United States, we do get a number of readers from various other places around the world. If we’ve missed your country (or worse, got one of the details wrong), feel free to add your input below.
- Just like the British Commonwealth, America also marks Nov. 11 as a day of commemoration. Originally known in the U.S. as Armistice Day, the occasion has since been re-named Veterans Day. Yet unlike the Commonwealth’s Remembrance Day, Veterans Day honours all those who served in America’s wars, not just the dead. The United States also observes Memorial Day, which is held each year on the last Monday of May. The holiday was first conceived as a way to heal the lingering divisions of the American Civil War. It served as a salute the more than 750,000 soldiers from both the Union and the Confederacy who died during the bloody four-year conflict. Originally, known as Decoration Day, the holiday was widened in the 20th Century to commemorate the dead in all American wars, as well as to celebrate the sacrifices of everyone who has served. Although a solemn holiday in the United States, Memorial Day is also considered the first long weekend of the summer season. In fact, Hollywood typically uses Memorial Day weekend to launch major summer blockbusters.
- The French and Belgians also mark the end of the First World War, which is known in in France as the Great Patriotic War. Nov. 11 affords the opportunity to commemorate the fallen in those countries as well.
- The Poles actually consider Nov. 11 a day of joyous celebration more than one of sober reflection. The end of the First World War marks the beginning of Polish statehood. Accordingly, the 11th is known as Independence Day.
- Germany doesn’t commemorate the end of the First World War, but it does have a day to remember victims of conflict. Volkstrauertag or Memorial Day was established shortly after World War One to remember the more than 2 million German soldiers who were killed in the conflict. The special day took place each year on the second Sunday of Lent (which comes either in February or March). When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, they recast the day as Heldengedenktag or the Day of Heroes. Following the Second World War, Germany abandoned observing the occasion altogether, which citizens associated with the Third Reich. However in 1952, Volkstrauertag was revived, but moved to the last Sunday before Advent in mid-November. It has been observed ever since.  A second memorial was designated in Germany on Jan. 27. This one honours those killed during the Holocaust. It’s known in Germany as the Day of Memory for the Victims of National Socialism. It’s recognized internationally as well under various names. The German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern also celebrates The Day of Liberation from National Socialism on VE Day or May 8.
- Russia also has a day marking the defeat of Nazism — May 9. It’s celebrated a day later than the official VE Day. Because of the difference in time zones between Germany and the Soviet Union, it was after midnight in Moscow when the surrender went into effect on May 8, 1945. Known as Victory Day, the holiday celebrated the triumph of Soviet arms while also paying tribute to the U.S.S.R.’s 23 million victims of the war, both military and civilian. The occasion is also marked in the former republics of Yugoslavia as well as Israel. Ironically, the holiday became something of a non-event in the years following he break up of the Soviet Union as it was often associated with communist rule. However the holiday was appropriated by Russian president Vladimir Putin in recent years and transformed into a nationalist celebration. It also continues to be recognized in the former Soviet republics. Beginning in 2007, Royal Navy veterans of the Arctic convoys began marking Victory Day as well. Currently, Russian diplomats, veterans and even members of the Royal Family observe the occasion aboard HSM Belfast on the River Thames.
- Japan is just one of the many nations that commemorate the end of Pacific War. Known as The Day for Mourning the War Dead and Praying for Peace, it’s observed on Aug. 15 – the day Japan surrendered to the Allies. The end of the war is also observed in China, Hong Kong, Korea and Vietnam. Interestingly enough, VJ Day isn’t a national holiday in the U.S., but is an official state holiday in Rhode Island always falling on the second Monday in August. Australia marks Aug. 15 each year with a contest for amateur radio operators. During the 24 hour competition, contestants race to make as many ham radio contacts as possible. A trophy goes to the state with the highest number of participants. 
- While Australia and New Zealand commemorate Nov. 11 like other Commonwealth member states, those two countries also honour the beginning of the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles Campaign every April 25. Known as ANZAC Day, this national day of remembrance has been expanded to include not just those who fought and died at Gallipoli, but all Australians and New Zealanders who made sacrifices in both countries’ wars in general. (And special thanks to G.David Thomas for enlightening us.)
Moments of Silence… or not
Many commemorative days feature moments of silence in which citizens quietly reflect on the loss of life. The Israelis commemorate the Holocaust not with quiet, but by blasting air raid sirens across the entire country. One morning each spring at precisely 10 a.m., life in Israel stops as the klaxons wail. This video shows Israeli motorists pull to the side of a highway and exit their vehicles at the designated hour to listen. Although it usually occurs in April, the exact day moves each year due to Passover celebrations. Similarly, the city of Warsaw marks the occasion of the 1944 ghetto uprising with sirens on Aug. 1 each year.
Red Flowers, White Ones and Blue
Throughout the British Empire, Remembrance Day is marked by the wearing of a red poppy. These small artificial flowers, which are pinned to the lapel, symbolize the poppies that grew in Flanders fields during the First World War. As far back as the 1920s, British peace activists and pacifists have promoted the wearing of white poppies instead of red ones to speak out against war in general. Many in the U.K. and elsewhere considered the variation disrespectful. Interestingly, the British Royal Legion considers both white and red poppies appropriate for Remembrance Day. Although they also mark Nov. 11, the French don’t wear red poppies. Instead blue cornflowers are worn for Nov. 11.
Last Post/ Taps
As we reported previously on this very blog, the bugle call known as Taps wasn’t alwasy played for the dead. It was originally written during the American Civil War as call to soldiers in Union camps to turn in for the night. It eventually was commandeered for use at military funerals. Similarly, the British army had come up with its own ceremonial tune for similar occasions. The song that is now used throughout the Commonwealth at Remembrance Day ceremonies and military funerals, The Last Post, also began as a bugle call marking the end of a day. Click here to hear The Last Post performed. To read about Taps, The Last Post and other songs associated with war dead, read the earlier story here.