Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Remembrance Day

Yesterday marked the annual celebration of Remembrance Day. This year marks the 90th Anniversary of the end of World War I (at the time known as the Great War) when the guns fell silent at 11:00am on November 11, 1918.

But what exactly is Remembrance Day?

If you were to ask the Canadian government, Remembrance Day (now proceded by Veteran's Week) is a time for Canadians to develop "a deeper understanding of the sacrifices and achievements of those who have served and continue to serve our country." However, this language does not explicity state that we remember the war dead but rather individuals who have and continue to "serve." Is this a glossing over of the reality of war (soldiers shooting each other and dying) or some higher sacrifice of service to a nation?

Commemoration is a modern celebration. Historian George Robb argues that celebrating the heroism and sacrifice of soldiers predominated commemoration of soldiers through monuments. But, later on in the inter-war period a more cynical view of the First World War emerged that challenged the patriotic view of dying for one's country.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Britain was a controversial site during the Peace Day parade in July 1919. The British press was outraged that there was a lack of consideration given to the parents of soldiers who had died. Quite quickly British Members of Parliament and Lords gave up their front row seats during the ceremony for the mothers of dead soldiers.

Yesterday I attended the Remembrance Day ceremony at Memorial Gardens (the local arena) in North Bay, ON. This idea of respect for mothers of dead soldiers held some value and continuity at the wreath laying ceremony. The first individual to lay a wreath at the (portable) monument of a white cross was the daughter of a Silver Cross Mother. The Silver Cross, an award instituted by the Canadian government, was presented to all Canadian mothers who lost a son or daughter during World War II as well as to women who lost their husbands. In North Bay, the Silver Cross Mother was Mrs. Ida Beattie and saw three sons enlist and only one, Fred Beattie, returned. She lost two sons within six months. Ida's daughter, Mrs. Margaret Barker, was the first to lay the wreath today, even before government and other military and community dignitaries.

So what place does a higher institution like Nipissing University have amongst Remembrance Day? A wreath was laid on our institution's behalf at the ceremony mentioned earlier, but should it stop there? The world of academia and critical inquiry should seek to study remembrance and commemoration. As a part of this, I look forward to researching and writing a thesis paper on commemoration and remembrance ceremonies and the reporting of it in British newspapers during the inter-war period. This paper is for a fourth year seminar class in History and I look forward to presenting it at the Second Annual Undergraduate Research Conference, should it be permitted after submission.

I'll wrap up by asking you about the poppy. Did you wear one this year? If so, how come? There must be a reason for doing so. Perhaps you have a reason for not wearing one if you didn't. I look forward to your comments.


Rhiannon said...

I wear a poppy because it signifies the act of remembrance (and also because the money goes to support the legion). My dad's father fought in WWII; my step-great-grandfather fought at Vimy in WWI, so it is also in honour of them.

Your question about the place of Nipissing in the ceremonies is particularly interesting to me. I was lamenting to a friend a few weeks that Remembrance Day almost doesn't seem quite real to me now that I no longer attend or teach at a public school: sure, some of those assemblies were awfully cheesy, but they did help to commemorate the occasion in a way that is so easy to forget to do once you're outside of the institution.

If you check out my blog, I wrote a very different reflection on remembrance and one of the Royal Canadian Mint's current commercials.

Big Green Giant said...

Rhiannon, you bring up an interesting point about the Mint's commercial in your blog.

However, you state that war is shown through the view of a video game. Although this assessment has some merit, I would argue that it is more about a meaningful change in perspective about how war can be seen.

Typically, I recall seeing war through the lens of a passive observer either by a bird's eye view of a battlefield in the movie Passchendaele, the explosion of a building in the distance in Afghanistan, or even footage from trench life in WWI itself. However, there is rarely portrayed the view of a soldier's first-person perspective in battle. This view in the Mint's commercial at least helps us as citizens begin to answer the big question: "what is battle really like?"

In the commercial, the answer is a single focus objective of taking the next bunker or pushing the enemy out while trying not to be shelled in the meantime.

Big Green Giant said...


"They simplify history into the lowest common denominator of GOOD (us) vs. BAD (them), and remove the humanity from history."

Rhiannon, this is how commemoration of WWI dead began in the first place. Immediately after the war in Britain there was a pervasive view that the Allies were absolute victors and had triumphed over the evil enemy of Germany. In doing so, Britons perceived their own soldiers as "victors over evil" and this view assisted in their legitimization of the war experience and became part of their collective memory. With the help of Christian religious institutions, the sacrifice of the front line soldier was paralleled with that of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In essence, if Christ made the ultimate sacrifice of giving up His life for the world, then British soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice in giving up their life for their country.

However, I have criticism with this victory view. When the war concluded, foreign troops did not occupy Germany. In fact, the trench lines were mostly in France and Belgium. This proved problematic and was one reason that WWII occurred because it was the belief in Germany that it had not lost the war but was sold out; the "Jewish-Bolshevik Conspiracy."

So, what did the Allies learn from this for WWII? Bomb and occupy the cities in Germany, including Berlin, to make sure that Germans had lost the war so that there would be no doubt regarding victor/loser in peace negotiations.

keely said...

I wore a poppy this year and every year. I do it support and remember.
I wear it for my family, friends, and those whom I don't know who have faught and are fighting for our country.

Anonymous said...

I try to wear a poppy every year because it seems to be the accepted thing to do in Canada on Remembrance Day. I don't understand why someone wouldn't want to wear one.

Rhiannon said...

Ian, you make some excellent points. In particular, I like your point about showing the war from the soldier's perspective, although I still maintain that the commercial is mimicking the form of the FPS (because of the way the gun is held, and moves when the soldier moves--it's definitely artificial). Wolfenstein or Halo are structured similarly. The soldier's death also mimics how death is used in video game cinematics.

Second, while remembrance does tend to leave us in very us vs. them areas of thinking (the Patriot Act, anyone?), I can't help but hope that we have, perhaps, on some level evolved beyond that kind of thinking. My complaint here is more about the video games than that particular commercial; it just makes me very uncomfortable to think of people playing through Vimy Ridge as though it's just another boss fight, you know?

Finally, have you seen History Boys? It's excellent.

Anonymous said...

The poppy represents the soldiers' lives lost, and it's for that reason that we wear one. The poppies still grow wild in France, and thus the basis for Flanders Fields, where the crosses stand all through Europe, row on row. The poppy represents the hope that lives sacrificed were for freedom and of a war to end all wars. We're still waiting for that ideal.

Big Green Giant said...

To anonymous above: you make a good point and this may be what the poppy represents. However, with the celebration of Veteran's Week, the Canadian government says that it is a celebration of people who have served in the line of duty, but current and former.

I like the ending of your post: "We're still waiting for that ideal."