Origin of Remembrance Day

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At 5am on 11 November 1918, three German government representatives accepted the Armistice terms presented to them by an allied commander, General Foch of the French Army.  The demands of the Armistice included the withdrawal of German forces to the east bank of the Rhine within 30 days; immediate cessation of warfare; and surrender of the German fleet and all heavy guns with no further negotiations until the signing of the peace treaty.

The armistice became effective at 11am the same day, and as the guns fell silent on the Western Front in France and Belgium, four years of hostilities ended.

The cease-fire was made permanent the following year when members of the Commonwealth and the League of Nations signed the Treaty of Versailles.  People across the world celebrated the war's end - celebrations tempered by thoughts of the enormous suffering and loss of life resulting from the War.

World War I began in 1914 and lasted for four years.  More than 416 000 Australians volunteered for service in World War I. Of these, 324 000 served overseas.  More than 60 000 Australians were killed, including 45 000 who died on the Western Front in France and Belgium and more than 8 000 who died on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Türkiye.  As well as Australian soldiers, many nurses in the Australian Army Nursing Service served on the Western Front.  These nurses worked in overcrowded hospitals for up to 16 hours a day, looking after soldiers with shocking injuries and burns. Those who worked in hospitals close to the fighting were also in danger of being shelled by the enemy.

In Australia and other allied countries, including New Zealand, Canada and the United States, 11 November became known as Armistice Day - a day to remember those who died in World War I.  The day continues to be commemorated in Allied countries.
After World War II the Australian Government agreed to the United Kingdom's proposal that Armistice Day be renamed Remembrance Day to commemorate those who were killed in both World Wars.  Today the loss of Australian lives from all wars and conflicts is commemorated on Remembrance Day.

In October 1997 the then Governor-General issued a Proclamation declaring 11 November as Remembrance Day - a day to remember the sacrifice of those who have died for Australia in wars and conflicts.

The Proclamation reinforced the importance of Remembrance Day and encouraged all Australians to renew their observance of the event.

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Observation of silence at 11 am

As a mark of respect to those who have died and suffered, people in Australia are encouraged to stop what they are doing at 11 am to observe one minute’s silence and reflect on the loss and suffering caused by war.

The idea of observing a period of silence was first proposed by Melbourne journalist Edward George Honey, who proposed a period of silence for national remembrance in a letter published in the London Evening News on 8 May 1919.

The suggestion came to the attention of King George V. After testing the practicality of five minutes’ silence – a trial was held with five Grenadier Guardsmen standing to attention for the silence – the King issued a proclamation on 7 November 1919 which called for a two-minute silence. His proclamation requested that "all locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead".

At 11 am on 11 November 1919, Australians, for the first time, paused and stood in silent tribute to the men and women of the 1st Australian Imperial Force who had died on battlefields in Gallipoli, Europe and in the Middle East.

In 1997, the Governor-General issued a proclamation urging all Australians to observe the one minute silence on Remembrance Day. It is also still appropriate for two minutes’ silence to be observed.

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Significance of poppies

Red poppies are often worn on Remembrance Day. The tradition has its origins in a poem written in 1915 by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a doctor in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps. Lieutenant Colonel McCrae noticed that, despite the devastation caused by the war to towns, farms and forests, thousands of small red poppies began growing everywhere in Spring. This inspired his 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.

The poem was first published in England’s Punch magazine in December 1915 and within months came to symbolize the sacrifices of all who were fighting in World War 1.

In 1918 Moina Michael, an American, wrote a poem in reply, We Shall Keep the Faith, in which she promised to wear a poppy 'in honour of our dead' and so began the tradition of wearing a poppy in remembrance.

It was French YMCA Secretary, Madame Guerin, who in 1918 conceived the idea of selling silk poppies to help needy soldiers.

Poppies were first sold in England on Armistice Day in 1921 by members of the British Legion to raise money for those who had been incapacitated by the war.

The practice began in Australia the same year, promoted by the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (now known as the Returned & Services League of Australia, or RSL).

In the lead-up to 11 November each year, the RSL sells red poppies for Australians to pin on their lapels, with proceeds helping the organisation undertake welfare work.

Since 1921 wearing a poppy has enabled Australians to show they have not forgotten the more than 102,000 Australian servicemen and women who have given their lives in wars and conflicts during the past 100 years.

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Significance of rosemary

Traditionally, sprigs of rosemary are worn on Anzac Day and sometimes on Remembrance Day. Rosemary is a herb which is usually added to cooking. However, since ancient times, the herb has been believed to have properties to improve the memory. Perhaps for this reason, rosemary became an emblem of remembrance in ancient folklore. Rosemary is now worn as a symbol of remembrance and has particular significance for Australians as it is found growing wild on the Gallipoli peninsula.

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The Unknown Australian Soldier

Twentieth century warfare resulted in millions of unknown dead resting in unknown graves. Of Australia's war dead from World War I and World War II, 35 527 (about 35 per cent) have no identified grave. They are commemorated on Memorials to the Missing.

The names of many Australians who died in World War I appear on memorials along the Western Front, including the names of about 18 000 men of the Australian Imperial Force with 'no known grave'.

In 1993, to mark the 75th anniversary of the 1918 armistice, the Australian Government exhumed the remains of an unknown Australian soldier from the Adelaide War Cemetery, near Villers-Bretonneux, France for entombment in the Australian War Memorial’s Hall of Memory, Canberra.

The funeral for the Unknown Soldier was held on 11 November – Remembrance Day – 1993 . Before proceeding to the Hall of Memory, the Unknown Soldier’s coffin was placed on the Stone of Remembrance outside the Memorial where the then Prime Minister, the Hon Paul Keating, delivered the eulogy:

… We will never know who this Australian was. Yet he has always been among those we have honoured. We know that he was one of the 45,000 Australians who died on the Western Front, one of the 416,000 Australians who volunteered for service in World War I … and one of the 100,000 Australians who have died in wars this century. He is all of them. And he is one of us …

As Australia’s Unknown Soldier was laid to rest in the Hall of Memory, the late Robert Comb, a World War I veteran, who had served in battles on the Western Front, sprinkled soil from Pozieres, France, over the coffin and said, “Now you’re home, mate”.

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More Information

For more information about the experiences of Australians on the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Western Front see the Anzac Portal.

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