For the sacrifices of others, two minutes of sacred silence
Published in the Albany (NY) Times Union, November 11, 2021.
Poppies really do grow in the fields around Ypres and the Somme. When I ran a history department at a school in Sussex, England, I took busloads of students on tours of the First World War battlefields every summer, when the red flowers are in full bloom. After the war, the poppy became a symbol of remembrance.
November is a time for commemoration. Both the U.S. and the U.K. remember those who served their country in times of war on November 11. In America, it is called Veterans Day. In Britain, it’s Armistice Day. I’ve had the opportunity to experience both.
In the U.S. there are two holidays that honor veterans: Memorial Day, on the last Monday in May, commemorates those who died in America’s wars, and Veterans Day, on the 11th of November, honors those who served and who are still living. In the U.K. and other Commonwealth countries, there is only one. Armistice Day is about remembering all who served. At 11 a.m - the precise time when the armistice that ended the fighting in World War I took effect in 1918 - the whole country takes two minutes to remember the fallen. It is a tradition that goes back to the first Armistice Day commemoration in 1919.
Every year at the start of November, the Royal British Legion raises money by selling red paper poppies. People of all walks of life wear them pinned to their coats or lapels for 10 or 11 days. Some 45 million are sold each year in a country with a population of 58 million aged 12 and over. Some Americans wear poppies too, normally around Memorial Day in May, but the practice is nowhere near as widespread.
For me, November 11 is a special day. I was born on an Air Force base and had veterans around me growing up. I studied history at the State University of New York at Albany. I moved to the U.K. about twenty years ago, where I met my wife and now am raising a family. I work in a school that saw hundreds of its former pupils mown down in World War I, and I help organize our Armistice Day assembly, where we bring together all 1,100 students, and several hundred more staff. The bugle plays the “Last Post,” the British equivalent of “Taps.” The headmaster reads out the names of men from the school who died in the war, and we all, collectively, observe a two-minute silence.
Silence is more powerful than ever in an age of limitless distraction, of phones and screens and social media. Making a conscious decision to do nothing, just to think and reflect, even for a very short space of time, is almost anathema to our current, frenzied way of life. But that is what makes it so meaningful. Sometimes during those two minutes I think about my grandfather. Sometimes I think about the trenches. Sometimes I think about why wars start, and why they still go on. Sometimes I think of the parents who received a letter telling them their boy was gone.
Sometimes I just reflect on how grateful I am to live in a society where democracy has been preserved by the sacrifices of those who fought to keep it. For me that time is valuable.