In the modern United States there are three days when citizens get a chance to honor men and women who are currently serving their country in the military or have done so in the past. Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, Memorial Day, May 31, and Veterans Day, November 11.
After the Great War, November 11 was celebrated as Armistice Day after President Woodrow Wilson implored all Americans that “… the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service, and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of nations.(1)” The holiday remained that until after World War II, when a movement was generated to change its focus to honor all living veterans. The United States Congress passed legislation to that effect.
The poppy on this year’s Veteran’s Day poster signifies the flower that was so prevalent in Flanders, where many allied soldiers died. “In Flanders Field” is a poem written by a Canadian physician, Colonel John McCrae.
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.
In Great Britain, the Sunday closest to November 11 is Remembrance Day, when the nation stops to remember all who have lost their lives in the service their country. The monarch leads the national mourning by placing a wreath of poppies at the Cenotaph on Whitehall, accompanied by government leaders, representatives of the military, and the heads of Commonwealth nations. At the stroke of 11, Big Ben chimes to begin two minutes of silence: one for the dead and one for the survivors.
In the United States, the official Veterans Day ceremony takes place at the the Tomb of Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery, on November 11 at 11:00 AM. Usually the President or the Vice President lays a wreath and makes a speech. The body of the first unknown soldier was returned from Europe in the early 1920s. Since then, the unknowns from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were buried at the the Tomb of The Unknowns. The unknown from Vietnam was eventually identified.
For further reading:
Neil Hanson. Unknown Soldiers