Why poppies are worn, plus 4 more things you need to know about Armistice Day
Armistice Day takes place on 11 November each year and marks the end of the First World War. It is a day of commemoration, an occasion to remember the some 8.5 million soldiers who died across the world during the 1914–18 war – as well as those lost in the conflicts that followed. But how much do you know about it?
As we prepare to commemorate the end of the First World War, HistoryExtra brings you five facts about Armistice Day, from the first poppy appeal to the burial of the Unknown Warrior…
What was the armistice and when was it signed?
At 2.05am on 11 November 1918, after four years of conflict, a German delegation sat down in the railway carriage of Allied supreme commander Marshal Ferdinand Foch, a few hours’ north of Paris. Talks had gone on for three days, and the German delegates were close to accepting the terms for an armistice, a formal agreement to end the fighting.
The Germans had been defeated after a brutal summer of attrition; over the past four months, Allied and American forces had overwhelmed the final line of German defences in the battles of the Hundred Days Offensive. On 9 November 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II had been persuaded to seek asylum in the Netherlands.
In the early hours of 11 November, final terms were laid out and at 5.12am, the armistice was signed. It declared the “cessation of hostilities by land and in the air six hours after the signing”. Terms of the agreement included: the immediate German withdrawal from the territories they had acquired during the conflict; the disarmament and demobilisation of the German military; and the release of Allied prisoners. The terms made it impossible for Germany to resume any fighting.
This was the last of the September–November 1918 armistices between the warring nations, and peace came into effect six hours after the armistice was signed, at 11am – or at the "eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month". It has been estimated that during the time between the signing and the announcement of peace, the war produced a further 11,000 casualties.
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The armistice was never intended to be a permanent peace treaty between the nations; this would be attempted with the Treaty of Versailles, signed seven months later. In January 1919, the leaders of 32 countries met in Paris – without Germany. Negotiations were led by the ‘big three’: British prime minister David Lloyd George; French prime minister Georges Clemenceau; and US president Woodrow Wilson.
The aim of the treaty was to make sure that Germany would never again pose a military threat to the rest of Europe. It left Germany with reduced territories, a significantly smaller army and navy, and the duty to assume ‘war guilt’ and pay an unspecified amount of ‘reparations’ to the Allies.
The terms of the treaty were considered harsh by many, and British prime minister David Lloyd George predicted: "We shall have to fight another war again in 25 years’ time."
After the treaty was signed in June 1919, some right-wing German movements framed the signing of the armistice by German commanders in 1918 as a ‘stab in the back’. The treaty is often regarded to be a key factor in the rise of German military sentiment and action in the 1930s, giving way to the rise of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party.
In a symbolic action, the same train carriage in which the November 1918 armistice was signed was later used by Adolf Hitler when he accepted France’s surrender to the German forces in 1940.
- Read more | The First World War: Was it worth it?
When was the first Armistice Day?
Not to be confused with Remembrance Sunday, which is marked on the second Sunday of November each year, Armistice Day has been commemorated on 11 November since the first anniversary of the end of the First World War, in November 1919.
As part of the first year events, King George V hosted a banquet at Buckingham Palace “in Honour of The President of the French Republic". A two-minute silence was also held for the fallen, and ever since it has since been a tradition in Britain to pause for a two-minute silence at 11am on 11 November to remember those killed in the war. This has since been extended to commemorate the lives lost in other conflicts.
Over the last century, the day has become a more sombre day of reflection, marked with poppies and respectful silence. However, 11 November 1918 was a moment of wild celebration for many. “The day the war ended was a weird and wonderful carnival rather than the day of mournful seriousness that Armistice Day would become in later years,” wrote Guy Cuthbertson for BBC History Magazine. “The armistice brought church services and tears, but it was a day of joy, spontaneity, noise and fun.”
In Cambridge, students threw books, a bull was driven into one of the colleges, and an effigy of the kaiser was burned in the market square while people danced round the bonfire.
On 12 November, the Daily Mirror reported: “Conversation in the Strand was impossible owing to the din of cheers, whistles, hooters and fireworks”.
While the initial celebrations were filled with relief and jubilation in many quarters, the soldiers still had to be ‘demobbed’ and huge swathes of the population were irrevocably changed. Peter Hart, an oral historian at the Imperial War Museum’s Sound Archive, wrote in 2009 about the many soldiers who returned home with mental and physical scars.“Many had presumed that they would not live to see the end of the war. Part of their mental defences was the idea that they had nothing to look forward to; that as doomed men they did not have much to lose if they were killed. In a flash their mental landscape had changed.”
The British continued to refer to 1914–18 as ‘the Great War’in the 1920s and 1930s, but after 1945 they adopted American terminology and spoke of ‘the First World War’ and the ‘Second World War’.
According to David Reynolds,professor of international history at the University of Cambridge, this changed the nature of commemoration. “After 1945, both Armistice Day on 11 November and the Two-Minute silence fell out of fashion. Instead, the dead of both world wars were honoured on the nearest weekend, known as Remembrance Sunday,” he explained in an article for BBC History Magazine.
For Reynolds, the last third of the 20th century stands in contrast with what had come before, as, with the retreat from empire, compulsory military service was abandoned. “Apart from the Falklands, foreign wars seemed a relic of the past,’ he writes. “But over the last quarter-century, war has returned to our national agenda, in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan. The deaths of young soldiers today gives new life and meaning to stories and poems from Britain’s greatest war. The two-minute silence has gained new resonance, likewise the poppy appeal.”
Why are poppies worn?
The poppy is forever linked with the landscapes of the First World War, with the deep red flower covering many battlefields on the western front.
The first poppy appeal took its symbol from a 1915 poem written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a Canadian doctor. McCrae wrote 'In Flanders Fields' after one of his friends, a young Canadian soldier, was killed by an exploding German artillery shell. The opening verse cements the symbol of poppies as a “mark” for the fallen:
“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.”
The British Legion was established in May 1921, with the intent to aid and improve the lives of ex-servicemen and their wives and children, as well as widows, parents and orphans who had lost family during the war. The legion adopted the poppy as a symbol of remembrance, with the first held Poppy Day on 11 November 1921. Today it is seen most commonly in the UK, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
The symbol has also been the subject of some controversy. Some claim that its “blood-red” colour represents war and death, while others choose to wear a white poppy. The white symbol was first adopted in the 1930s by the Peace Pledge Union, with the aim of representing “remembrance of all victims of war”, rather than the red poppy which “symbolises remembrance of British armed forces and its allies rather than enemies and civilians who also died in wars”.
The Royal British Legion has stated that the red poppy remains “an emblem of remembrance and hope” and should not be seen as a symbol of religion or politics.
What is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior?
After the First World War, in which Britain saw the loss of nearly three quarters of a million people, it was almost impossible to bring home such a large number of bodies. So the dead were interred and commemorated along the battlefronts in nearly a thousand cemeteries and monuments constructed by the Imperial War Graves Commission, in what was one of the biggest public works projects of the 1920s.
However, many soldiers had been literally blown to bits by shellfire and their remains were never found.
In November 1920, the tomb of the Unknown Warrior was created at the west end of the nave of Westminster Abbey. The tomb was the idea of Folkestone clergyman Reverend David Railton, who had seen a grave in France marked with a cross and pencilled words: "An Unknown British Soldier". He believed that the families of those who had died, but had no graves, should have somewhere to grieve.
The grave contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur, and contains the remains of unknown British servicemen exhumed from four battle areas: the Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres. The burial in November 1920 was attended by leading politicians, senior military figures and King George V. During the following week, an estimated 1.25 million people visited the tomb.
On her wedding day in 1923, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon – later Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother – laid her wedding bouquet on the tomb, in honour of her elder brother Fergus, who had been killed at the battle of Loos. The tradition has since been carried on by other royal brides.
How have Armistice commemorations changed in the 21st century?
In 2018, commemorations took place across the world to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. Around 10,000 flames were lit at the Tower of London, while British prime minister Theresa May and French president Emmanuel Macron marked the signing of the armistice on 9 November with a meeting at the Somme memorial in Albert, northern France.
Many considered whether the most commonly recognised symbols of the First World War still go ‘far enough’ in the 21st century.
Professor Maggie Andrews, professor of cultural history at the University of Worcester, recently described the “myth of the stoic young British Tommy – duped into volunteering for a futile war”, which gained status in the run-up to the centenary, especially in the context of more modern conflicts. “The Tommy as a reticent, rather than active participant in the killing of enemy troops is central, for example, to the mythical status of the Christmas day football matches played in no man’s land, 1914,” she wrote. “Myths are not fabrication, but they simplify, purify and silence, while smoothing over the cracks and crevices – the bumps and lumps – of the past, as they are woven into heritage attractions or film and television histories.”
Elsewhere, historian David Olusoga wrote for BBC World Histories on the extensive contributions of Africans and Asians to the conflict, and going beyond the western front. “The First World War was global in a way that previous wars had not been. Not only were battles fought in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and naval engagements across the world’s oceans, but men (and some women) from every continent were drawn into Europe to fight in the trenches, to labour in the militarised zones behind the lines, and to populate the factories that fed the great war machine of the Entente Powers.”
On X (formerly Twitter) in 2018, History Extra readers shared what they would like to see from a 21st-century commemoration:
@JoelleKhalife Keep playing the voices and stories of those who experienced it. Both on the battlefield and the home front. We need to humanize the destruction.
@majda72 I’d like to know more about the soldiers from colonized countries who fought for Britain and France. Also the experiences of nurses and doctors at the clearing stations near the front line.
@EvieRandall10 The 16,000-plus conscientious objectors, who were part of other war work, sent to the front as part of the Non-Combatant Corps, or imprisoned because of their moral, or religious reasons for not fighting.
@HasanSaeed6 The part played by the Indian subcontinent and the other colonies of the "Raj"
@pacoverdale The people who went over after the war, such as Brighton man Harry Cowley, to disinter and rebury all those who had died. What a truly awful job.
Find out more about the First World War
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in November 2018 and has since been updated