Home Community Blog Armistice Day and the Symbolism of the Poppy

Hello. I’m Ms Ransom. I teach history and I’m honored to speak to you today about Armistice Day, also known as Veteran’s Day in the United States. 105 years ago, at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month — November 11th, 1918 — Allied forces signed an armistice treaty with Germany ending World War I. Maybe you know some things already about World War I. Some of you should remember reading All Quiet on The Western Front in 9th grade English class or studying the causes of World War I war in sixth grade — the rising nationalism, entangling alliances, military spending and empire building that led European leaders to mobilize their armies and stumble into a tragic conflict with enormous costs. 

For 100 years, Armistice day — November 11 — has been the day we honor those who died fighting in World War I and veterans of other wars. Approximately 10 million soldiers died in World War I; this war introduced the horrors of industrialized weapons, trench warfare, machine guns, grenades, U-boats, and poison gas. The average age of these soldiers was 26 years old. They came from all over the world. From every major European Nation including Russia, plus the United States and the Ottoman Empire and India and Australia and other countries that had been colonized by European powers. 

It’s hard to imagine the deaths of 10 million soldiers. What is 10 million? It is three times the current population of Utah. It is comparable with the modern population of all of Greece or Portugal or Sweden. But the number 10 million is still hard to wrap your brain around. Photos of World War I cemeteries — with their acres of graves — give you a sense of the costs of this war. Still, it’s hard to equate these graves with the stories behind each one.

Maybe it’s easier to understand by looking at a single soldier’s life. For example, the English soldier Wilfred Owen. At the age of 10 Wilfred realized his calling in life was to be a poet. He was saving up money for college when the war broke out and at the age of 22, he enlisted in the British army. After being injured on the Western Front in a mortar blast, and then diagnosed with shell shock (something today we would call PTSD), he spent a few months recuperating at a hospital in Scotland, where he wrote poems about the violent realities and absurdities of the war. These poems are a haunting record of a soldier’s point of view. In October of 1918, Wilfred returned to the front lines. On November 11 of that year — Armistice Day — as cathedral bells tolled in celebration of the signing of the peace and the end of the war, Wilfred’s mother received a telegram notifying her that her son had died in battle one week before. 

Maybe we can begin to imagine what World War I was like for a single village. This summer, I visited the tiny French town of Venasque, which is perched high up on a little mountain overlooking the lavender fields of Southern France. 

Like every other town in France, it has a World War I memorial. And it was sobering for me to see the long list of names from such a tiny village of only a few hundred people. There were even 2 brothers who died from the same Maillet family, ages 21 and 23. 

In England a few years ago, as part of the World War I centennial, 2 British artists, Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, tried to help us imagine the human costs of the war. They began by making thousands of ceramic poppies. 

Poppies have long been a symbol of those killed in World War I because poppies — vibrant but delicate — were the first flowers to begin growing wild again in the battlefields of northern France and Belgium where some of the deadliest fighting had taken place. 

Poppies had inspired the Canadian Poet and Soldier John McCrae to write a poem about comrades he had lost in Flanders. His poem begins, “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.”

So in London, in 2014, these two artists made ceramic poppies, one for each of the 888,246 soldiers from Britain or British colonies who died in the war. And they planted these poppies gradually in the grassy moat around the Tower of London in the weeks leading up to Armistice Day.

For the last hundred years, Red Poppies have traditionally been worn on Armistice Day — especially in Britain, Canada and the United States — to honor the soldiers who died in World War I and other wars. 

Like the red poppy, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance for the victims of war, but it emphasizes all victims, not just soldiers. And in that sense the white poppy represents a commitment to peace and the belief that war should not be celebrated or glamorized. 

Because another thing you should know about World War I is that it caused more deaths off the battlefield than on it. Civilians, not just soldiers, were targeted with bombing raids from airships and U-boats and other tactics. The war had additional consequences, like the Russian Revolution, and the Armenian genocide, and it triggered a worldwide pandemic known as the Spanish Flu that killed far more people than the war itself. There is an old African proverb that says when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. War is never only between the fighting armies. War is never as heroic as it appears in films or fantasy novels or video games. War around the world today in places like Ukraine, the Middle East, and Somalia leads directly to refugees fleeing for their lives. 

There is a reason why every year we celebrate Armistice Day on the day the war ENDED, not the day it began. We value and respect the veterans who have served our country, and we don’t want to glorify violence, because war is the worst that humanity has to offer but it is not intrinsic. War is not hardwired into human nature. The word Armistice comes from the Latin roots for weapons and standing firm. It literally means that enemies have agreed to stop everything and drop their weapons. 

We wear poppies over our hearts to remind us that war has a high cost. And to share the message that peace, like poppies, is both a natural and a fragile thing. In memory of the veterans and civilians lost in war, we invite you to join in the tradition of wearing poppies for Armistice Day this week. We are launching a school-wide poppy project. Anyone who wants to can make paper poppies to wear during this week leading up to Armistice Day. 

Drop by during lunch every day in the library where we will have all the supplies for red and white poppies, which will be easy to make. It’s a small but symbolic way to honor veterans and celebrate peace.  

Thank you very much.

Waterford News

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