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Observing Remembrance Day: a personal reflection

By Scott MacInnes - posted Friday, 11 November 2011

This morning – ‘at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month’ of the 11th year - many of us will pause for a moment’s quiet contemplation and reflect on the legacy of our forbears who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country and those they loved.

And later today my daughter and I will engage in another related, more personal ritual of remembrance and thanksgiving.

Both rituals share a common conviction, based on a notion of legacy articulated over 2000 years ago by Plato: ‘We should leave our children a legacy rich, not in gold, but in reverence.’ Each generation bequeaths to the next what it is most important to remember. And what we must never forget.


This quality of reverence was beautifully captured in the Manchester Guardian’s report of the first Two Minute Silence observed on the anniversary of the Armistice, marking the official time and date of the end of World War 1 in 1918:

‘The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect. The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition. Someone took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked white and stern. Everyone stood very still…The hush deepened. It had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain…And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.’

World War 1 was to be ‘the war to end all wars’. The admonition ‘Lest we forget’ was based on the hope that if we could only keep close in our collective memory the experience of horror then we would never go there again.

Of course, ‘the spirit of memory’ is always personal. Such a ritual can only survive if it lives in the hearts and minds of individuals. Many of us will have grandparents who died in or survived that appalling First World War, or other loved one’s affected by subsequent and equally devastating armed conflicts.

For me, Remembrance Day has always had a very special place in my life. My mother was born in Scotland on this day and she was named Poppy, after a flower that symbolises beauty, delicacy, suffering (grown from Flanders fields of blood) and resilience. It was a name given in remembrance and thanksgiving. Remembrance of the struggle, the courage, the solidarity in adversity, the death and destruction. Thanksgiving for coming through it alive. For this was a day of celebration of peace and joy and hope. A day to mark the end of one era and the possibility of a new beginning: symbolised, as always, in the birth of a child.

That legacy of faith and hope was renewed by my mother after the devastation of the Second World War, in which she served as a Wren, when she married my father, who was in the Australian Navy. He had been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea twice before being on the first ship into the unimaginable horror of Hiroshima after the bomb. I was another child of the outbreak of peace.


Regrettably, like so many marriages formed in that context, the relationship did not survive. My father left my mother and me when I was about seven and we never saw him again. His legacy was one of absence. However, unlike him, his father took an interest in me and in my education. My grandfather was a journalist and newspaper editor and lived through both World Wars and Vietnam. He had a deep suspicion of government and media lies about our involvement in war. Though not a pacifist, he was an anti-war activist in later life.  He spent his last years of retirement trying unsuccessfully to get his last work published, entitled ‘A Programme to Curb War’. Some of his legacy can be detected in my articles on the same subject published online during my retirement.

Remembrance Day has always tended to concentrate more on the suffering and waste than the glorification and heroism of our fallen. This used to be the primary focus of Anzac Day - and still is at the Dawn Service - before the holiday emerged to become more a symbol of nationalist pride and celebration, with all its jingoism and its heroic drinking and sporting rituals.

By contrast, Remembrance Day is observed in just one moment’s silent reflection, in the course of an otherwise ordinary day, in the belief that if done properly and reverentially this will be sufficient to the purpose.

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About the Author

Scott MacInnes has a background in teaching, law and conflict resolution. He is now retired and lives in Tasmania.

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