Shortcuts / 11 November 2021
At 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month was the time in 1918 when the guns on Europe’s Western Front fell silent after more than 4 years of war. And to this day, we are encouraged to observe one minute’s silence in memory of those who died or suffered in all wars and armed conflicts. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we give you a quick guide to WWI and how it ended, how its commemoration was observed after the war, and what it means today.
Time to dust off the high school history lessons…
Yep, but let’s start with some context. Estimates say 20 million people died in WWI and it was billed as the ‘war to end all wars’.
But that wasn’t to be…
No, it was a terrible and world changing event. It’s hard for us to fathom but it was the first time a war affected people all over the world.
What kind of impacts did it have?
Well for one, WWI saw huge advances in technology, which would transform everything. And it changed the balance of world power with Europe and the UK smashed, and the United States starting to take off as an economic and political force.
Just a few small themes… So how did WWI start again?
So in the first decade or so of the 20th century, the major powers in Europe were already preparing for war. The situation was so tense before the war that many called Europe a powder keg waiting to explode. And that it did when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in 1914. That set off a chain of events that led to war in early August.
He must have been a pretty important dude for the world to descend into war…
Not especially. What happened was the reaction triggered a series of alliances.
If you insist. The Archduke was killed by a Serbian extremist and the Austria-Hungarian Empire attacked Serbia in response. Germany supported Austria-Hungary, while Russia sided with its traditional ally, Serbia. Russia then mobilised its military forces at the end of July, and Germany sought to avoid a two-front war by a quick invasion of France, who was Russia’s main ally. In order to invade France, Germany had to go through Belgium, a country that had been neutral for nearly one hundred years. Britain had made commitments to support Belgian neutrality, so it was also drawn into the war.
As was Oz…
Yep, Australia and other far-flung Commonwealth nations linked to Britain were then by association also at war with Germany and its allies, which included the Ottoman Empire and modern day Turkey.
I know where you’re going with this…
Yep, we’re talking about Gallipoli. The hero of WWII Winston Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty in WWI and he made the call to send Australian and Kiwi troops to the Gallipoli peninsula with the aim of taking control of that part of the Turkish Straits. The idea was it would expose the Ottoman capital Constantinople to bombardment by Allied battleships and cut it off from the Asian part of the empire.
But it was a huge disaster…
Yep. On 25 April 1915, a failed landing led to 8 months of fighting and 250,000 casualties from both sides. That campaign was abandoned and the invasion force withdrawn.
Where did most Aussies serve during WWI?
That would be the Western Front – the battle line that ran across the industrial regions of France and Belgium. It’s where bloodiest battles like the Somme and Passchendaele and so many others were fought and where most lives were lost. More than 295,000 Australians served on the Western Front between March 1916 and November 1918.
And how many Aussies died during the war?
In total 60,000 Aussie lives were lost – which is a lot for a small nation like ours to lose.
So how did the war end?
Well, when we look at the outcome of WWI, it wasn’t inevitable that Britain, France and its allies would win. But America declared war on Germany entering the fight after 3 years of trying to stay out of it, and that was a game changer.
But it wasn’t a quick victory, right?
No it wasn’t, it took more than a year after the US declared war to get American troops to the Western Front. That saw Germany push hard after they declared war, and that just about won the war for them. But Britain, France and their allies like Australia held on. By the end of August 1918, there were over 1.4 million American troops in France, and the Germans were overwhelmed.
Then came the armistice…
Those history lessons are kicking in… But yes, by November 1918, Germany asked for an armistice – which is an agreement to stop the fighting. Germany’s leader, Kaiser Wilhelm, was turfed out of his job on 9 November and 2 days later, Germany signed the armistice and the guns fell silent. The fighting stopped at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month.
So that’s why Remembrance Day has such a special significance?
You got it. In fact the first Armistice Day as it was known was marked the year after the war ended, in 1919.
How was that commemorated?
Britain’s King George V hosted a banquet in honour of the President of the French Republic on the night of 10 November 1919. And the first official Armistice Day event was held on the grounds of Buckingham Palace the following morning, which included a 2-minute silence.
Where did the idea of the 2-minute silence come from?
Edward Honey, a Melbourne journalist and WWI veteran who was living in London in 1919. He wrote a letter to the London Evening News where he appealed for 5-minutes’ silence to honour the sacrifice of those who had died during the war.
So the 2-minute silence was started by an Aussie?
Well he can’t take all the credit – Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, a South African, suggested a period of silence on Armistice Day in all the countries of the empire. His suggestion was presented to King George, who agreed. But both Honey and Fitzpatrick were present when the Grenadier guards at Buckingham Palace tried it out, and it was shortened to 2 minutes.
But it’s since been shortened to a minute…
Yep – that 2 minutes’ silence was first observed in Australia on the first anniversary of the armistice, and in relatively recent times that changed to be one minute of silence that continues to be observed on Remembrance Day.
So how did Remembrance Day come about in Oz?
As we mentioned earlier, the commemoration of the end of the Great War was originally called Armistice Day – the day the agreement to end the war was signed. But that changed in the wake of World War II.
It became Remembrance Day…
You got it. But there was a hitch – the Brits wanted it to be observed on the Sunday before 11 November. That wasn’t something that impressed the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia – now known as the RSL – the Returned and Services League – who said that “the nation had really lost something of great spiritual significance”.
Ouch. But that didn’t happen until 1997?
That’s right. It was Governor-General Sir William Deane who issued a proclamation declaring that 11 November each year would be ‘known and observed as Remembrance Day’. And he urged all Australians to ‘… observe, unless impracticable, one minute’s silence at 11.00am on Remembrance Day each year to remember the sacrifice of those who died or otherwise suffered in Australia’s cause in wars and war-like conflicts’.
So that’s where we are today?
Yep. And in recent years there has been a significant spike in interest in Australia’s involvement and the sacrifices made in WWI. ANZAC Day ceremonies here and in Gallipoli have been very well attended. And attention has also turned to our efforts on the Western Front.
Because 2018 was the centenary of the end of the war, right?
It was. You might remember that world leaders descended on France, Belgium and the UK for ceremonies marking the occasion. To spark your memory, then US President Donald Trump came under fire because he was there but he cancelled a visit to a US military cemetery because it was raining.
Ah yes… It’s all coming back to me. And I remember pictures of Queen Elizabeth and other dignitaries dressed in black with bright red poppies pinned to their chests. what’s that about?
Ok, so to get a bit deep on you, in 19th century English literature, poppies symbolised a state of oblivion. And in the battlefields in northern France and Belgium, red poppies were among the first plants to grow in the ruins because they flourish in disturbed soil. Hence the connection.
And there’s the famous poem…
Yep, Canadian John McCrae wrote In Flanders Fields in 1915. He was inspired by the sight of poppies on the Ypres battlefield. And he was the first person to describe the poppy as a flower of remembrance. He wrote, “In Flanders fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row…”
It’s a haunting poem. So where do the rosemary sprigs come in?
Sprigs of rosemary are commonly worn on Anzac Day, but can also be seen on Remembrance Day. Rosemary is an ancient symbol of remembrance and fidelity, and it grows wild on the Gallipoli peninsula. So it has a particular significance for Australians.
So to wrap this up, as they say, lest we forget.
Lest we forget.
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