Commemoration - Secondary

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What is 'Commemoration'?

(Here you might invite some brief responses from students.)

To commemorate means to remember through an action or a sign. We may carry out an action or say certain words in a special place. Commemoration is often a public, collective, act. We share it with others to signify the importance of the event we remember.

When a pet dies we mark the grave with a stick or a stone. When people die we remember them not just by our thoughts but by physical objects - a photo perhaps. People hold funerals and write the names of the dead on gravestones. Remembering the dead is as old as time, as old as the pyramids of ancient Egypt, as old as the green burial mounds around Stonehenge.

Commemoration has a special meaning when we think about one of the most terrible wars in history, World War One. A war that began one hundred years ago.

No soldier from the 1914 - 1918 war is now alive to tell his story. But we can still see some of these people and hear their voices in audio and video recordings. We can watch film clips of the battles they fought in and see the conditions in which they lived and died.

It is hard to imagine what they went through. The survivors felt lucky to be alive but some felt almost guilty because so many of their friends did not come home. Many veterans would not talk about their experiences, though they could never forget them.

In their later years, some of these people did finally begin to speak out and to recall their wartime lives. They found it hard to talk about the terrible things they had seen but felt that they had to so that we would know about the war today.

Every year people gather for acts of commemoration on Remembrance Day. This is a national version of what some people do in a family context, when they visit a loved-one's grave to leave flowers.

(Play the 'Commemoration' video clip.)

Words like those, at the end of that clip, are found on war memorials. You can see war memorials all over the UK. You will find them in parks, town centres, village greens, churchyards, town halls, factories, even post offices and railway stations. On the memorials there are often lists of the names of people who died in World War One and often World War Two as well. Even more names were added after 1945. Putting up a memorial is a way of saying, 'We will not forget you, even if we cannot visit your grave.'

Every November, people gather at the Cenotaph in London. It is a national war memorial and the focus for the annual Remembrance Sunday parade and service. The Queen and the leaders of the country and armed forces take part. So do many members of the public. They lay wreaths of poppies at the foot of the Cenotaph.

People watch on television. Similar acts of commemoration take place across the United Kingdom and around the world.

And there are still new memorials, new ways to commemorate those who gave their lives. Because there are still wars. In 2003, British troops were sent to war in Iraq. People still argue about the rights and wrongs of the Iraq War. The Basra War Memorial was built in Iraq by British soldiers to commemorate comrades who had been killed.

British troops have now left Iraq and the memorial has been brought home. It is now in the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

After World War One people knew it was important to commemorate the dead. Many fallen soldiers had been buried in rough battlefield graves. After the conflict was over war cemeteries were laid out. There are thousands of graves and long lists of names of those who died. Few people who visit these war cemeteries come away unmoved.

(You could ask a group of students to read out the names of some of the fallen from a local war memorial, perhaps a plaque that hangs somewhere in their own school.)

And yet thousands of these dead soldiers have no known graves. The Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey commemorates them. Among the great and the good lies a nameless soldier whose body was brought back from France after World War One.

Many people need somewhere to go, a place to commemorate a loved one. It can be a private place or it can be a public memorial. A statue perhaps or one of the memorials to those who died in accidents or terrorist attacks or to those who were victims of violent crime.

For many people after World War One, wearing a poppy became a symbol of commemoration. Canadian Army doctor John McCrae wrote a poem about the poppies he saw in Flanders after the funeral of a friend killed in 1915.

Portrait of Dr John McCrae Portrait of Dr John McCrae (credit: Mccrod Museum/Montreal)

'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,

Useful link

Listen to the In Flanders Fields poem

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders' fields.'

John McCrae's poem became famous. Sadly he did not live to see peace: he died of pneumonia in January 1918.

A hundred years have passed since the outbreak of World War One. You will see and hear a lot about World War One on television and in other media over the course of this year. You may wonder what all the fuss is about: it was a long time ago. The people who fought in it are all dead now.

But people do not forget. People are planning new commemorations. There will be new poppy fields planted, old war memorials will be cleaned up and new ones built. Commemoration shows we have not forgotten and that we are thankful for the peace we have.

We remember those who gave their lives. We remember that for our tomorrow, they gave their today.

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