SHARED BATTLEFIELDS, COMMON LOSS
By Newell Durnbrooke
Growing up as a Canadian, I have become accustomed to the fact that at the 11th hour on November 11, the nation goes silent for 60 seconds to ponder and reflect upon those soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of Canada during past wars.
Red poppies are worn in the days leading up to November 11 as a symbol of remembrance. At formal ceremonies on Remembrance Day, a military bugle plays the Last Post before a piper adds to the solemnity of the moment with the mournful Lament. These customs are echoed throughout Commonwealth countries, the United States, France and a number of other nations who fought on the allied side during the Great War as the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month coincides with the Armistice in 1918. In Canada, this date and time were decreed by law in 1931 when the government passed an act making it our national military memorial day.
Of course, not all nations fought in the Great War and obviously not all of them fought for the allied cause. In fact, a number of nations were created in the aftermath of that war as the peace treaties dismantled the former German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. That said, all nations have armies, and the sacrifice of those soldiers who died in battle is mourned and honoured in various ways.
Canada has been extremely fortunate in that since the War of 1812, no wars have been fought on our soil. Many other nations were turned into bloody battlegrounds with staggering losses among the civilian population. In many cases the ceremonies — such as Germany’s Volkstrauertag (people’s day of mourning) — do not single out the soldiers’ sacrifices but are instead aimed at mourning all the victims of war.
As part of this ongoing series, Esprit de Corps examines some of the unique ways in which nations honour their fallen warriors as well as the one common thread felt by all: heartfelt loss. No matter the cause and no matter the eventual outcome of a conflict, there is no greater human trauma than the loss of a loved one.
Armenia was once a mighty empire spread across Asia Minor, from the Caucasus to the Mediterranean. However, throughout modern history, Armenia was a stateless nation divided and absorbed by other empires. As such, Armenians were not impervious to conflict and fought in the armies of their conquerors, still striving for independence. During World War I, Armenians were target of the first genocide of the modern era, which cleansed the native population of then Eastern Ottoman Empire.
Although the First Republic of Armenia did become an independent state in May 1918, by November 1920 it had been gobbled up by the fledgling Soviet Union. In the Second World War, Armenian soldiers fought valiantly to help Stalin’s Soviets drive back the Nazi German invaders.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the modern Republic of Armenia was declared independent, and was caught up in the conflict forced onto the Armenians of Nagorno-Karabakh region, who were rooting for independence from the Republic of Azerbaijan. Although a ceasefire was brokered in 1994, Nagorno-Karabakh remains an unresolved frozen conflict.
To commemorate those killed in battle, Armenia stages Army Day ceremonies on January 28. This is the date on which the modern Armenian armed forces were officially founded — just four months after declaring independence from the Soviet Union. Army Day events include a commemoration of fallen soldiers at the Yerablur (translation: three hills) Military Pantheon. This includes the laying of wreaths by the Armenian president, defence minister and other high-ranking officials. The religious aspect of paying tribute to the fallen is presented by the Catholicos-Patriarch of the Armenian Apostolic Church. They offer a formal prayer before the laying of wreaths on the tombs of fallen heroes.
Like Canada and the British Commonwealth, the French also mark their jour du Souvenir (also referred to as jour de l’Armistice) on November 11. On this day French citizens pay their respects for all of those who died pour la France. While this has been an informal practice since 1919, in February 2012 the French parliament formally declared this date as a national day of mourning.
True to the French spirit of Vive la difference!, French mourners wear the Bleuet de France, a blue (bleuet) imitation flower, rather than the red imitation poppies worn by allied nations. Given France’s long and glorified martial history, it is not surprising that they do not limit their paying of respects to a single day and a single ceremony. In addition to November 11, the French have an additional 10 annual ceremonies to honour their war dead.
This extensive list includes: the commemoration of the military and civilian dead during the colonial wars in North Africa (March 19), the national day to honour the heroes and victims of the deportation (last Sunday in April), celebration of WWII victory in Europe (May 8), celebration of Joan of Arc’s patriotism (second Sunday in May), national day to commemorate WWII resistance fighters (May 27), national day of honour for those who perished in Indochina (June 8), day of commemoration for those who volunteered for the Free French Forces (June 18), a memorial day for the victims of racism and anti-Semitism (July 16 if on a Sunday, otherwise the Sunday after July 16), day of memory for France’s Algerian allies, the Harkis (September 25), and finally, a day of honour for those who fought for France in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia (December 5).
In addition, every year, on either November 1 or 2, ceremonies are held in each town to honour the memory of those who died pour la France during the Great War, as decreed by law on October 25, 1919. Their sacrifice will not be forgotten.
Republic of Korea
The Republic of Korea actually commemorates wartime sacrifice on three separate occasions. National Memorial Day is held on June 6 and is dedicated to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of their country. This is followed by the June 25 special commemoration of the Korean War.
It was on this date in 1950 that the North Korean forces crossed the 38th parallel boundary and invaded the Republic of Korea. The United Nations Security Council immediately reacted to this communist aggression. It was the first time the UN had passed such an intervention resolution since the organization had been founded in June 1945.
To assist the embattled South Korean forces, 21 countries, including Canada, dispatched troops to the Korean Peninsula to battle North Korean forces and their allies, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. An estimated total of 217,000 military personnel and 1 million civilians from South Korea were killed during the war, with an additional 406,000 soldiers and 600,000 civilians from North Korea.
By the time the armistice was signed on July 27, 1953, Canada had contributed a total of 27,791 soldiers to the Korean conflict — the third largest contingent of all the UN allies. Of that number, 516 soldiers died during their deployment to Korea. There are 379 Canadian soldiers buried at the United Nations Memorial Cemetery in Busan, South Korea.
The third ceremony of remembrance is called Turn Toward Busan. This memorial is commemorated every November 11 at 11 a.m. Korea time. From the 21 contributing nations, simultaneous ceremonies are staged around the world, with a minute of silence synchronized to the ceremony in Korea, with all participants facing towards Busan.
It is on the 4th of May that the Dutch dedicate two minutes of silence at 8:00 p.m. to mourn and pay their respects to the soldiers and civilians who died during the Second World War. At ceremonies throughout the country, wreaths are laid. The main Remembrance of the Dead (Dodenherdenking in Dutch) ceremony takes place at the National Monument on Dam Square in Amsterdam. During the service, the King and Queen place a wreath at the base of the sculpture, followed by the commanders of the armed forces, assorted dignitaries and then the general public.
One unique aspect is that the winner of the annual high school poem-writing contest presents their poem during the ceremony. The theme of the contest is always simple: Freedom. This national remembrance ceremony was first held following the end of WWII in 1946, but since then, the May 4 event has come to include all the Dutch soldiers who have fallen in recent conflicts.
Following Dodenherdenking, the Dutch celebrate Bevrijdingsdag (Liberation Day) on May 5 as a national party to mark their liberation from the Nazis. Canadian soldiers played a large part in their liberation. As 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of that victory, the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Ottawa organized a very successful lecture series. Called the Netherlands–Canada Connection, this series focused on such themes as the Battle of the Scheldt, the Rhineland campaign and “The Liberation of the North.” The themes were presented and discussed by a Canadian and a Dutch historian, professor or writer. The success of the series has led to plans for an extension into 2016 and beyond.
The Norwegians actually have two separate dates on which they pay respects to their war dead. On the first Sunday of November, Norway celebrates Armed Forces’ Commemoration Day to honour those soldiers who died serving Norway both at home and abroad. This became an official day of remembrance in 2007 when it was established by the Norwegian chief of defence. The Day of Remembrance is also a day to honour those left behind, as well as the men and women who have been marked for life as a result of their service in the defence of Norway.
While small ceremonies are staged at various cenotaphs and monuments across the country, the main event takes place at the landmark Akershus Fortress in Oslo. While there is no standard formula for these ceremonies, the general pattern includes a moment of silence followed by the laying of wreaths by the King, prime minister and other senior officials.
Liberation Day is celebrated on May 8 as this marks the end of Nazi Germany’s five-year occupation of Norway in 1945. This has been a joyous celebration of freedom for the past 70 years. In 2010, the Norwegian government formally declared May 8 to be National Veterans Day in honour of all those soldiers who have served Norway from the end of the Second World War up to the present. Like Canada, Norway sent soldiers to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Between 2001 and 2011, ten Norwegian soldiers paid the ultimate price in the service of their country in this conflict.
Although modern Turkey did not officially become a republic until 1923, it was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, like France, the Turks have centuries of martial heritage to commemorate and countless martyrs to mourn. While Turkey remained neutral in the Second World War, they were one of the first countries to join the NATO alliance to counter the Soviet Union.
In addition to being Cold War allies, Turkish troops also fought alongside Canadians in Korea and, more recently, in Afghanistan. It would be pointless for the Turks to commemorate November 11 as Remembrance Day, given that their Great War ordeal did not end until the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923. Instead, the collective Turkish War Veterans Association celebrates Veterans Day on September 19, and, like in Canada, this event now stretches into Veterans Week, with numerous ceremonies held over the subsequent seven days.
Like the French, Turkish veterans participate in an additional 11 commemorative events throughout the year. However, their biggest annual event to honour veterans has a far more international perspective. Known as ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand and held on April 25, it commemorates the bloody battles the Allies fought against the Turks in a failed attempt to capture the strategic Dardanelles.
The Turkish defence was fanatic and successfully repulsed the invasion albeit with horrific losses on both sides. In victory, Turkish General Mustafa Kemal pronounced that, in death, the Turks and fallen enemies have ‘become our sons as well’ and, as such, Allied graves would be preserved with dignity.
Following the war, Kemal Ataturk, then president of Turkey, erected monuments which paid tribute to all who fought and died in the 1915 Gallipoli Campaign. This battle was the first time that Australian and New Zealand troops had fought together as a single corps (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps or ANZAC). The sobering loss of life has since been immortalized as the cornerstone of Australian and New Zealand nationhood. Over time it has become something of a pilgrimage for roving Australian and New Zealanders to congregate at the Gallipoli monument to mark the April 25 event.
The fact that the Turks share in this same day of joint honour and mourning is probably the clearest example of reconciling past differences under the heading Shared Battlefields: Common Loss. This year marked the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli (known to the Turks as Canakkale) and the massive commemoration included Canadian participation.
The Royal Newfoundland Regiment (RNLR) – Newfoundland was a dominion of the British Empire then — is the only modern-day Canadian military unit to have a battle honour from Gallipoli 1915. Dr. Pamela Snow, Professor of Family Medicine, and Anthony Maher, a junior medical student at Memorial University in St. John’s, are distant relatives of Royal Newfoundland Regiment veterans of Gallipoli. They attended the March 18 Martyr’s Day ceremony, hosted by the Turkish Ministry of Health.
On September 19, 2015, the RNLR added to the Turkish Veterans Day events by staging their first-ever ceremony at the Cape Helles Memorial on the Canakkale Peninsula. The small RNLR delegation was greeted enthusiastically by the governor of Canakkale, a far different reception than the RNLR received when they landed there exactly one century ago. Time heals all wounds.
Every year on June 24, Venezuelans gather to commemorate their fallen soldiers. The centrepiece of this event is a military parade conducted by an elite guard of honour (wearing ceremonial scarlet Hussar uniforms) in front of the Tumba del Soldado Desconocido (Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). Located southwest of Valencia, the monument contains the remains of an unidentified soldier whose body was originally buried at the Battle of Ayacucho in 1824.
The date is celebrated for Venezuelan General Simón Bolivar’s defeat of the Spanish Royalist forces on June 24, 1821. It was Bolivar’s decisive victory at the Battle of Carabobo that led to the independence of Venezuela. As a fitting tribute, the Venezuelans erected an Arch of Triumph on the battlefield of Carabobo and it is here that the annual ceremony takes place.
June 24 is also known as Army Day and it commemorates all of those who died in Venezuela’s War of Independence. Navy Day on July 24 honours the Bolivarian Navy of Venezuela. It was chosen to commemorate the victory in the 1823 Battle of Lake Maracaibo and the birth date of Simón Bolivar.
Lest we forget.
Editor’s note: Thank you to the embassies that provided information on their nation’s traditions of remembrance.