A Millennial's Thoughts on November 11

Remembrance, Veteran’s, & Armistice Day

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier — A national monument erected in Ottawa, Canada

Every year we have a day dedicated to reflecting on the heroes and tragedies of the past. The bright red poppy flower that we wear on their left lapel as a visual reminder of this, from the last Friday in October to November 11, stands in stark contrast to the typically dark weather, and coats people wear during the fall. As with any tradition, belief, ritual, or group think, it is important to ask questions, and learn why things are done the way that they are though. To understand more, we will need to look at the history of modern wars and origin of the poppy as a symbol.

History of WWI & WWII

World War I was the first concurrent, globally involved war in human history, involving some 70 million military personnel, from all the worlds economic superpowers at the time, along with many other smaller states. The assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand & his wife Sophie Ferdinand by a Seribian/Yugoslavian nationalist on June 28, 1914 was the final event that started the war, after years growing issues especially between European & Middle Eastern countries regarding territorial disputes, political tensions, and economic conflict. Back in the day, countries would often officially declare war on another when entering into a combatant military mission against another, and the Great War was officially was declared a month after this assassination.

The armistice and end of hostilities (when they stopped fighting against each other) occurred on November 11, 1918. As such, the first official declaration for peace of this war, known as the Treaty of Versailles, was signed on June 28, 1919 in the Palace of Versailles in France. November 11, 1919 became the first Remembrance, Veteran’s & Armistice Day and observed to ensure that the public around the world would not forget the many sacrifices necessary in pursuit of peace between the most developed nations of the world. American’s observe Veteran’s day on November 11, and have a separate Memorial day tuned more to remembering things like the Commonwealth does on Veteran’s Day.

Like the first one, World War II had many circumstances leading up to it. Desperation from the Great Depression helped Hitler lead himself to power as he caught the media’s attention starting in 1923, offering ways to fix and reclaim the country. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany had lost all of it’s overseas territories, a significant portion of its land mass, it was prohibited from annexing parts of other countries, and owed significant amounts of money to Britain & France. Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Japan to China in 1937, and many other internal and external conflicts preceded the start of the war. It officially began on September 1, 1939 when Germany begun invading Poland, with official war declared two days later by the Alliance.

WWII was the deadliest conflict in human history, in terms of the combined number of injuries and fatalities worldwide. It claimed more than 100 million lives, and affected many more. It officially ended September 2, 1945, with the establishment of the United Nations following shortly afterwards, fixing the mistakes made with the first attempt at a similar idea with the League of Nations.

The Origin of a Poppy

CBC’s The National talks more about John McCrae, the solider who wrote “In Flanders Fields”

The reference of a poppy flower came from the Flanders fields, Ypres, Belgium, where Canadian physician & Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote it on May 3, 1915, after attending the funeral of one of his friends. The poem was apparently found by fellow discarded comrade.

In Flanders fields the poppies grow,
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.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
— John McCrae, May 1918, In Flanders Fields and Other Poems

Most Canadians I imagine are familiar with this poem, likely from being taught about it early on in school history or English; It was probably one of the most quoted literary works in the Alliance during the war to help recruit and sell bonds for the war. It’s quite powerful, and inspiring, especially being written from the perspective of the dead, as a message to the living. The use of wearing a poppy was inspired from this poem, and is trademarked to prevent commercial abuse of the symbol.

Drawing from Family Experiences

If you are familiar with the German language, linguistics, or other related fields, you probably already noticed my surname suggests I am from German descent, to which you would be partially correct (Austrian, they speak German there too though). The name Strasser means street, in Deutsch, was given to my ancestors likely because they lived on the street, or had a corner store, or something like that. We’ve obviously come a long way since then, as each generation has worked hard to give the next the best chance they can. I owe a lot of where I am today to the previous 3 generations especially.

My great-grandparents grew up in Austria in the early 1900’s in small villages. My great-grandfather, Frank, would take cattle up further into the alps in the summer to feed on the fresh green grass, milking them early in the morning, helping with deliveries, and making cheese. After the first war ended in the late 1910’s, was of course the start of the Great Depression; the hyper-inflation of the local currency rendered their life-savings useless pieces of paper. Although the inflation of currency to the eventual loss of faith in it’s value has happened before, I guess they did not think that it would ever happen to them. My grand-parents met around then, with my great-grandmother, Anne, worked 5 years to get her corner store operating license somewhere after this as well.

In the third wave of immigration to Canada, Frank took this opportunity to emigrate to Saskatchewan by boat, with Anne following shortly afterwards to marry him. They obtained their Canadian citizenship, had my grandfather, his siblings, built a homestead and cleared the land by hand. They spent 10 years there farming it, as per the agreement with the Saskatchewan government when initially obtaining the 64 acre plot. After the fall harvest of 1937, and building up enough savings again to do so, they decided to return to Austria by boat for a vacation and to visit with family. Back then, the internet obviously wasn’t a thing, and even getting a newspaper from a town over was a stretch, so they didn’t have much idea what was about to happen. Unfortunately, the Anschluss (Hitler’s Nazis invasion & annexation of Austria) started in March 1938, as my family was preparing to return to Canada . Even though they were now Canadian citizens, Hitler’s Nazi Empire barred them from leaving.

My great-grandparents had to start off, again, with no money, to make a life for themselves and their children. With Anne’s license, for 7 years, my great-grandparents operated a corner-store, handling the strictly rationed food and resources for their town. Frank took care of the garden, animals, and trees in the backyard. My grandfather describes to me how on Fridays, when the bread would be delivered to the store, he would sneak down, grab a slice, and spread some lard and salt on it; in a time where it was difficult to get good quality food, let alone food on your plate, it was a small luxury he would sometimes enjoy. No food or resource was ever wasted.

Although Frank was not forced to fight because he proved that a health condition would have prohibited him from doing so, and their children were too young to do so either, even though they lived fairly low key up in the Alps, they were far from invisible to the Nazi’s. One day they came knocking, and attempted to arrest my family because they were Canadian (similar to what Americans did with Japanese around the same time), and demanded that they also hand over their Canadian citizenship. Anne was very tactful though; she countered back how her family members were in the war fighting (obviously forced, but she didn’t mention that), and the troubles and injuries her family was going through. They left, but it was not the last time, as continued to try to find reasons to come back.

The next time, they challenged her ability to run the corner-store, again threatening to shut it down, seize everything, and arrest them. She proudly presented the certificate she laboured for before departing for Canada. The intensity of the threats from then on lowered, but still came back often, forcing them to sell their property in Canada to give the proceeds to fund the war. They stole their horses, supplies, & money throughout the whole time as well to fund the war. Following the end of it all in 1945, my family quickly moved back to Canada, restarting their lives yet again, this time settling in Ontario, where most of us still reside today.

On the other side of my family, my grandparents were nearly 20 years older. They lived and grew up in the Caribbean, then mostly colonies of Europe, especially Britain. Most people know that much of the conflict happened in Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East, with a little bit in the Pacific related to China, Japan, and the United States especially. But did you know that there was a Battle of the Atlantic, where Germany and Italy had boats as far west as the Gulf of Mexico, as attempted to expand their reach to the other hemisphere? My grandmother spent her time in the war serving in the cipher office as a message encoder/decoder. Like Lorna Collacott, she didn’t really talk much about her experiences doing so. If you haven’t seen the movie Imitation Game (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) yet, I embolden you to watch it and learn how the work of one man, Alan Turning, arguably was the reason why the war was one after he cracked the German encryption methods.

The Imitation Game Trailer — A history-thriller about Alan Turing, the man who cracked the German enigma code

My grandfather worked in the Royal Naval Reserve as the Captain of the HMS Thomas J. Carroll, which was a small boat used for mine-sweeping, donated to the Commonwealth for the war by the family-in-law of the previous MP & MPP Margaret Aileen Carroll. My great-aunt’s husband fought on the HMS Ajax (22), which played a move pivotal role in the Battle of the Atlantic; so much so, that the town of Ajax, Ontario, Canada was named after it, giving each of the crew members a street name in the town. The anchor of the boat is also stationed outside the Royal Canadian Legion there too.

In other words, these two wars were immensely involving, to the point where many of my, and probably your ancestors had a role that they played some sort of part in, whether you know about it or not. Everybody’s lives were definitely at least affected by the conflict happening all over the world. This is one of the many reasons why it is important to be knowledgeable about your family’s past.

Present & Future Generations

Yes there are wars that occur in the present day some to fight real threats to our peace, freedom, & security (which I support), while some are for questionable, fabricated, or business reasons (which I do not support). Some are initiated by governments, while others by the activists against the bureaucrats who are supposed to be representing their best interests. Some have been declared successes, some failures, and some have been declared mistakes for even initiating in the first place. Going forwards, we should carefully scrutinize our involvement and inaction with events around the world to make an informed decision of what is for the greater good; we should be able to look back at our decision and not recount them as mistakes, failures, or as being misled.

The point of the matter is, while they do exist, and while there are people from our countries in these wars in the present day, they pale in comparison to these wars and peacekeeping efforts. These are two of the largest conflicts in human history, and they occurred in the short span of 30 years, with both of which involved virtually every developed nation. So to me, I feel it’s more important on Remembrance Day to focus on these larger events that we can all agree on had a significant impact on the world. Besides, we live in some of the most peaceful times in the history of humans, as this video visualizes.

Kurzgesagt’s In a Nutshell asks Is War Over? Do we live in an age of peace, or war?

All I really have to go by is the stories and experiences told by my family, but even with that, they were very lucky. Some of you may have had ancestors that fought in the war, and/or who did not live to pass on these stories and warnings. Some of us may not have any significant connection to the events that occurred. Not many people are left from the second war, and even fewer from the first. What does remembrance day mean if there isn’t a memory to be directly recalled? This observation was brought forwards during one of my high school assemblies by one of the student speakers. He mentioned that for our generation, it is more about learning, and imagining these significant world events, to help ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again.

“Those who cannot remember the past, are condemned to repeat it.”
— George Santayana

Whatever state the world has been left in for us, it is now ours, and we need to build on the successes and failures that the previous generations have done, to build a more fair, just, free, tolerant, and sustainable world for the present and future generations. The future of our species depends on it.

On November 11, wear a poppy. Remember, learn, hope, and dream.

Further Resources

The Origin of the Poppy in Scotland

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