Armistice Day 2020: What's the origin of the phrase 'lest we forget'?

Today, November 11, is Armistice Day – marking the day on which World War I came to an end.

While this year’s commemorations have been significantly scaled back in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic – with Sunday’s Remembrance Day service closed to the public – the meaning and significance of Armistice Day remains as strong as ever.

The day honours those members of the British and Commonwealth Armed Forces who fought in the war, as well as civilian casualties of conflict – with people wearing poppies and holding a two-minute silence at 11am.

The phrase ‘lest we forget’ is also symbolic of the day – but what are its origins?

And which is the correct side to wear a poppy?

What is the origin of the phrase ‘lest we forget?’

‘Lest we forget’ is actually a phrase taken from Rudyard Kipling’s 1987 poem Recessional – which was written to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Kipling wrote the poem at the height of the British Empire – and it was intended as a warning about the perils of Imperialism, suggesting that people should put their trust in God instead.

However the phrases has taken on new meaning in its association with those who gave their lives in the First World War – serving as a reminder that nothing as devastating should ever be allowed to happen again.

However, the origins of the phrase date back a lot further than that, all the way to Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Bible – with the phrase ‘then beware lest thou forget the Lord which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt’.

Kipling’s poem reads as follows:

God of our fathers, known of old,
Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
 The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
 Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust
 In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And, guarding, calls not Thee to guard;
For frantic boast and foolish word—
Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

Which side should you wear a poppy on?

While there has previously been debate about how to wear a poppy for Remembrance Sunday, any rumours that say a poppy must be worn on a certain side of your coat or top are not actually true.

The official stance of the Royal British Legion is that: ‘There is no “correct” way to wear a poppy.’ ‘It’s a matter of personal choice whether someone chooses to wear a poppy and how they choose to wear it,’ they say on their website.

‘It’s a matter of personal choice whether someone chooses to wear a poppy and how they choose to wear it,’ they say on their website.

‘The best way to wear a poppy is simply with pride.’

How is Armistice Day different to Remembrance Day?

Remembrance Sunday takes place on the second Sunday of November as a day of remembrance for those who laid down their lives defending the country.

Despite being Armistice Day 11 November is often referred to as Remembrance Day – hence the confusion over whether they are in fact one and the same.

The remembrance service was previously held on 11 November itself – however Remembrance Sunday came about after the two-minute silence was moved to the Sunday closest to that date at the start of World War II in 1939, done as an emergency measure to avoid the interruption of vital war materials being produced.

In 1945, just before VE Day – the end of the Second World War – it was proposed that the second Sunday in November should become Remembrance Sunday in commemoration of both the World Wars.

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