Remembrance Day is one of my favourite British traditions. My first year here, I went to the ceremony at Westminster Abbey, and the experience is still one of my most cherished memories in London. I can still feel the cool mist on my face, the silence of Westminster Square and the goosebumps I got from the chime of Big Ben like it was yesterday. I love when poppies start blooming across lapels every autumn because it reminds me of that moment and of what it meant to me.
I never thought much about Veteran’s Day in the States, and I certainly never took time to observe it on purpose (a fact that is particularly shaming as my brother is a veteran). It is a day that is normally reserved for military bases and cemeteries, where they stop for a moment of silence and a round of Taps, far away from the public eye. There’s something different about it in the UK though: everyone participates.
Although it has a military core, Remembrance Day is honoured and cherished by veterans and civilians alike, and the ceremonies take place in the busiest, most public places. Poppies are sold at every tube station for weeks leading up to November 11th. Some of London’s busiest roads are shut down and emptied out in advance of the moment of silence. The events are broadcast live so everyone can participate together. It’s a big deal. And it should be.
To pay my respects this year, I went to the Tower of London to see the poppy installation that has been slowly filling the moat over the last few months. Each of the 888,246 handmade, red, ceramic poppies was placed in memory of one soldier killed in World War I. It’s a number we can’t really fathom as a concept; it’s something we have to experience.
In my own moment of silence, I started thinking about what those numbers really mean.
Let’s assume that there is a way for us to actually know how many people died and that 888,246 is exactly accurate. Let’s also say the average human being has meaningful relationships with around 200 people at any given time (a number in the middle range of several philosophies). Simple maths says then that the poppies surrounding all four sides of the Tower of London represent 177,649,200 people who were affected by the deaths of these soldiers (not including the soldiers themselves).
The population of Britain a month before the outbreak of WWI was 46,089,249.
With numbers like that, it is pretty safe to say that everyone in the entire country had at least one person who mattered to them die in the war (though probably more like 2-3 on average). It was a big deal. Two minutes of our year is not. We spend two minutes waiting for the next train. We spend two minutes standing in line to buy coffee. We spend two minutes venting to coworkers about how hard our lives are.
It’s the least we can do to stop for two minutes every year and silently thank those who died so we can buy our macchiato in peace; to thank the mothers who lost their sons, the sisters who lost their brothers, the kids who lost their dads. It’s important to stop. It’s important to be silent. It’s important to remember.