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Armed Forces Remembrance Day and poppy ceremony

Armed Forces Remembrance Day and poppy ceremony

13 Nov 2023 | BY Brig. Hiran N. Halangode (rtd.) RWP RSP USP

This year, the Armed Forces Remembrance Day and poppy ceremony was held on Saturday, 11 November at the Viharamahadevi Park in Colombo. Since November is the Month of Remembrance universally, it is commemorated world over. 

This year commemorates the centenary of the Cenotaph (victory column) which was declared open on 27 October 1923 by the Governor, Brigadier Sir William Henry Manning, at 7.45 a.m. at Galle Face, as per Ceylon Daily News records. 

Each year on 11 of November, Britain and the Commonwealth countries remember their war dead in a formal manner by laying poppy wreaths at their respective national war memorials and war graves related to those who fell in battle or died while in service during the two world wars. The signing of the Armistice was at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918 with the end of World War 1 (WW1). Hence this day is considered as the Remembrance Day. 

In Sri Lanka, the ceremony is held annually with the support of the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL), which donates a million poppies to the Sri Lanka Ex-Servicemen’s Association (SLESA), which through their sale, provides financial assistance, medical aid, and nourishment to the needy, ageing, infirm, and destitute ex-servicemen. Sadly, certain governments in the past taxed the donation of poppies and hindered the full benefit of the donation from reaching needy ex-servicemen. 

The SLESA – with over 45,000 members at present – provides financial assistance to its needy members for their medical requirements, such as spectacles, hearing aids, minor surgeries, and scholarships for their children's education. They also maintain two homes for the aged in Bolagala, off Negombo, and another at Katugastota. The State has sadly neglected these veterans, and hence, the poppy appeal is the main source of income for its members. The poppy appeal is commemorated at the War Memorial on the nearest Sunday to 11 November by the SLESA annually. 

The War Memorial at the Viharamahadevi Park, Colombo consists of the Cenotaph (empty tomb) and its Memorial Wall (backdrop). The sole purposes of these two structures are as follows: 

The Cenotaph is in remembrance of the 442 fallen volunteers – of an estimated total of 1,250 volunteers from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) who joined the British and Commonwealth forces to fight in WW1 (1914-1918). 

A significant achievement was that 330 schoolboy cadets of four English-speaking schools (Royal, S. Thomas’, Kingswood, and Trinity) went to Europe to fight in WW1, where 45 of them were killed in action and many more were wounded and suffered mental and physical disorders later in life. These schoolboy cadets were inspired by their British principals and masters, and volunteered to fight under the British forces far away from home. They went together as Ceylonese and their sacrifice, selfless service in the defence of their motherland, and volunteerism must be recorded for posterity and emulated by present day youth, for freedom has a price. 

Despite the horrors of war and the reality of world affairs – where the ebb and flow of life keeps changing – it is the attitude and will of the people of a country and its leaders that helps in maintaining freedom and peace in one's motherland. 

The Memorial Wall of the Cenotaph is in remembrance of the 46 fallen volunteers – of an estimated total of 47,260 volunteers from Ceylon who joined

the British and Commonwealth forces to fight in World War 2 (WW2; 1939-1945). These volunteers have served on the ground, at sea, and in the air are as follows: The British Army – 6,000 (4,000 for overseas service and 2,000 for local service), the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) – 40,000, the Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR) – 1,200, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) – 60. 

Most of these veterans were the pioneers of the present-day Sri Lanka Army, Sri Lanka Navy, and Sri Lanka Air Force. May their contribution of service, dedication, and volunteerism be remembered forever. 

Sir Edwin Lutyens, the architect, had told Daily News representatives that there should be “nothing commercial” about the memorial dedicated to “those who laid their lives in the cause of liberty”. 

The foundation stone for the monument was laid by Manning on 7 December 1921. The Column was constructed of the best Sholinghur (a district 30 miles north of Madras) granite, 119 feet six inches in height and seven feet in diameter. The monument was declared open on 27 October 1923 by Manning at 7.45 a.m., as per Ceylon Daily News records.

According to the newspaper account, huge blocks of stone – each weighing from one to four tons – that arrived on steamers from India, “were all hoisted into position, shaped, and dressed by skilled Indian workmen”. Addressing the gathering on the day, Manning, who laid the foundation stone to this great monument of honour, said: “It will bear witness to the part the men of Ceylon, both British and Ceylonese, took in that great struggle and it will be enshrined in the memories of all those who rest in peace, where they fought and died.” 

With the outbreak of WW2 in 1939, it was decided that the victory column on the Galle Face esplanade would be a notable landmark to enemy aircraft, and thus it had to be dismantled. After much deliberation, it was finally decided to erect it at its present location – then known as Victoria Park. 

Governor General of Ceylon Lord Soulbury took the decision to add a backdrop of columns and plaques bearing the names of those who lost their lives between

1939 and 1945 in WW2. The Ceylon Daily News of 6 February 1952 headline announced: “War memorial completed.” 

The war monument – which is of archaeological value – has been renovated by the SLESA with the assistance of the Sri Lanka Navy. However, till this year, the Cenotaph had been neglected due to officialdom, indifference, and lethargy on the part of those responsible. It sadly resembled a relic of our colonial past. It is, therefore, expected that the Cenotaph and its surroundings are maintained hereafter, giving due recognition to the fallen during the two world wars, where many a Ceylonese sacrificed their lives for our motherland. 

In most Commonwealth countries, their war memorials are well maintained and reflect the thoughts and actions of the public of their country. The need of the hour is to honour our veterans who laid the foundation to protect our motherland in its hour of need and to perpetuate their memory amongst our public. This will help in building the battered image of our veterans and assist in developing the attitude and support of our public towards servicemen who continue to sacrifice the best years of their lives in defence of our motherland. 

As the late United States President Theodore Roosevelt famously said in April 1910: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." 

Therefore, it is imperative that the Armed Forces Remembrance day and poppy ceremony are given due national recognition without any further delay, because if we as a nation fail to be grateful to those who have sacrificed their lives in the defence of our motherland, we will be embroiled in conflict in the future. However, sadly, many nations the world over have not paid heed to the advice proffered by Winston Churchill, the war time Prime Minister of Great Britain, who said the following after WW1: “Woe betide the leaders now perched on their dizzy pinnacles of triumph if they cast away at the conference table what the soldiers had won on a hundred bloodsoaked battlefields.” 

The “remembrance poppy” is an artificial flower worn in Commonwealth countries to commemorate their military personnel who died in war. Veterans’ associations exchange poppies for charitable donations used to give financial, social, and emotional support to their members and veterans of the armed forces. The red poppy is a symbol of both remembrance and hope for a peaceful future. Poppies are worn as a show of support for the Armed Forces community. The poppy is a well-known and well-established symbol, one that carries a wealth of history and meaning with it.

(The writer is a retired commissioned officer of the Sri Lanka Army)


The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

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