Thursday, 27 April 2017

Lest We Forget


ANZAC DAY 2017:  So much upset this year, caused by the thoughtless use of the phrase ‘Lest we Forget’.   And I am not comfortable with the use of this now sacred phrase to promote a political point of view – and yet, when I asked around, in person and on-line, no one could tell me the origin or the deeper meaning apart from a ‘reminder to remember’.

I think it’s a warning, even a veiled threat – and with good reason. We need warnings and we need to understand consequences – that does not stop when you grow up.

I like to look at origins when I am interested in a subject, to help me understand the meaning even if it has changed from the original. I was not surprised to find that the phrase comes from the words of Moses, in the Old Testament.

Deuteronomy 6:12 (KJV)  Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.

-        It is a reminder, a warning that when we come into a time of ease and plenty our attention can slip so that it focuses only on the good things we have and not on where they came from.

Inspired by this verse, Rudyard Kipling wrote his poem/hymn, ‘Recession’ in 1897.

A recessional is music or a hymn that is played at the end of a religious service. Kipling wrote this as a reminder of the fragility of wealth and power (of the British Empire) – a warning that if we forget how we achieved success, where it came from, we may find we are lacking when we need extra. It was not written as a memorial to those fallen in war.

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!


As these words were heard again and again, at the end of five verses, and the close of the church service, it is easy to see that the words and meaning would be applied to other areas as a reminder of great loss.  

There are a number of modern ‘lest we forget’ quotes but the meaning is not always the same.  It seems that, if a passage begins with Lest we forget and then states what we should remember, or lest we forget pops up in the middle of a sentence, the meaning is not the same as the simple, lone warning at the end of the text.  Lest we Forget.

After WWI the phrase came into common usage through the British Commonwealth, appearing on war memorials, headstones and in epitaphs as a plea to not forget the sacrifice made by so many.

In Australia 'Lest we Forget' is a registered trademark, owned by the RSL on behalf of our returned service men and women.

The first Anzac commemorations were held on 25th April 1916, a year after Australian and New Zealand soldiers set out to capture the Gallipoli peninsula. By the 1920's it had been established as a National day and now, sadly, it goes beyond that single anniversary and we honour all who have died in war or conflict since.  We hear words such as honour, courage, mateship and sacrifice linked with national identity and Australian spirit. All this is good and true and an important part of our culture, but the phrase we have attached to the day is still a warning that we must heed and we must pass down the generations - because we do forget.  

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