In the wake of ANZAC day, I have been wondering, where does the phrase “Lest We Forget” come from? I know what the words mean and that it’s appropriate to such rememberances, but why do we say “Lest We Forget” instead of “We should remember” or something else? Who first used it and how did it make its way into common usage? Also, who else says it? I know we do in Australia, and google turns up plenty of American sites, so who else is there?
Here in the U.S. it seems to be most closely associated with WWII, but I’m not sure how that came to be. It’s the refrain of a poem by Kipling, “Recessional” (1897)
So if it came from the poem, how did it make the leap to common usage?
Also, is it only WWII elsewhere too? In Australia it seems to be associated with both world wars, but increasingly with all conflicts in which there was loss of life.
In Britain the phrase ‘Lest we forget’, along with the whole notion of national remembrance for the war dead, is particularly associated with the First World War, although it has, of course, since been extended to cover the Second World War and other conflicts as well. I’m fairly sure that the phrase acquired its present connotations in Britain during or immediately after the First World War. It is a common inscription on British war memorials of that period and, as the British government gave careful thought to the design of the cemeteries in France (Kipling wrote the standard epitaph used on the graves of unidentified British soldiers), it may well be that the phrase was popularised by official usage. That it comes from Kipling’s Recessional sounds very plausible, not least because the whole poem came to seem so prescient after 1914. My guess would be that Australia and the rest of the British Empire picked the phrase up almost at once, but that it may well have taken some time (WWII?) for the USA to do likewise.
We use it here in Canada, too.
Also, I recall from my days in the church choir, seeing Kipling’s “Recessional” set to music. Now, the musical version wasn’t in common use at this church when I was in the choir; I discovered it in the choir music files when we were moving them from one part of the church to another. But I do recall that the tune it used was the same as the well-known Navy hymn, “Eternal Father, strong to save.” (IIRC, the name of the tune is “Melita.”)
Just a WAG, but perhaps the phrase “Lest we forget” to remember war dead came from Kipling’s “Recessional” at a time when it was being sung to the tune of a hymn associated with the Navy.