'Lest we forget' as a symbol of commemoration in Australia
Borrowed from a line in a well-known poem written in the 19th century, the phrase 'lest we forget' means 'it should not be forgotten'. We say or write 'lest we forget' in commemorations to remember always the service and sacrifice of people who have served in wars, conflicts and peacekeeping operations.
History of its symbolism
The phrase 'Lest we forget' is from a line in an 1897 Rudyard Kipling poem, Recessional:
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!
'Lest' comes from the Old English ‘thӯ lǣs the’ , which translates to 'whereby less that'. Kipling drew inspiration from a biblical phrase in Deuteronomy 6:12, where ‘lest’ took the meaning ‘for fear that’.
We often sing Kipling's poem as a hymn at Anzac Day services for Australians and New Zealanders.
The word ‘lest’ gained popularity around the time the poem was written. Then it became part of the phrase we use today, honouring the sacrifices of those who have served and died.
Use of the phrase 'lest we forget' became common across Australia and New Zealand after World War I. The phrase became linked with commemorative services on:
What it means to us today
You might see the words 'Lest we forget' on:
At a commemorative service, after the speaker recites the Ode of Remembrance, the audience repeats the last words, ‘We will remember them’ followed by a short pause and then 'Lest we forget'.
Terms of gratefulness, such as 'Thank you for your service' or hashtag #TYFYS, are used to recognise the service and sacrifice of veterans. However, these differ from 'Lest we forget', which is an expression of mourning for the fallen rather than a general expression of thanks.
Engage more with this topic
Lest We Forget is a picture book that will help young children to learn about the significance of Anzac Day and Remembrance Day.
A young boy visits his granddad and thinks about the important days in his life: his first day of school, playing soccer with his team, the day his baby sister was born. Yet through the illustrations the reader sees a parallel story of the grandfather's experiences at war: wearing his brand-new soldier's uniform, with his fellow diggers in the field, looking at a photo of the baby he's never met.
If you can't find a copy of this book in your local library, look for an online video of teachers reading this book at storytime.
Research learning activity
The School Magazine published by the NSW Department of Education did a commemoration project with Mudgee Public School. The project taught children how to research the lives of local veterans and their families to learn about the wartime experiences of Australians.
Watch videos from the project to see the activities and learning outcomes:
- Researching veteran - Lest We Forget project
- Interviewing veterans - Lest We Forget project
- Student work samples - Lest We Forget project
If you'd like to do something similar, we have some resources to help:
- Researching Australians at war (web page)
- Recording oral histories with veterans (web page and video)
- Reflections: Capturing Veterans' Stories (online publication)
You can start by asking people in your local community what they know. See Just Ask for extra help.