It was a bright, crisp autumn morning as we assembled in the Marketplace for Remembrance Day. The mayor in his robes, the band’s instruments gleaming in the sun, the sea, air and army cadets in their uniforms, the old soldiers from the British Legion, the scouts, the guides, the cubs, the brownies, councillors, distinguished guests and a smattering of onlookers. We processed to the war memorial. In the park, children were playing and dogs were being walked, while the rowing club were going through their exercises on the river. It all seemed strangely incongruous. We waited for the appointed time. It seemed as though were waiting for an age, although in reality it must have only been a few minutes. Then the trumpeter blew the Last Post, and we kept silence. And the park stood still. The dogs, and their owners, stopped walking. The children came down from the playground equipment. The river was untroubled by passing craft. The end of the silence, and wreaths were laid. Each time, the same process. Walk to the memorial, stand briefly to attention, lay the wreath and step back. Uniformed personnel saluted, civilians briefly bowed their heads. Then turn, and walk away. Wreath-laying over, we processed to the church. The band played as we passed through the bell tower. As we left, the park had returned to normal, the sounds of active children competing with the music from the band. It was a pattern that, I’m sure, was repeated at war memorials the length and breadth of the land.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
But I’m equally sure that normality wasn’t suspended this morning for Remembrance Day in Syria, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Somalia, or Mali, or Sudan, to name just a few of the places on Wikipedia’s “List of ongoing military conflicts“. For that matter, normality wasn’t suspended for Remembrance Day on the battlegrounds of World War II, or in Korea, Suez, The Falklands, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo, to name just a few of the wars and conflicts that British soldiers have fought in since the very first Remembrance Day in November 1919.
Some might argue that this means Remembrance Day means nothing. Have we not yet learned that fighting solves nothing? Why do we keep on sending people to kill and be killed as a means of settling our petty differences? And isn’t all this just a glorification of conflict?
When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today
I would argue just the opposite. If we ever become so casual about war that we no longer care to remember those who die in pursuit of it, then we have lost an essential part of our humanity. Far from glorifying war and combat, Remembrance Day shows how far we have come in our desire to end it.
I’ve already mentioned the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. But why was it the first? After all, the First World War wasn’t the first time British troops had died in combat. The entire history of this island is steeped in militarism. There is barely a country in Europe that we haven’t, at some stage, been at war with. We name our railway stations and public squares after famous battles. We conquered half the world with a gun in one hand and a bag of gold in the other. This is a nation built on war. And, let it be said, so is almost very other country. We are most certainly not unique, or even the worst offenders.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
So why are the no memorials to those who died at Waterloo and Trafalgar? Why did it take until 1919 to establish a lasting commemoration of our war dead? Prosaically, one simple explanation may be the sheer size of World War I, and its death toll, compared to other conflicts that were then in recent memory. Because it was bigger, people cared more. But I think there’s more to it than that.
Why did it take until 1883 to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire? Why didn’t we have elected parliaments before 1264? Why did it take so long before that innovation finally resulted in universal suffrage in 1928? There’s no simple, single answer to any of these other than the fact that there has to be a first time for everything. And, whatever his reasons, in 1919 King George V announced that the anniversary of Armistice Day was to be a commemoration of the dead. And so began a journey that, unlike the initiatives of William Wilberforce and Simon de Montfort, is still a very long way from completion.
Dreams of the day when rampant there will rise
The flowers of Truth and Freedom from the blood
Of noble youth who died: when there will bud
The flower of Love from human sacrifice.
Remembrance Day hasn’t ended war. But it does mean we no longer treat war with the same casual disregard that led to the conflict which inspired it. It means that politicians and leaders now have to justify war to the people rather than taking their acceptance of it for granted. It means that we only go to war when we consider it necessary. It means that we consider it necessary a lot less frequently than in times gone by.
The day will come when we look back at George V’s institution of Remembrance Day in the same way that we look at Wilberforce’s campaign against slavery. That day hasn’t come yet. Frankly, I don’t expect it to come in my lifetime. But, in the meantime, every Remembrance Day ceremony is a step closer to a world without war.
And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
Poetry extracts, in order: For the Fallen by Robert Laurence Binyon, The Kohima Epitaph, In Flanders Fields by John McCrae, Matthew Copse by John Wiliam Streets, We Shall Keep the Faith by Moina Michael.