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Time to forget?

Remembrance day is like an arts and craft spin-off of the Great British Bake-Off

In his poem, MCMXIV, Philip Larkin describes men at the beginning of the First World War, “standing patiently” as they queued to join General Kitchener’s volunteer Army, “grinning as if it were all a bank holiday lark”. It was a time of innocence: “tin advertisements for cocoa and twist” and “pubs wide open all day”. But “never such innocence again”. In 1916, on a single day at the Battle of the Somme, almost 20,000 were killed, torn apart by machine gun fire. Their bodies were buried hastily by their comrades in squelching mud or left for carrion birds. Britain became a country of the widows and the wounded. “Never such innocence again”.

We are all familiar with the horrors of the First World War. We learned about it at school. Every year, at this time, Remembrance Day serves as a reminder. That was the original purpose of the ritual: “Look down and swear by the dead you’ll never forget” wrote Siegfried Sassoon in “Armistice”, a poem broadcast annually in the years immediately after the War. When the Cenotaph was unveiled in Whitehall in 1920, Lawrence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” was read out: “We will remember them” the crowds were promised. Cenotaphs in every village square echoed the words.

A ritual that was once an uncontested part of national life has become a new theatre of the culture war

Crochet poppies

Remembrance Day served as an expression of hope the horror of the Great War would not be repeated. The Second World War destroyed that hope. But when peace was at last secured, that conflict found a place in the ritual of remembrance, too. It is the First World War, though, that Remembrance Day continues to evoke. The folk memory of the Second World War is, after all, about the Home Front: rations, the Blitz Spirit, and digging for victory. The First serves as a symbolic reminder of war itself: the Christmas Truce, Ypres and the Somme, poppies in Flanders Fields. They are burned into the national consciousness.

The ceremonies of Remembrance Day evoke this vanished Edwardian age. On Remembrance Sunday, there will be children in scarlet and gold, sealords and admirals bearing wreaths, bugles playing the Last Post and dark-clothed crowds singing Abide with Me. The language of remembrance evokes that bygone time too. The idea of “sacrifice” sounds outdated to modern ears, so too do the tributes to the “glorious dead” in a culture where we all acknowledge there are never victors in war. 

While the ceremonies are unchanged, the country has been transformed. It is increasingly diverse, and fresh ways to celebrate belonging are needed. Britain’s military, meanwhile, has shrunk in size. War itself has moved to new realms, making the mass mobilizations of the 20th century a thing of the past. And with the death of the last WW1 veteran more than a decade ago, our connection to that age has gone. In time, the Second World War will follow. There are few alive in Britain today that remember it, let alone fought in it.

This loss of meaning has produced something of an identity crisis. A ritual that was once an uncontested part of national life has become a new theatre of the culture war. Politicians wear poppies to burnish their patriotic credentials, right-wing tabloids hound newsreaders who choose not to wear them, and keyboard warriors on the left sneer at those who do. The most depressing elements of the British psyche are let loose.

In time, Remembrance Day may evolve into something new entirely

Remembrance Day has become a gaudier affair too. Transport companies emblazon buses and trains with giant poppies. Shops sell hats, scarves, and underwear adorned with them. Members of the public knit giant woollen soldiers under cover of darkness, while others dig makeshift trenches and man barricades on their front lawns. There is something a bit sad and twee about it all, as if Remembrance Day were an arts and craft spin-off of the Great British Bake-Off.

(Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images)

 The Royal British Legion, which organises the poppy appeal, has made valiant attempts to refresh Remembrance Day for modern Britain. The contribution of Commonwealth soldiers, for instance, is rightly acknowledged. Victims of all conflicts, at home and abroad, are now commemorated. Terror attacks are included too, and perhaps soon pandemics will follow. This has paid dividends: the Legion continues to raise enormous sums. Old rituals can evolve over time. They can be imbued with new meaning for new audiences. 

In time, Remembrance Day may evolve into something new entirely. In a country where religious attendance is low, it could be an opportunity for secular reflection on the contributions of those that have gone before. This would be no bad thing. It would, in fact, prove Britain to be a modern and grown-up country, capable of exorcising the ghosts of the past. Still, there will be something a little sad about the passing of the old world. At cenotaphs around the country this weekend, the faces in the crowds will be old and grey. The death of the last veterans of WW2 will be a rupture in our connection with the past.

We shouldn’t mourn the past, though. Change is inevitable. The First and Second World Wars will one day join the half-remembered conflicts of centuries gone by. There is something comforting about this. It is, in fact, cathartic. Long after the pomp and ceremony of Remembrance Sunday is gone, aged cenotaphs will stand in village squares as decaying monuments to a long-forgotten age. And later still, as Larkin wrote in MCMCIV, they will be once more “hazed over with flowering grasses, and fields/ Shadowing Domesday lines/ Under wheat’s restless silence”.

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