The Remembrance Day poppies I was given as a child were the old type, stiff red paper with a wire stalk. Adults wore them in their button holes, twisting the wire behind the lapel to keep it secure. Children pushed them through the wool of itchy school jumpers. When I was a teenager, boarding at St Edward’s School in Oxford in the 1960s, someone would come round selling them the week before during evening prep. Then on the actual Remembrance Day itself we would wear them while our Sunday chapel service was moved outside, clustered round the school’s war memorial. We would shuffle uncomfortably in our charcoal grey Sunday suits, trying to stay warm, minds drifting. Sundays meant a revolting roast lunch, straight after chapel, which I used to make a pretence of eating, but the latter part of the day did bring greater pleasures: a free afternoon, iced buns at teatime and, best of all, the cymbal signature tune which marked the Light Programme’s Pick of the Pops.
The war memorial was a tall stone cross outside the chapel. However, the names of the boys killed in the two world wars were inside, on a series of plaques on its side walls. There were hundreds of names, and I whiled away many a sermon reading and rereading those nearest my pew. Most meant little to me, but it was easy to spot those who were likely to have been brothers: L Q T T de O P T Tollemache and L S D O F T T de O P Tollemache being obvious examples. The school’s only VC, G P Gibson was also listed, of course, and was further honoured with a stained glass window.
As eleven o’clock chimed on those cold November Sundays I would dutifully try and think about the uncle I never knew, killed in the war. But I don’t think I ever really appreciated the hurt that my mother and her parents must have felt for the rest of their lives, that dull pain that never went away. And the pain of those unknown other parents and siblings, the Tollemaches, the Gibsons, the other names I have forgotten.
Was their pain ever assuaged by the national rituals of Remembrance Sunday? A day which, in the words of Professor Anthony Smith, has institutionalised our ‘collective identity through the rites of death and commemoration’? (Chosen Peoples, OUP 2003, p.246.)
The way in which these national rituals have developed was explored in a recent Guardian article by the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, who is much the same age as me. After a meeting with one of the few British veterans remaining from the First World War, Harry Patch, he wrote:
… it’s already abundantly clear there’s no danger of the war being suddenly forgotten, or made to seem irrelevant to our sense of what Europe and the world has to avoid repeating. In fact, during the last generation or so, and for reasons that have to do with much more than the survival of Harry and a few other veterans, the first world war has been identified by common consent as one of the great turning points in our history.
In the immediate aftermath, people did what they could to put it behind them – as they did again after the second world war. (My own father, in a way that was typical of his generation, said almost nothing to me about his life in the army, no matter how much I prodded him.) But in the long western European peace since 1945, the first world war has loomed larger and larger in our imaginations. It was once described as the war to end all wars. Over time, it has become the war by which most others are measured – in spite of all the obvious differences in weaponry, motive, duration, everything. In the process, it has also become more and more clearly the event which made us “modern” – both in the sense that it accelerated the growth of our democratic structures, and loosened old class strictures, and because it made the whole population familiar with barbarity, suffering and loss on a scale never seen before. Ninety years on from the Armistice, we look at the events of 1914-18 and think we are examining our national psychic wound.
That’s why Remembrance Day parades and ceremonies are given so much press and other kinds of attention these days (perhaps even more attention than previously, but these things are hard to measure). They exist to commemorate the dead of all wars, but they invariably revolve around images associated with the trenches – the heart-jolting pictures of people like Harry Patch floundering in the mud, or scrabbling over the lip of a trench and almost immediately being shot down. And throughout the rest of the year they are fed by other elements of national life. By the pathos and ubiquity of the large-scale memorials in our cities, and the smaller monuments in our villages – often recording the deaths of several members of the same family. By the way poetry of the first world war is drip-fed from the national curriculum into almost all our children as they become teenagers. (To the extent that even the best poets of other wars, such as Keith Douglas, are not studied at all, or made to seem somehow less good, because they don’t conform to the criteria of war poetry established by Owen, Sassoon, et al.)
All these are reasons for thinking that when Harry Patch is no longer with us, the Great War will keep its eagle-grasp on our imaginations. Unlike the Hundred Years War, or the Napoleonic wars, it’s feeling of closeness is continually refreshed by the monuments that stand at the heart of our communities, and by the fact that very many families cherish the memories of ancestors who were involved. Unlike more recent and contemporary wars, shocking as these are, it still feels on our doorstep, recollected in landscapes we recognise, and involving our neighbours as well as ourselves.
This year, as I have done in most recent years, I will watch Sunday’s Cenotaph service on TV. It’s a ceremony that has its own rituals. Impeccable timing, which sees the last main celebrants arriving just a few seconds before Big Ben strikes 11. The view through the falling autumn leaves down Whitehall. The grey-coated Guards band, coaxing beautiful music from their silver instruments (the swelling sound of Nimrod almost too emotional to bear). The medley of camera shots during the two minutes silence, which always ends with the gun salute in Hyde Park. The Last Post played on bugles. The dignity of an eighty-something monarch and her spouse, who both lived through the last war, as they lay their wreaths.
Then, after the official service, come the massed ranks of old men and women. These must have been waiting for hours in the cold, marching, marching, many still in step. The bowler hats. The berets. The British Warm overcoats. The sensible V-neck sweaters worn under regimental blazers. The wreaths which pile slowly against the Cenotaph.
With this march past, as Smith notes, the mood changes:
This part of the ceremony is more personal. It focuses on families, regiments and small groups of friends, their contributions, experiences, and memories. Here love for friends and family is felt to be part of the loyalty to the community of the nation, and, conversely, national devotion and loyalty are seen as extensions of the solidarity felt by family and friends. Family and nation are also linked by the bitterness at the senseless waste of war and, perhaps, at the excesses of state patriotism; the sense of personal bereavement becomes an expression of a wider national grief. (Smith, p.249.)
The survivors of the first Great War, the war to end all wars as it was laughingly called, are nearly all gone. In a few years time those who took part in the Second may all be too frail to participate. The rest of us will then, as Andrew Motion says, echoing Wilfred Owen, need to work harder to remember why we have had the good fortune to have lived in a largely peaceful Europe, and find our memories ‘in the stones, and statues, and archives, and, on Remembrance Day, in the notes of bugles calling from sad shires.’
I’m not as certain as Andrew Motion that we will succeed. These national rituals come easier to people like me, born in the 1950s, because we remember the war even though we didn’t live through it. We know instinctively that it was not all cheery Cockney banter and make do and mend. Neither was it ‘Take that, Nazi schweinehund’ and ‘Jolly good show, chaps’. It was dirty, and brutish, and many people died. We know that our parents’ brothers and sisters were lost, and we can just about comprehend what this meant to those who lived. But will it mean as much to our grandchildren, yet unborn?