We will observe the 100th anniversary of the end of the first world war on Remembrance Day next year. Whilst this year’s ceremony is still ringing in my ears, I want to plea for the whole event to be rethought and scaled down thereafter. I do not understand why Remembrance Day grows in attendance and importance every year, as opposed to diminishing in stature. I suspect we hold on to it for the wrong reasons.
A caveat: I know that soldiers have died in combat in recent years and agree their memory should be honoured. There are memorials in my church to Kevin Leech who died on active service in Iraq, aged 20 and to Derek Armstrong who died in the Falklands War, aged 22. They come from a long tradition of young men from Prudhoe serving Queen and Country.
Another caveat: I always find the two minutes silence extremely moving. In Prudhoe, a long parade of military personnel, ex service men, cadets, scouts, guides and brownies led by a pipe band marches along Front St and assembles outside the lychgate to church, which is the town war memorial. They are joined by several hundred members of the public for two minutes silence. I have no doubt that we should gather together in silence more often. It speaks louder than words.
The Church was full to overflowing for the Remembrance Day service. We did not sing the now controversial ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ and made a shared commitment to strive for peace, heal the wounds of war and work for justice for all humanity. It is a valuable statement of reconciliation and aspiration, but it can be lost amidst the marching boots and the military banners. It may also be a missed opportunity for the Church to attract back young people, who are frozen stiff in their uniforms by the time they enter church, and facing a cumbersome liturgy.
The loss of an individual life in a close knit community is always tragic but it does not scale up in my view. I am bemused by the hold of Remembrance Day on the nation. It may not have become commercialised like Mothers Day, though the British Legion is a force to be reckoned with in fundraising. But the event competes with Children in Need in capturing the public imagination.
I scrambled to find my poppy on the way to church realising that these days it is politically correct to wear the poopy for a good two weeks beforehand – preferably a handmade designer poppy. Even the dancers on Strictly had poppies embroidered into their costumes and Moeen Ali was harshly criticised when his apparently fell off in a team photograph. Jon Snow calls it “poppy fascism.”
I think that grief and homage should be more personal and less of a public requirement. I prefer the quiet observance of All Souls Day at the end of October when families who have lost a loved one gather quietly in church in candlelight to remember them and pray for strength to go on. And grief has a natural and healing passage. It should not go on forever. There is time to forgive and forget.
Although no one does ceremonial as well, we are not as a nation given to parades and commemoration. The national identity gets expressed through just the one collective act in November. Perhaps we should wave flags and express feelings more often. Commonwealth Day has disappeared but what about St Georges Day, which would be popular with Brexiteers, Thanksgiving Day, if we don’t mind adopting another American custom, or, my own favourite, World Peace Day.
Remembrance Day primarily recalls the good old days when Britain ruled the waves and the ‘few’ triumphed. Their stories continue to fill endless books and films. It may not be a coincidence that these were wars that our history books tell us we won. We still evoke ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ in every public emergency and appeal for everyone to “keep calm and carry on”. We delude ourselves that these mottos can still sustain us in more nuanced days we live in now.
The first world war was the war to end all wars. There was a resolve in 1918 that the sacrifice of 1 million lives and 2 million wounded should not have been in vain. But the commitment to end wars has been lost in what can be seen as an affirmation of our military prowess. Hence the white poppy movement to acknowledge the continuing loss of life in armed conflicts like Mosul and Raqqa this year, where now 90% of causalities are innocent civilians, and to campaign for swords to be turned into ploughshares.
By chance, two different voices helped me make sense of the event this year. Firstly, Rev Sam Wells on Thought for the Day who suggested that we should be grateful for all sorts of people who had made sacrifices to save our lives; our parents, our teachers and even the back seat driver who screams out that we have driven though a red light. November 11th should be called Gratitude Day.
Secondly, Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, who argued that whilst we are meant to remember lest we forget, it is much more difficult and much more important to eventually forget and to move on. When we have marked the 100th anniversary of the First World War armistice in 2018, lets try ‘Forgetting Day’.