Remembrance Day: scarlet poppies against the grey granite of War Memorials in villages and cities and suburbs on a cold November day, old soldiers wearing their medals, the Queen laying a wreath at the Cenotaph in London. It all had a special poignancy this year: the deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq mean that more British servicemen have been killed this year on active service than at any time since the Falklands War in the 1980s.
And it was poignant for other reasons too – the ceremonies, the traditions, and the sense of heritage and patriotism can no longer be taken for granted, and are instead somehow about memories and aspirations rather than day-to-day reality. A more vicious side of modern Britain was summed up in a scene that went around the Internet – a drunken student, on a sordid spree organised by a group called “Carnage,” urinating on a poppy wreath on a war memorial. Sickened and angered, people took to the airwaves and the comment boxes and the letter-pages of the newspapers to voice their views.
The tension between the drunken brawling that now routinely marks our towns and cities on weekends, and the formal, solemn events of Remembrance Day, is a tension that is re-echoed throughout much of British life today. Although church services feature as a major part of Remembrance ceremonies, they do not play a role in the weekly lives of most British people, and it is noticeable that young people taking part in Remembrance events are unfamiliar with prayers and hymns that were once part of everyone’s common heritage.
Even the clothes worn at Remembrance ceremonies – dark overcoats, formal suits and ties for the men, hats and dark formal coats for the women – are different from anything you’ll see on a bus or train or street, or in church, in the ordinary way. At one time, wearing formal clothes to work , to church, or to a special occasion, was the norm – today, “dressing down” is a sign of being fashionable, competent, forward-looking. So Remembrance Day stands as a stark event, unconnected with normal life, or even with normal churchgoing.
All of this has combined to make the 2009 Remembrance events something that somehow stand out in a way that has not been the case in the past. And it is a notable anniversary too – the first national Remembrance Day was in November 1919, the first year after the Armistice. That was when the first Two Minutes’ silence was held, and a nation’s grief held all united. Ninety years on, 2009 saw the deaths of the last two men who actually served in World War I – Henry Allingham and Harry Patch. Thus, this November, for the first time, there was no one laying a wreath who was actually carrying personal memories of the trenches and the horror where the poppies bloomed.
Remembrance Day is really two days. First, the Sunday nearest to November 11th, when ceremonies are held, and the Queen leads the nation’s mourning, with representatives of the Church, the Government, the Armed Services, voluntary organisations, and the nations of the Commonwealth gathered in Whitehall as Big Ben chimes the hour. Then, on Nov. 11 itself, even if it is an ordinary weekday, silence is observed at 11 a.m.
I was busy in the kitchen on the 11th, having just come in from the shops. My husband was at his computer. He turned on a news channel as 11 a.m. approached. I ran outside to tell the workmen busy sweeping up the leaves: “It’s eleven o’clock.” We all fell silent. The leaves rustled. The silence ended with the Last Post sounding out from a radio, and we heard the words that have never lost their poignancy as they have been said for 90 years and include a promise: “At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them…”