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Whom and what are we remembering?

09 November 2012

The significance of Remembrance and the Church's relationship with it have changed over the past 93 years. Ted Harrison charts its history, and asks if it needs to be reassessed


THIS Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, many parish churches around Britain welcome members of the Royal British Legion and the local community's uniformed organisations. Regular churchgoers will adapt their usual Sunday worship to include the two-minute silence, the Last Post, and all the traditional rituals that honour those who have died as members of the armed services. Although it is not found in the liturgical calendar, it comes at the time of year when the Church commemorates All Souls and All Saints.

Many aspects of these acts of remembrance are implicitly religious, but not explicitly Christian. Sometimes, the parish church provides the context and location for these acts without the incumbent's endorsing all the underlying sentiments. On the other hand, at a national level, the Established Church plays a supporting part at the Cenotaph, and during the annual Festival of Remembrance, which sanctifies the proceedings.

At the core of Remembrance are words and actions that deliberately exclude any reference to faith. This enables people of all backgrounds to participate. When the country falls silent at 11 a.m., people are offered an open-ended invitation to pray, meditate, contemplate, remember, or imagine. Nothing is prescribed. Even in the suggestions made for thoughts and prayers during the silence, in the Cenotaph order of service, there is no mention of God.

When the Last Post is sounded, it is not a reference to the "last trump", but derives from a military tradition. The poem "For the Fallen", from which the lines "They shall grow not old" are declaimed, is not Christian. It hints that those killed in battle survive in some state of perpetual youth, while their comrades grow weary with age.

THE most popular of the Remembrance hymns, "O valiant hearts who to your glory came", harks back to days long before the industrialised slaughter of the Somme, when young men could test themselves in battles, which were fought according to the code of chivalry: "Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved."

After the First World War, chivalric references were commonly made throughout Europe. A crusader's sword was placed on the coffin that contains the Unknown Warrior, buried in Westminster Abbey. The British and Germans needed a sense of historical continuity and meaning, in the shadow of an unprecedented human tragedy. In both countries, the survivors pictured the conflict as the last crusade, and sought consolation in imagery that connected the soldiers of the age of total war with the knights of the Middle Ages.

Later in the hymn, the sacrifices of war are, however, likened to the supreme sacrifice of Christ on the cross. "Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way," says one line, and, later:


Still, through the veil, the

  Victor's pitying eyes

Look down to bless our lesser



Is this an appropriate comparison? It certainly raises some theological questions.


LEAVING aside the part played by the Church during the First World War, in its aftermath the Church had an important pastoral part to play. Many parish clergy focused, where they could, on bringing practical comfort to the bereaved.

The nation was in mourning. The excited, expectant spirit of 1914 had long vanished. By 1918, the grim reality of trench warfare, and of industrialised slaughter, and the ultimate purposelessness of the conflict were apparent. Rudyard Kipling wrote:


If any question why we died,

Tell them, because our fathers lied.


Yet, understandably, the families of the men whose shattered remains lay in distant graveyards found it hard to think of their deaths as utterly valueless. If only the Great War could be seen as the war to end all wars - a last crusade - then their men had not died in vain.

So the first Remembrance Days became both a focus of grief, and a national rededication to peace. Yet there was a tension between these two intents: a rededication to peace required the recollections of the horrors of war to remain vivid. If the memories were too sanitised, future generations might not get the message. On the other hand, to recall the conflict in gory and senseless detail would bring no comfort to those in mourning.

The balance was found in ritual and poetry. The rituals of wearing the Flanders poppy, of going to the Cenotaph or a war memorial, and of placing a cross in the ground, helped the survivors. The poetry was poignant and sentimental:


At the going down of the sun

  and in the morning

We will remember them.


PUTTING its pastoral task first, the Church made theological compromises. In the years after the First World War, the local parson was often involved in planning, erecting, and dedicating the war memorial. It brought comfort to the bereaved to see the names of husbands and brothers etched in stone. Yet the designs of the memorials often drew on mythology, not Christianity, for the imagery: idealised soldiers; stylised battle scenes; classical pillars; patriotic symbols.

When the Cenotaph was first designed, by Sir Edward Lutyens, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was asked when "the article known as the Cenotaph will be removed from Whitehall; and whether a Christian design will be adopted in national memorials for our fallen soldiers?"

Interestingly, the Cenotaph was originally built as a temporary structure for a national victory celebration. It was the public's response to it that recreated it as a symbol of Remembrance.

Two minutes' silence was hastily added to the Remembrance, or Armistice Day, programme in November 1919, despite the misgivings of several politicians. So at least two of the familiar acts of Remembrance which are now ingrained in British culture were improvisations that were established by popular demand.

Both politicians and the public expressed a preference for the poets who evoked a sentimental and sanitised image of war over the war poets of harsh truth. What comfort would Wilfred Owen offer?


What passing-bells for these

  who die as cattle?

Only the monstrous anger of

  the guns.



THE peace agreement negotiated in 1919 created conditions in Europe which allowed Hitler to emerge. In the 1930s, some looked with alarm across the North Sea to Germany, and noted how their Remembrance had been hijacked by Nazism.

In Germany in 1934, the day became a commemoration of heroes, shifting from sorrowful recollection to hero-worship - in particular, the glorification of those who had died for the Fatherland in the First World War.

In Britain, in the '30s, there was some disquiet at the military tone of Remembrance. Canon Dick Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union offered a white poppy as an alternative to the red poppy, in order to place greater emphasis on the peace element. But the idea did not gain a wide following. By and large, Remembrance, or Armistice Day, continued almost unchanged until the Second World War.

No official Remembrance Day was held during the Second World War. Cabinet papers reveal that in 1945 the Home Office was lobbied by religious leaders - the Bishop of Winchester representing the Church of England - calling for Remembrance Day to be resumed, but as a combined day, to mark the First and Second World Wars together.

Although there had been debate about tactics, the Second World War had caused fewer moral qualms. Many who had doubted that the first conflict met the criteria of a "just war" were assured that the second had genuinely been fought to defend freedom.

Since 1945, British troops have been employed in many smaller conflicts - sometimes as peacekeepers. At other times, they have been committed by governments to conflicts whose legality has occasionally been open to question. Accordingly, Remembrance has shifted in emphasis.


TODAY, the Royal British Legion's poppy appeal raises money to finance its welfare work, helping a new generation of young people damaged by war. It emphasises its links with serving troops, standing "shoulder to shoulder" with them.

The Legion also teaches young people, through its educational programme, that Remembrance is about gratitude to those who gave, and continue to give, their lives so that "we might be free." This creates a new tension at Remembrancetide. What if those troops currently risking their lives are involved in conflicts that have nothing to do with freedom but are politically or economically motivated?

Masking this debate is another one - the way in which the wearing of the poppy has become a symbol of patriotic pride. Politicians are accused of wearing their poppies too ostentatiously. Television presenters who neglect to wear one are, by implication, seen as disloyal. The Channel 4 broadcaster Jon Snow said that being compelled to wear the emblem was a form of "poppy fascism".

And, while the Legion has a duty to generate income, it is also the custodian of the dignity of Remembrance. The questions have been raised how dignified it is to launch the poppy appeal with a showbiz razzmatazz; and whether it is right to sell poppy "souvenirs", such as jewellery or golf umbrellas, or to sign deals with commercial companies to enable them to link the poppy "brand"to their products.

As the annual poppy-fest moves further and further away from its origins, it leaves clerics with difficult choices. Making a parish church available to war veterans is one thing; associating the Church with the ethos of the current poppy appeal is another.


THERE is also a new cult of the hero emerging in popular culture which deserves a serious critique. All those damaged by war should be helped, but are all who don a uniform necessarily "heroes"? War is intrinsically evil, and it sanctions the crossing of ethical boundaries by service personnel. Some go too far, and even British troops, under pressure, can commit inexcusable deeds.

In this climate, perhaps the Church might consider extending its pastoral approach. For veterans, Remembrance is not just about recalling lost comrades: it is also about atonement.

Many ex-servicemen admit that memories of killing another human linger in the conscience longer than any other memories of war. Some veterans are burdened through life with unresolved guilt, and recollections of the consequences of their mistakes. The tears in the eyes of veterans during the annual two minutes' silence may not be for those whose names are etched on the memorial, but for those whose names they never knew.

While exploring this pastoral approach, the Church has to remain vigilant about the dangers of allowing Remembrance to sanitise, trivialise, or glorify war.

Siegfried Sassoon wrote a savage poem, in which he imagines the Prince of Darkness paying his respects at the Cenotaph. He offers up his prayer:


Make them forget, O Lord, what

  this Memorial

Means; their discredited ideas


Breed new belief that War is


Proof of the pride and power

  of being alive.


It is also worth remembering that not all ex-service personnel feel comfortable marching with their medals on. As the service veteran and contemporary poet Bill Mitton wrote:


I watch these old men march

bereted and badged

as I was in years long gone.

Though I understand

and will honour their need.

I will never join them.


I need no marching or medals

to do honour to comrades dead

the metal would lie heavy

upon my ageing chest.


He wrote the poem after he had watched young men carry the coffins of their comrades, and "once again I feel the weight on my shoulders as I remember doing the self same thing."

For the Church, Remembrance is a fine balancing act. Circumstances have changed since the First World War, but the Church's dual task remains essentially the same - to offer pastoral care, and to preach the gospel of peace simultaneously. It is one that inevitably implies contradictions.


Ted Harrison is the author of Remembrance Today: Grief and heroism, published by Reaktion Books at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-78023-044-3.

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