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Payment of a debt

14 November 2014


PARTS of the installation of ceramic poppies at the Tower of London are to remain in place for a while longer. That the campaign for the project's extension has been led by the Prime Minister and Boris Johnson will make the ears prick up of anyone who listened to The Why Factor: Memorialisation (World Service, Thursday of last week).

For did we not hear that memorials are there not to preserve memories of the past, but to set agendas for the future; to prescribe virtues for the nation which the Establishment would like to see encouraged? Or, as Sir Hew Strachan put it, we do not remember the wars: we remember how we remember.

Dr Dacia Viejo Rose argued that memorialisation creates a debt on the part of the living to those who "made the ultimate sacrifice" - a debt that the living feel constrained to pay through investment in a particular image of the past and its values. General Franco recognised this in his programme of memorials to the dead of the Spanish Civil War.

That memorials change significance over time is demonstrated by the way in which the Gallipoli "experience" has altered in the past decade.

As the programme's presenter, Mike Williams, discovered, the Turkish state's shift from secular to Islamic values has been reflected in the way in which the tour of the sites where modern Turkey was born has become a pilgrimage. Guides speak less of the deeds of Atatürk, and more of the martyrdom of the faithful. Perhaps the strength of the poppy as a symbol lies in its multiple interpretations.

There is no doubting the symbolism of the newsletter Young Crescent, or the Gingerbread group, whose stories were told in Sunday Feature: God and the Great War (Radio 3; Comment, 7 November). The breaking of gingerbread as a sign of comradeship among young soldiers, and the sending of sweets to boys on the Front, to be eaten while praying - both bear witness to a strongly eucharistic character in wartime spirituality.

Legend has it that the Great War destroyed the authority and dignity of Church-based Christianity, as cheerleaders for the senseless atrocity. The war poets, and the subversive reinvention of hymns in Oh! What a Lovely War, suggest that the war turned for ever people's respect for organised religion.

But, as Frank Cottrell Boyce's feature described, the Church of England had much less bad a war than we have been led to believe. Part of the problem is Anglican hand-wringing at what the Church saw as a loss of influence, when what it couldn't see was the activity springing up around, for instance, the Gretna munitions settlement or the Brighton Pavilion hospital.

The C of E has come off particularly badly from the myth-making of the war poets: Robert Graves, for instance, described the futile part played by a C of E chaplain confined to working behind the front line.

In fact, as this documentary revealed, the Anglican presence on the Front was as vigorous as the other denominations; and church leaders did not take a credulous and uncritical view of the war effort.

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