A FORMER Canon of St Paul's, the Revd Sydney Smith, addressed
Queen Victoria in a sermon on her accession to the throne. Her
task, above all else, was to guard against the "frantic folly" of
war: "Extinguish in your heart the fiendish love of military glory.
. . Say upon your death-bed, 'I have made few orphans in my reign -
I have made few widows - my object has been peace.'" Remembrance
has become a season. First confined to 11 November, then to the
nearest Sunday, then to both, it has spread earlier each year from
the first blooming of a poppy on a lapel in mid-October.
Politicians, newsreaders, and all in the public eye depend upon
their personal assistants to protect them from the ignominy of
appearing without a poppy. Smith's admonition of Queen Victoria is
apposite. The draw of military action is an ever present temptation
to a government. Often the motives are of the best. Many areas of
the world are broken, in the grip of evildoers who use military
might to impose their will. What better remedy than to use our own
soldiery to face down the bullies and rescue their victims?
But what better reminder of the cost of such a course than the
symbol of a red wound near the heart of every politician? In this
way, the dead of past wars can still have a voice in contemporary
politics, doing their bit to protect the lives of their children
and grandchildren. What those voices say is not straightforward:
although monuments have begun to be built for civilians, the poppy
is a symbol associated with combatants. The dead are honoured as
soldiers, and yet they are also victims. It is important to believe
that their lives were lost in a good cause; yet it is acknowledged
that many died as a result of political and military blunders of
the highest order. Their message to politicians is subtle, too.
Remembrance Sunday is not a great anti-war rally, though this would
be a perfectly logical development. Certainly it should be nearer
this than a celebration of military prowess, which it sometimes too
closely resembles. Instead, its message to the Government of the
day is this: use your weapons of peace - your economic power, your
wiliness, your ability to make alliances, your long-term strategic
planning, your intelligence-gathering, your example - and you might
still have to use military power; but only very occasionally, and
as a last resort.
It is fitting that the iconography of national remembrance stems
from the First World War. The numbers of dead and injured were so
vast, the impact on whole nations so great. In 1915, the nation did
not mourn the dead of the Battle of Waterloo, 100 years earlier.
Total casualties suffered by both sides in 1815 were 47,000. The
British alone lost 60,000 in one day on the Somme. The installation
at the Tower of London works because it reminds spectators of the
great cost in lives. Acts of remembrance help to ensure that
disregard for human life on such a scale will never recur.