The Changing Meanings of Remembrance Day: A History

It started as a temporary structure,
An edifice of wood and plaster,
A “Cenotaph”, a monument to the dead,
In Whitehall, November, 1919;
An outpouring of grief and garlands,
Bouquets, wreaths, flowers, silence and tears
Ornamented the stark, new monument,
Until Lutyen’s Portland Stone Cenotaph
Was ready for November 1920.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, near Arras,
Four bodies were exhumed and one chosen,
For the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior;
War memorials followed throughout the land,
Cemeteries in Northern France and Belgium,
With wistful battlefield tours and visits,
As the dead were resurrected with mediums,
Or long, uniform rows of uniform gravestones.

At home – depression, riots and the dole,
The Charleston and the Jazz Age;
This was when the British Legion was formed,
A fusion of groups, led by Earl Haig,
18,000 members, 300,000 by 1929,
With 8 million people wearing a poppy,
(Cotton three pence, silk, a shilling);
The Empire Field of Remembrance followed,
With artificial poppies and wooden crosses,
Whilst all across the entire country:
The solemnity of Remembrance Day,
A British tradition formed in the twenties,
When there were just 30 “Thankful Villages”,
Those parishes where all the men returned,
But everywhere else, war memorials:
Crosses, village halls, public hospitals,
Parks, recreation grounds, statues,
Or ornate architectural rolls of honour,
But wherever, whoever and whatever,
Every November 11th, only a tubercular cough,
A train buffering up or railway whistle
Would disturb the funereal silence,
Until the BBC unified the whole nation,
In an act of collective radio remembrance;

The 1930s saw more innovation:
The British Legion replacing soldiers,
When parading on Armistice Day,
And 5,000 white poppies appeared,
As fear of another war cast its shadow,
Although 40 million red poppies
Were worn in that same year, 1938, –
But one year later, on September 3rd,
The air raid sirens started.

Armistice Day’s redemptive power waned
In the Second World War, with new deaths and wounds
For a new generation, as well as the old,
And even though half a million men still received disability allowances,
From the consequences of the first conflict,
Objections were made to the continuance
Of Armistice Day, although muted observation
Drifted on through the six years of the new struggle,
Until, post-war, the Day was switched to Sunday,
To the pleasure of C of E traditionalists;
But the collective work time silent bonding
Of the secular working week was impaired and attenuated,
As Remembrance became part of the 1950s –
When it always rained on drab Sunday streets.

The swinging sixties saw further social changes,
CND, The Cold War, “O What a Lovely War!”
The threat of nuclear war, a new multiculturalism,
The end of Empire, the death of Churchill,
The Kings Road annexation of Lord Kitchener,
The dandy appropriation of scarlet uniforms,
Left wing, long- haired students wearing army greatcoats,
Mods sporting the Union Jack and the RAF roundel,
It all seemed to mark the end of an era:
Many believed Remembrance Day would just wither away,
Even while so many men above the age of fifty or so
(I can still see you, dad),
Would spend a November Sunday morning
In front of a black and white TV screen,
Watching the broadcast from Whitehall,
Some still shedding tears.

But “The Great War” series on television,
With a revival for the War Poets,
With new anthologies and syllabuses,
Coupled with the visible loss of the Great War generation,
All meant a new upsurge in interest –
The growth of Great War battlefield tours,
Commemorative anniversaries,
The boom in DIY family history;
Then Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan,
New conflicts affecting new generations,
Led to the reintroduction of silence
On each November 11th from 2002:
Once more, a display of public emotion,
A new collective British self-discipline,
Signifying that for some, Remembrance Day
Maintained continuities in a changing world,
Whilst for others, it marked a new militarisation of our society,
An unprecedented militarisation of civil society:
I always used to wear a red poppy,
To remember the sacrifices of my grand father and my dad,
Then I took to wearing a red and a white,
Now just a white.