On Wednesday 11 November at 11am, I shall be standing by the village war memorial, leading the act of Remembrance. The memorial is beside quite a busy road, so the 2 minute silence will be subject to interruption, and in most years there are no more than 10 or so of us in attendance; this year, lockdown may mean that I am on my own. Of the five names on the memorial, three are still village names and at least one of those is usually represented by a member of the family. The rest of us will have our own thoughts, in my case of an uncle and of a grandfather, after whom I am named, both lost in the First World War.
I have attended the act of Remembrance with members of the armed forces, during the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those circumstances, it is particularly poignant at a military establishment, where those present are remembering friends and colleagues on active service. It is vivid, real and it matters.
However, increasingly over the years, a question has nagged in my mind. How long can the typical public commemoration, and the wearing of poppies, continue? Where it has personal meaning, I can understand it. Where it is an annual ritual, we should ask why we keep doing it? To the vast majority of the population, does it really serve as a reminder of the consequences of war – not just of the First World War, but of all those conflicts since? Or does it sometimes stray into jingoism (or worse) and celebration of military triumphs of earlier generations – forgetting about the losses?
The event started after the First World War, when the loss of a generation of young men, and the gaps in almost every family, made Armistice Day a moment for remembrance throughout the country. For almost everyone, it had that personal meaning. At national and international level, the “war to end all wars” left a determination that history should not be repeated. One outcome was the foundation of the League of Nations, as a way to prevent nations resorting to war to settle differences.
It didn’t of course. Twenty years later, my parents’ generation lived through the Second World War and, although the human cost to the United Kingdom was less, for others it was similarly devastating; ask a Russian about the Great Patriotic War. Again, a generation suffered loss, that touched almost everyone, and the moment of Remembrance continued to be something to which the population as a whole could relate. Again, nations resolved to settle differences without war and founded the United Nations. In Europe, in a speech at the University of Zurich in 1946, Winston Churchill described a United States of Europe. European statesmen set about binding their nations together to make war less likely: the Council of Europe in 1949, the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 and so on.
I belong to the incredibly fortunate generation, that has lived in a Europe that has been largely at peace for 75 years: the legacy of the determined effort by the founding fathers in the immediate post war years. Seventy years on from the first tentative steps, the European Union now includes states that were then behind the Iron Curtain: the Baltics were not even recognised as states. Countries that were dictatorships are now part of the family of democratic nations. EU members co-operate not just on a single market and economic integration, but on security, academic research, human rights and food safety to name a few. The EU also lays emphasis on developing cultural links and mutual understanding so that young people have opportunities through the Erasmus scheme. Those who died in the First World War may now be five or six generations back in our family histories and we can only guess at how they would respond to the changes that have taken place since their day. Would they be surprised that the European nations have evolved from conflict among themselves to co-operation? Would they understand what has been done to make war in Europe so much harder to imagine?
We have just torn up our membership card to the organisation that has worked so hard to promote peace in Europe.
But at least we keep wearing poppies.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”