November did not get off to a good start. There was Theresa May’s desperate, almost comically incompetent mishandling of the Brexit negotiations and the latest spate of lethal stabbings of teenagers by teenagers (now a daily occurrence). If those were not enough to make one wonder about the kind of country Britain is becoming or at least the fecklessness of the current establishment, there then came an unconfirmed report that a British government unreasonably fearful of our own minorities will not be offering political asylum to Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian facing murder for “blasphemy”. So like many people I was looking forward to Remembrance Sunday as a day of respite from rancour, and reconnection with the better angels of our national character.
Much to everyone’s surprise, this year’s Remembrance Sunday turned out to be a sunny, blue-skied, almost warm day. It made all the difference to the outdoor ceremonies: the national one at the Cenotaph and also the others held at local memorials to the dead of the two world wars, like the one I attended outside St Mary Abbots church in Kensington. This is, of course, the hundredth anniversary of the end of the Great War and also a year in which Armistice Day—the eleventh of November—coincides with the second Sunday of the month.
The centenary ought to have been a big deal and in many ways it was, with magazine covers, television programs and so on all devoted this month and this week to themes of war and memory. To a surprising degree some of the papers and television shows showed some awareness of what the novelist Sebastian Faulks called the “revisionist” historical view of the war. By this he meant the tendency, exemplified by scholars like Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, to question the semi-official orthodoxy about the Great War’s monstrous futility. It is an orthodoxy that took firm root after Oh What a Lovely War, is much influenced by the poetry of Owen and Sassoon, and is captured perfectly in the brilliant and ultimately poignant final season of the Blackadder comedy series. It is so entrenched that while most educated people could tell you about the catastrophe at Gallipoli and the disaster of the first day of the Somme, they might be hard pressed to name an allied victory or explain why the Germans eventually surrendered.
At its crudest, this is the cartoon version of the war in which half-witted toffs drink wine in chateaux for four luxurious years while millions of men languish in the trenches before being sent over the top to their deaths in an obviously hopeless effort to capture a few feet of muddy territory. The bloody horror grinds on simply because the generals were too stupid and callous to imagine any other strategy. If that were not bad enough, the whole agonising hecatomb is one in which, unlike the Second World War, all the suffering has no point at all and all the deaths are meaningless. No vital interests were at stake, still less any moral ones.
As Gary Sheffield and others have pointed out, one would probably be hard pressed to find many people in France (or Belgium), even on the extremes of the political spectrum, who are quite so blithe about the benign qualities of German militarism. But then the French and Belgians, still less the Canadians, Australians and Americans, don’t even play walk-on roles in this now-traditional “Blackadder view” of the war on the Western Front.
It is perhaps not surprising that Britons tend not to have much awareness of the ways that France commemorates the war, still less that French commemorations tend to be sombre in a very different way, with very little talk of futility and pointlessness.
What might be more surprising is that recent, much publicised attacks on Remembrance Day as a uniquely British and depressingly jingoistic and atavistic exercise have come from people you might expect to have some knowledge of the way Continentals think of and commemorate the great wars.
The author and Guardian columnist Sir Simon Jenkins, who is very much a member of the establishment (he is a former editor of the Times and former chairman of the National Trust) has been all over the television calling for an end to Remembrance Day. For him it is “a synthetic festival whose time has passed”. (Last year he called for its replacement with “a Forgetting day, a Move On day, a Fresh Start day”.) He fears that memorials to the nation’s wars “keep alive … old antagonisms and feuds” and therefore undermine the post-national European dream of which he is an ardent supporter.
Jenkins is one of many British pundits generally embarrassed by parades, pageantry, the last night of the Proms, and all the other dress-up traditions that he sees as cloying symptoms of an atavistic stuckness in the past, one that prevents the UK from becoming a truly modern country like France or Germany. Like the enduring public appetite in the UK for books about the Second World War, which Jenkins sees as deeply unhealthy, these practices all stoke a national consciousness, a triumphalism and a hostility to foreigners that are embarrassing and unconstructive.
The strange thing is that anyone who has spent Bastille Day in Paris and witnessed the Republic Guard trot by with their shiny helmets and horsehair plumes, making way for the Legionnaires in their kepis (and eventually the tanks and missile launchers), knows that the actually-existing French have no need to dispense with such gaudy relics of the past in order to feel or be “modern”. Nor if you take a vacation in countries like Italy, Spain, Germany and Austria do you have to spend much time outside your holiday villa or chalet before you encounter local people every bit as keen on traditional dress and preserving historical memory as the poppy-wearing Brits.
It is enough to make one wonder if there is an inverse relationship between ardent love of the “European Project” of the kind exemplified by the illustrious Sir Simon, and actual knowledge and experience of life and work in Europe. It is quite clear from his articles that he has little idea that commemorations like those of Remembrance Sunday are not some uniquely Anglo-Saxon fetish.
In any case, I suspect that Jenkins’s objections to sentimental, unconstructive British guff like bugles playing the Last Post and poppy-wearers being exhorted to remember young men “who shall not grow old as we that are left grow old” would have baffled most of the 150 or so people who stood at the corner of Kensington High Street and Kensington Church Street, facing the war memorial and churchyard there.
They were the usual pleasingly disparate crowd, though I recognised only a couple of people from past years: a tall, distinguished-looking gentleman in a tweed jacket and tie with a patch over his right eye, this year in a wheelchair: and a few feet away a handsome middle-aged Caribbean lady in a blue raincoat. In front of me there was a grey-haired biker couple, both wearing leather jackets covered in insignia; he gripped her hand tightly as the bugle played the Last Post. Next to them was a chic, French-looking family with two young children, all of them wearing poppies. As usual, the first lines of the national anthem were a bit weak and thin, but then it swelled and took off as embarrassment fell away.
With every year, the ceremony seems more moving. This may have something to do with your correspondent reaching middle age. The sadness and unfairness of so many dying in their late teens and early twenties appears worse when you look back from the perspective of four or five decades of life. You are also likely to have accumulated losses of your own, some from your own generation, so that the grief of those millions of people left behind, all those bereft parents, spouses, siblings, friends and children, does not require any great effort to imagine.
For the entire fifteen-minute ceremony, as I looked around at the solemn faces, white and black, young and old, the air seemed to hum with our connection to each other and our collective past. It was almost impossible to keep back the tears.
Yet at the same time, on the edge of consciousness there was a different kind of melancholy, a sense that those of us who had come together to take part in a local act of national mourning were enacting a ritual that belongs to a dying age and another country. All around us the traffic roared, tourists wandered by, runners sprinted to the park and families headed to brunch. In past years the police stopped the traffic for the two-minute silence. This year they did not bother, though there were more than enough policemen around to do it. After the last notes of the bugle faded away and before the vicar started to read Binyon’s “For the Fallen”, I asked one of the older officers attending the ceremony why this was. He told me with restrained bitterness that senior commanders had vetoed the idea, with the agreement of the local council. Then we both stood there in silence, on the corner of a little island of solidarity, grief, communal memory and respect amidst the noise of what for so many other people was just another sunny Sunday.
Jonathan Foreman is a journalist based in London.