A brief history of Remembrance

A quick thought on how Remembrance Day has developed over the years.

According to Wiki, the two-minute silence at 11 am on 11 November was first suggested by the Australian soldier and journalist Edward George Honey in a letter to the London Evening News. The idea found its way to King George V, who proclaimed a two-minute silence on 11 November 1919 and in subsequent years.

Between the wars, by all accounts, the two-minute silence was widely observed. However, in 1939 Remembrance Day was moved to the Sunday nearest to 11 November, and remained in that position after the second world war, as a combined memorial to the two world wars.

Remembrance Sunday became the most prominent commemoration of the world wars, with the two-minute silence on 11 November itself fading into history. (I can recall it being taught to us at school in the early 1980s as something that “used to happen between the wars.”)

The other effect of moving the commemoration to a Sunday is that it became an event centred largely on the church, especially the Church of England – with people processing between church and war memorial, scouts and cubs having a special church parade service, and so on.

I’m trying to recall when Armistice Day itself started to become more prominent. My recollection is of it being in 2004, the 90th anniversary of the start of the first world war – or “the Great War” as, significantly, it started to be called again more regularly.

The idea of a two-minute silence on 11 November was widely promoted by newspapers and taken up with considerable enthusiasm by many people. I’m guessing that there are a number of reasons why it struck a chord: it reminded people of the fading memories of the two great conflicts of the early twentieth century; it was a time when the present activities of our armed forces were very visible in Iraq and Afghanistan; and it perhaps made people aware of how their drift away from the Church of England had left Remembrance Sunday slightly marooned from the wider culture.

So Armistice Day came back into fashion, and on the whole I don’t think this was a bad thing. At first. However, what many of us didn’t notice at the time was that the revival of Armistice Day meant a secularisation of Remembrance; a “decoupling” of it from the church. Now again: it was inevitable, and not in itself a bad thing, that a secular society should decide it needed a secular form of Remembrance.

The problem is that nature abhors a vacuum. Remembrance began by royal proclamation, and then fell under the custodianship of the church. However, upon becoming independent of the church, it has become much more a creature of the media, who in some quarters seem to have taken it upon themselves to act as guardians and enforcers of True Remembrance.

As a result, Remembrance has taken on a more coercive air, with TV presenters and politicians excoriated for failing to wear a poppy, and messages like this coming from the police. It also feels more commercialised, with newspapers seeing it (and the controversies they stir up around it, such as over the “FIFA ban” on the England football team wearing poppies) as a means of selling more copies.

Not to mention this:

I rest my case.

One benefit of all this: perhaps it takes some of the pressure off Remembrance Sunday, which can remain a non-commercialised, largely non-political act of dignified remembrance, once the media circus that now surrounds 11 November has moved on. (Except next year, when the 11th is a Sunday…)

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