Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Future of Memory: Remembrance In Years To Come

Courseulles sur Mer, where my paternal grandfather Ivor Gooch came ashore during the invasion of Normandy (taken in 2013).
This post is a slightly amended version of an article originally published in 2015 on another website, now defunct. 

The end of an era

Amid the commemorations of the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings in summer 2014 came a poignant announcement: the official disbanding of the Normandy Veterans’ Association. I found this rather sad, not least because my grandfather was a D-Day veteran, who went ashore on Juno Beach with the 3rd Canadian Division.

What the disbanding really emphasised to me is that the Second World War is now a very long time ago. Its beginning in 1939 is further in the past from us than the Battle of Gettysburg was to people in 1939. This may seem like a banal observation, but it has been easy to forget how chronologically distant we are from the war because of its constant, powerful cultural presence in British life.

I suspect though that this presence may, at last, be diminishing. When I was born there were probably still hundreds of thousands of veterans of the Second World War in the workforce, some of them only in their mid- or late-fifties. Today, anyone who saw active service with British or Commonwealth forces in the war is now at least ninety, with the possible exception of some former boy seamen. Within twenty years, we will say the last goodbye to the last veteran of active service in that conflict (we passed that milestone with the Great War in 2009, when Harry Patch, “the Last Fighting Tommy”, died aged 111). Soon after that, the war will pass out of living memory altogether. Already in 2017, you need to be pushing 80 just to have any meaningful memory at all of any part of the war years.

This raises a question: what is the future of Remembrance? What should commemorations of our war dead look like in twenty or thirty or fifty years’ time?

One undoubted truth is that the number of people with a genuinely personal stake in Remembrance is declining. Britain lost well over one million men in the two world wars, which between them lasted slightly over 10 years. By contrast, the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, specifically designed as a memorial to British service personnel who have lost their lives on operations in the 70 years since the Second World War, records around 16,000 names. That’s a tragically high figure, an average of more than four per week every week since August 1945, but it is significantly lower than the 19,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers killed on the Somme on the worst day in British history, 1 July 1916.

Even during the recent fighting in Afghanistan, from 2001-14, when British forces were said to have been engaged in some of the most sustained and ferocious close-quarters combat since 1945, fewer than 500 soldiers were killed in action and 591 seriously or very seriously injured. It is not my intention to diminish the unique tragedy of each of those deaths and serious injuries. I simply note as a matter of empirical fact that only a very small proportion of families in modern Britain have experienced the loss of, or serious injury to, a family member in war. The armed forces, though still some of the most technologically advanced and effective in the world, are shrinking. All three branches have lost half their personnel strength since the end of the Cold War. Defence spending, which stood at nearly 5% of GDP just before the Falklands War, has declined to about 2% of GDP.

Britain is not the martial nation it once was. When Lutyens’ Cenotaph was dedicated on Thursday 11th November 1920, Britain was still the mother country of an Empire, a global superpower, albeit a seriously indebted one whose relative economic, military and industrial decline was well underway. She was secure and confident in what she stood for, and was an overwhelmingly Christian nation with a powerful shared culture. That country has gone for good. The last half century has seen a radical and unprecedented revolution in almost every part of British life. A great gulf has opened up between us and our grandparents. Moral convictions and attitudes which were commonplace among the generations that fought the two world wars—about sex, religion, the family, the arts, and patriotism—are now regarded with a combination of bafflement, hostility and mockery. Huge demographic changes are underway: about 1 in 8 current British residents were born abroad, a proportion which is only likely to rise for the foreseeable future (in 1951, it was fewer than 1 in 20).

A foreign country?

This is not the place to judge whether the changes mentioned above have been good or bad. The point is that they have taken place, which raises a difficulty with Remembrance, i.e. if, as seems to be the case, Remembrance is to some degree a celebration and reaffirmation of the nation as a whole, what is it that we are celebrating and reaffirming? The national identity crisis that has faced Britain since the loss of Empire and the rapid, sweeping social changes of the 1960s has become rather a cliché in political writing. But the reason why clichés become clichés is that they are true. Charles de Gaulle famously wrote  in the first line of his autobiography, Toute ma vie, je me suis fait une certaine idée de la France; “All my life, I have had a certain idea of France”, that is, he had some vision of what France stood for, her place in the world, her special qualities. We might then ask, what is our idea of Britain? In his various reflections on national identity, the philosopher Roger Scruton has stressed the importance of understanding what he calls “the first person plural”, the “we/us” feeling that constitutes a nation. The “we” that will exist in this country by the middle of the century will in many important respects bear almost no resemblance to the “we” that fought the world wars. Indeed, one of the oddities of Remembrance is the lavish tributes paid by modern politicians to past generations whose moral opinions and social norms they hold in utter contempt and spend the rest of the year castigating.

It can sometimes feel like Remembrance Sunday in particular is at least in part a conscious, or semi-conscious, valorisation of Old Britain, the Britain of Empire, muscular Christianity, monarchy, hierarchy, tradition. As the Royal Family watch from a balcony in George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Foreign Office building, a patrician bishop with a sonorous old-fashioned voice reads a poetic but plain Anglican service, and the long ranks of veterans give a lusty rendition of O God Our Help In Ages Past, before a military brass band plays marching songs that would mostly have been familiar to our grandparents, if not our great-grandparents.

It is this element of the ceremonies that gives many people pause. As a traditionalist conservative, it does not bother me particularly, but I can understand the argument that what should be a simple act of paying tribute to the war dead has become hopelessly entangled with a particular set of political and cultural values. One might wonder, for example, about the long-term future of an explicitly Christian ceremony in a country where churches are emptying and much of traditional Christian morality is regarded by the new establishment as ludicrous, damaging and bigoted.

Poppy abuse

I would not be at all surprised if some people’s uneasiness with “official” Remembrance has been further strengthened by two recent trends, both involving the Poppy Appeal.

The first is the politicisation of poppy-wearing, in the form of a kind of popular hyper-vigilance about whether people in the public eye are wearing one and whether they have the correct attitude to Our Brave Boys. There is a whiff of bullying in the air, what the newsreader Jon Snow calls “poppy fascism”. No politician dares be seen without a poppy from about mid-October onwards. Apparently it is not unknown for parliamentary Whips to hand them out to MPs as they enter the Commons chamber. In recent years, a handful of footballers of Irish descent who decline to wear a poppy design on their kit for understandable historical reasons have come in for abuse and condemnation. I suspect this desire to police other people’s attitudes to Remembrance has always been around to some degree—it is the same impulse that led to the white feather campaigns in the First World War—but the rise of social media seems to have both amplified and encouraged it, and made it easier to exploit other people’s reservations for political or ideological reasons.

This tendency doesn’t come from veterans themselves. It wasn’t ex-military men who denounced Jeremy Corbyn for not bowing his head correctly at the Cenotaph in 2015. I am quite sure that many veterans are ambivalent about the pomp and ceremony that accompanies remembrance. To return to my own family experience, my grandfather, a man of fairly conventional conservative opinions, ended the war extremely sceptical about politicians and never collected the campaign medals to which he was entitled.

As long ago as 1928, in her book The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club, the detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers put the following lines in the mouth of her hero Lord Peter Wimsey, a decorated veteran of the First World War:

“All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth. However, it don’t do to say so.”

Obviously there is no way of knowing whether this is or was a widely shared view among ex-service personnel. I would not be surprised if it were, although for many veterans the rituals of remembrance, and the associated organisations, are an important part of their life, fixed points in a rapidly changing world.

The second trend is the commercialisation of the poppy. There has always seemed to be something admirably democratic about the simple red poppy, which I recently discovered was designed in such a way that it could be assembled with only one hand, by amputees. But now the poppy is a brand. You can get giant poppies, sparkly poppies, headscarves, mugs, key-rings, wristbands and all sorts. In 2015, for example, Transport for London decked out some of their vehicles in poppy designs, and were offering a free meal-for-two to the person who shared the best picture of one. This kind of thing feels like a desecration, a mockery of the intended purpose of the poppy, which was to be a quiet personal gesture of solidarity and an encouragement to others to donate to the Royal British Legion.

The cult of imperial remembrance 

In its current form, Remembrance Sunday is the chief holy day of a quasi-religion, what you might call the cult of imperial remembrance. Central to this cult is the legend of the Second World War, which more than any other conflict is seen as The Good War.

Because it is The Good War, we don’t seem to talk much about the complicated bits, such as the frequently inept 1930s foreign policy that arguably took Britain into the wrong kind of war at the wrong time, or the fact that although we went to war to preserve Poland from brutal foreign tyranny—a fate which we had no earthly way of actually preventing in September 1939—that country, like most of central and eastern Europe, ended the war under the occupation of an equally brutal foreign tyranny, the USSR, who happened to be our ally. Our four-year alliance with Stalin, a dictator just as vicious and murderous as Hitler, calls into question the simplistic notion that the war was a straightforward fight for liberty and democracy.

Then there is the little matter of several hundred thousand dead German civilians, variously incinerated, vaporised and suffocated in indiscriminate area bombing by the RAF and USAAF. Even the lowest estimate for German civilian casualties from air raids, just over 300,000, is five times the number of British civilians killed by German bombing. One might also mention Allied complicity in the repatriation of the Cossacks to their grisly fate in Stalin’s USSR, and in the gruesome mistreatment by several countries of their ethnic German populations in the years after the war. Now you might argue that some or all of the above can be justified or defended, but that is beside the point. Their mere existence demands a more sophisticated understanding of British involvement in the war.

Even writing those few sentences feels a little like a betrayal. I feel the pull of the idealised version of the Second World War as much as anyone else. My grandfather spent seven years in uniform from 1938-45. My grandmother drove fire engines in London’s Luftwaffe-ravaged East End, in that grim Blitz winter of 1940-41. I grew up reading Biggles and Commando comics and watching The Battle Of Britain, Where Eagles Dare and The Great Escape on Sunday afternoons. I sang traditional British hymns in churches where union jacks and regimental colours stood proudly on the walls. In the Cubs and Sea Cadets I spent many hours standing proudly at war memorials on freezing November mornings. I can still remember how to sit down comfortably while wearing a bayonet scabbard on my belt. I am a conservative and a patriot.

But ultimately it is not enough to assert that Britain has fought with grit, honour, bravery and determination in largely just causes (which we have). We must look all the facts in the face if we are to understand ourselves and our past. And I sometimes fear that our current approach to Remembrance is part of a great web of tradition, myth, and misunderstanding which prevents us from doing so, as well as being increasingly unintelligible to modern people.

As noted above, this post was originally written in 2015. If I were to write it now I would expand on a couple of other points: 

1. How the increasing lack of personal connection between civilians and the military feeds in to a weird combination of popular attitudes - on the one hand, seemingly unending tolerance for political neglect of the forces, and on the other an artificial and uncritical adulation of all service personnel as "heroes".
2. How popular memory of the Second World War, and other conflicts, changes when almost all the living survivors are enlisted men and junior officers, rather than senior and mid-ranking officers. This is a big topic, though, and one on which I dare say more qualified people than me have already written.


  1. I like this. I served 23 years in the Army including the Falklands, Gulf War 91 and 9 NI tours. Now an English teacher and some days it's just like being back in the war zone but without the bullets... 8-) I see your point about vets not really being bothered about people getting excited about 'stuff'. True dat. We remember our mates, not the regimental battle honours. The British have never really gone for the "medal for crossing the Atlantic" mass issue of medals like the Yanks. Those we wear are earned not given away with the in flight catering 8-) We rarely get excited about the things we shared and they're hard to actually SHARE with people who weren't there.

    There's also this adulation of all soldiers as heroes which is VERY uncomfortable for those of us from the pre-Afghan era. We're like Kipling's Tommy in many ways - not all plaster saints! I do admire the young lads in my old regiment and what they've had to do in Afghan or Iraq since 2003 but there is definitely a loss of the golden thread of past victories, traditions and remembrance of those who have gone before etc and I and many of my mates just can't relate to the modern Regiment of Scotland in the same way we did with our own mob 1961-1994. Life goes on.

    I ill be there on 12th November by the local war memorial in my kilt and wearing medals. Many of my students will also be there; either as cadets or onlookers who are there to support their parents/grandparents. But you're right. Things WILL fade. Maybe that's as it should be.

  2. "How the increasing lack of personal connection between civilians and the military feeds in to a weird combination of popular attitudes - on the one hand, seemingly unending tolerance for political neglect of the forces, and on the other an artificial and uncritical adulation of all service personnel as "heroes"."

    It feels entirely artificial now. There's events where kids commemorate their great-great grandfather who fought in the Somme. But what's your emotional connection? You didn't know him, your parents didn't know him. You never met him, had physical contact or even had stories about him.

    It's about loss, gratitude and community. A family who lost a relative will grieve and remember. People will offer gratitude to those who fought. And community is about supporting those survivors and families. And you're right, this is no longer a great shared experience. I know a few veterans, but no-one who has really fought. Or even anyone who had a friend die in battle. I'm happy to spend a little money to support people, but I'd add nothing to those people showing up at the cenotaph.

    It's gone from a real, serious occasion to a festival of virtue signalling.