They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. But at the going down of the sun and in the morning, who and what should we remember?— Robert Laurence Binyon, “For the Fallen”
This 11 November will mark the centenary of the Cenotaph, the UK’s national war memorial in Whitehall. It replaced a temporary construction erected at the end of the First World War. As the permanent structure was being built, memorials were being constructed across the UK on every village green and town square. Just as you can triangulate yourself in physical space using the stone obelisk trig points that sit on top of prominent hills, always in line of sight of two other such points, if the view from green to green or square to square were unobstructed, you would be able to use these memorials to locate yourself in the national consciousness. The Cenotaph is the sacred key stone of that consciousness. Every November, we project our national narrative onto its bare white Portland stone as the cynosure of our remembrance activities.
This year, the Cenotaph was also the site of protest and its vandalism caused significant upset. There has been intense debate over the appropriateness of some of our historical statues and memorials. The furore is part of a wider debate around how society remembers and the influence our past has on our present. Our memories are fundamental to defining who we are: they give us coherence. They are the foundations of the narrative we create about ourselves. This is true of both individuals and groups.
These recent debates challenge us to reflect on what, who and why we remember. Is remembrance an act of mourning, a duty to those we owe a debt, a recognition of shared values and identity or a way of learning from and recognising the victims of past crimes? According to philosopher Avishai Margalit, moral nightmares like the Holocaust must remain in our collective memories as an act of duty not just to the victims, but to all mankind. For Margalit, there’s an imperative to remember. But what should we remember? Remembrance falls between personal memorialising, first-hand and inherited memories and objective history, linking the specifics of individual memory to the general of collective consciousness. It involves subjective interpretation, as past acts are imbued with different meanings by individuals and states, losers and winners, victims and perpetrators. But is remembering also a moral act? Philosopher Cecile Fabre believes that “you have a moral responsibility to make sure that you remember the right people.” Remembrance shouldn’t be about what is most flattering or most politically expedient to remember, but about what it is right to remember.
When troops marched past the first temporary Cenotaph, Fabien Ware, founder of the Imperial War Graves Commission, noted that if the Empire dead had marched four abreast down Whitehall it would have taken this ghost army of slaughtered poets and doomed youth three and a half days to pass through. There was no triumphalism or singing of victory songs. Ware had been too old to fight, so he commanded an ambulance unit instead. He began marking and recording the graves of the fallen, taking on the responsibility of ensuring that they were remembered—as equals in death. The architect behind the Cenotaph was Edwin Lutyens. Lutyens and Ware wanted a secular memorial to create an equality of remembrance and bring those in mourning together regardless of class or creed. This wasn’t how British soldiers of the past had been treated. There are no cemeteries for those who fell at Waterloo or Agincourt, since only the generals made it home to be immortalised. The families of soldiers have always mourned their loved ones, but they had no public memorials. As novelist William Makepeace Thackeray writes, soldiers used to be, “shovelled into a hole … and forgotten.”
At a basic level, remembrance is how we understand and move on from the most traumatic of experiences. The Germans call it Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, “working through the past.” After the Great War, the incomprehensible scale of grief had to be made sense of, so memorials were erected and the departed were sent on one final parade to holes in military cemeteries—absent platoons rendered in ordered, seemingly infinite lines of white crosses, as if the orderliness of the cemeteries could undo the chaotic destruction those buried within had endured. Writer Geoff Dyer has suggested that soldiers marching in 1919 were surrogates for those submerged in the mud of Flanders. Remembrance provides spaces and occasions to mourn as individuals and communities. Most families of the fallen were unable to visit distant graves, but they could at least touch the cold communal stone and run their fingers over the names of their loved ones: it provided a physical anchor amid a void of absence. The ceremonies and spaces of remembrance have become sacred. They are secular but spiritual places, treated with a reverence befitting their centrality to the identity of the nation. Those vandalising the Cenotaph must understand that their actions, therefore, are desecration, whatever their intent.
But those who hold such spaces sacred must recognise that they have become associated with a certain type of patriotism, and that no nation’s identity is homogeneous or fixed. There is now an insistence that everyone needs to take part in Remembrance Day, unquestioningly, or risk being accused of not being truly British. Ever since Pericles, in his funeral oratory, praised the war dead of fifth-century Athens to encourage others to keep on fighting, remembrance has been used for political purposes. In what is known as poppy fascism, every year people in the public eye are shamed for not wearing a red British Legion poppy or being reverential enough towards the dead. Remembrance Sunday in the UK has become less a time for reflection on those lost and more of an opportunity to display this type of patriotism, which is linked to nostalgia, but also used to drive current politics.
Remembrance also plays a role in our collective anemoia, our nostalgia for a time we’ve never known. Memory and imagination are usually thought of as separate activities, but, according to Felipe De Brigard of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, studies have confirmed that both engage the same network in the brain. Nostalgic states are not limited to autobiographical memories but can contain imagined memories of an idealised past. The current politics of nostalgia uses propaganda about the way things were to provide people with the right materials to conjure up such imagined memories. When we look back at the two world wars, we reverentially remember the character of the troops who fought in them, rather than questioning why the military and political leaders under whom they died forced them to show such character. This may be why our venerated troops are still sent off, under-manned and under-resourced, to die needlessly in overseas conflicts today and why the key findings of the Chilcot enquiry are unknown or ignored by the wider public. One way to counteract this anemoia and the lack of understanding of the strategic and systemic failures that led to the start or prolongation of previous conflicts, is to examine more carefully how and what we remember.
To succumb to anemoia is to forget the British traditions of self-depreciation and questioning of authority. In “On Passing the New Menin Gate,” Siegfried Sassoon claims that the dead who struggle in the slime will “Rise and deride this sepulchre of crime,” referring to the new memorial to the missing in Ypres. Sassoon objected to the glorification of the suffering of his comrades. His poetry conveys the ugly truth of the trenches to a public he believed were patriotically unaware. He wanted us to remember accurately, not cling to some rosy-eyed memory that would betray the experience of those we claim to value. The work the poets of the First World War left us is perhaps the greatest memorial to the lost generation.
And, as philosopher Michael J. Sandel notes, with belonging comes responsibility. Those who take pride in the history of the groups to which they belong and in the traditions and past victories of those groups, should own their past failures and mistakes too. In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez writes that “the heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burden of the past.” As a society, we employ the same artifice, forgetting that we have inherited moral burdens as well as a sense of pride. There are few physical spaces that commemorate the worst crimes of the British Empire or memorials to its victims and even fewer occasions on which wider society recognises either. It’s possible to both recognise and celebrate the heroism and sacrifice of those that came before us and reflect on the wrongs our nation has committed. This is not rewriting history but revising our understanding of it.
In 1919, the German War Graves Commission proposed a Volkstrauertag (people’s day of mourning) for soldiers killed in the First World War. In 1934, the National Socialists created a Heldengedenktag (Day of Commemoration of Heroes), shifting the emphasis from reflection to hero worship. The Nazis used the dead as a political tool, claiming that they had been betrayed by Jews, Communists and a conspiracy of the victorious foreign nations. Germany wanted to move on from the memory of failure in one war by attempting to win another. After the Second World War, the Volkstrauertag was reinstated in place of the Heldengedenktag. Its date was changed to the end of the liturgical year, a time devoted to thoughts of death, time and eternity. Its scope was widened to include civilians who died at the hands of an oppressive government. Germany has attempted to move on from its past through a programme of remembrance and reconciliation. Germans now remember their war dead, but the swastika is banned, Holocaust denial is a crime, school curricula have been rewritten to include anti-racist material and there are federally funded memorials that acknowledge German war crimes, such as the Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is very different from putting figures from the past who were responsible for great wrongs on literal pedestals, with no acknowledgement of those wrongs. It places them in a clear context that unambiguously demonstrates our present view of them.
Germany has taken responsibility for its moral failures and made efforts to ensure that its citizens are remembering the right people. France has taken similar steps. There’s now a plaque on the façade of every Parisian school from which Jewish students were taken during the occupation. The immediate post-war narrative was that of a France united in its resistance to the Nazis. It’s now acknowledged that it was French police who put children on the trains to Auschwitz. If we remember the ideals we were fighting for, rather than the people we were fighting against, we can also recognise when we’ve fallen short of those ideals. We can protect those ideals when they are threatened even if the threat comes from our own government. The writer Milan Kundera claims that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Germany’s rethinking of remembrance was forced on it by its loss. German far right parties still exist today, indicating that the Germans still have some way to go, but that doesn’t prevent us learning from them. We can learn not just how to remember but also how much to remember.
David Rieff, who reported on some of the worst years of the Balkan war, believes that it was the inability to forget that drove the conflict. Having witnessed the use of historical grievances, such as the seventeenth-century siege of Vienna, as motivation to fight, Rieff asserts that “almost all the conflicts in the world are caused by too much remembering: refreshing religious divisions, tribal feuds, border conflicts, humiliations and expulsions.” What else but memory, Rieff asks, causes Sunni to fight Shia and Hindu to fight Muslim: “For everything must end, including the work of mourning … otherwise the blood never dries, the end of a great love becomes the end of love itself, and, as they used to say in Ireland, long after the quarrel has stopped making any sense, the memory of the grudge endures.”
This is what happens when there is remembrance without reconciliation. We should seek to understand the historical truth as to what crimes were committed. Injustices should be established and recognised publicly. It’s crucial, however, that this is done even-handedly, for all sides involved in the conflict. Grudges are more likely to persist when your foes’ crimes are remembered but yours are forgotten. Truth and reconciliation commissions that have been successful in Argentina, Northern Ireland and South Africa have tried to balance the need for justice for those who have suffered against the need to avoid future injustices. These processes are designed to help groups recognise injustices, but ultimately let go of their grudges. The challenge is to acknowledge the injustice and move past it, whilst honouring the memory of the victims of injustice through remembrance, as Margalit demands. The two tasks are not antithetical, though they always exist in uneasy tension.
One of the purposes of the Last Post in Remembrance Day ceremonies is to summon the spirits of the fallen to the Cenotaph. We should create societies that would satisfy the fallen, if they could come back to life and see what we have built on the basis of their sacrifice. We must understand how our past shapes our present and acknowledge that Fabre is right: choosing what to remember is a moral decision. Our past defines us, but we are constantly rewriting the past to support the narratives of the present, even when that past is written in stone and cast in bronze. We should honour our fallen and remember their sacrifice, treating the spaces where we hold their memorials as sacred, but also remember all victims of state action or inaction, no matter how painful that may be because, of course, if we do not learn from our past, we remain doomed to repeat it.
Andy donated his fee to the British Legion
What a profound and thought-provoking treatise on Remembrance. Thank you. At this time when the usual rituals of Remembrance are curtailed by Covid, it feels especially vital that a real and respectful investigation of what it means should occur.
Thanks for a very fine essay.
Fantastic read. I was born 1980’s and remember singing remembrance songs wearing a poppy in first school. As you say, it was mourning, sadness, reflection. I felt that as a young boy and it is what I carry with me. A necessary part of remembering war and our history as a nation.