Call to drop Remembrance Sunday causes a storm

Solemn: The Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge led tributes to the war dead, yesterday. © Getty

Should we stop marking Remembrance Sunday? Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee believes the day has been hijacked by nationalist nostalgia, but others say she is entirely missing the point.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the country fell silent for the 100th time in as many years.

As the cold winter sun shone down onto the Cenotaph in London, Prince Charles stepped forward to lay a wreath on behalf of his mother. The Queen looked on from a balcony, accompanied by the Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex. The quiet, solemn crowd included five former prime ministers.

When the wreath-laying was complete, 10,000 war veterans marched in procession past the war memorial. Second World War veteran Ron Freer, 104, who is blind, was the oldest among them.

It is now over 100 years since the guns fell silent at the end of World War One, and almost 75 years since D-Day. WW1 is as distant from us now as the Napoleonic wars were to those young men in the trenches. Only 4% of those who fought in WW2 are still alive today.

As these two wars that shaped the modern world begin to slip out of living memory, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee has queried how long we ought to go on remembering.

“Curiously, there seems to be more emphasis on all this nowadays than there was when I was young, when the wars were more recent and memories personally painful,” she writes.

From military marches to TV’s strictly enforced poppy policy, Remembrance Day has become a national pageant of “artificial memorialising”, she adds.

“What Remembrance Sunday all too often signifies is this: ‘Never forget that we won two world wars’,” writes Toynbee. “Britain, the victor, wallows in its old triumphs, forever pulled backwards.”

But the article provoked a storm of anger online, as people accused Toynbee of confusing the glorification of war with honouring those who fought and died for the freedom of millions. One user accused her of “totally missing the point with typical crassness”.

Last year, Liberal Democrat politician Ed Davey argued that those, like Toynbee, who suggest that remembrance is a nationalist exercise are mistaken. “There is nothing triumphant or boastful in the way we mourn the dead and pay our veterans the respect they deserve,” he wrote.

Is it time to move on from remembrance?

Lest we forget

Yes, writes journalist Simon Jenkins. He, like Toynbee, believes that too much remembering can trap us in the past. “Throughout history, societies that do this, that manage to ‘let the dead bury their dead’ have tended to succeed and move forward. Those that cannot forget, that wander the stony paths of their past and drink at the rancid well of grievance, are those that decay from within.”

But Davey passionately disagrees. Remembrance is not just about how we treat the past, but how we treat our veterans today. “There are 2.5 million former armed forces personnel in Britain”, many carrying “physical and psychological” scars that can lead to unemployment and homelessness. It is not “triumphalism” to remember that we must serve those who have served us — past, present and future.

You Decide

  1. Does remembrance have an expiry date?
  2. Can too much remembrance be a bad thing?

Activities

  1. What is the true meaning of remembrance? Write your answer in one sentence.
  2. Research a WW2 veteran, living or dead, and create a poster telling the story of their experiences.

Some People Say...

“The old lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.)”

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), British poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Remembrance Sunday is marked on the second Sunday of November, each year, to remember all those who have fought in armed conflicts since 1914. Armistice Day, however, which marks the anniversary of the end of WW1, always falls on 11 November. Last year, Britain observed the 100th Armistice Day.
What do we not know?
If remembrance has really lost its meaning. Aside from Toynbee, others (including sports journalist Tony Evans) disagree with the absolute insistence that all public figures must wear poppies on TV in November, arguing that the gesture loses its meaning if everyone is forced to wear one.

Word Watch

100th
It is 100 years since the first two-minute silence to mark the anniversary of Armistice Day.
Cenotaph
A war memorial on Whitehall in central London. The first memorial at the site was a temporary structure, put up during a peace parade at the end of World War One. The permanent structure was built in 1920.
D-Day
In June 1944, over 156,000 American, British and Canadian troops invaded Nazi-occupied France through the beaches of Normandy. The invasion led to the Allied victory in Europe.
Distant
The last British survivor to fight in the trenches of WW1 was Harry Patch, who died in 2009 aged 111.
Napoleonic wars
Between 1799 and 1815, France led by Napoleon Bonaparte had a series of major battles with its enemies, often led by Britain.
Crassness
Lacking refinement or sensitivity.
Nationalist
A person who strongly identifies with their nation and supports its interests above those of other nations.
Let the dead bury their dead
A phrase that Jesus says in the gospels of Matthew and Luke 9:60.

Subjects

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