The bow that launched a thousand tweets

Nod to the past: The Labour leader courted controversy with this gesture. © PA

This time he DID sing the national anthem. But now a storm is raging over Jeremy Corbyn’s very stiff bow at the Cenotaph yesterday. Why is Britain so touchy about remembrance this year?

‘In memory of those who gave everything for our freedoms and our way of life. They will not be forgotten.’ (Cameron)

‘In memory of the fallen in all wars. Let us resolve to create a world of peace.’ (Corbyn)

Two notes attached to the wreaths laid yesterday at the Cenotaph by our Prime Minister and official leader of the opposition. Note the difference. The royalist militarist Prime Minister sees war as a means to an end, freedom. The republican pacifist Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn sees war as a terrible failure, the failure of peace.

And then there was the bow. As he laid his wreath at the Cenotaph, the war memorial in London’s Whitehall, Cameron bowed deeply. Corbyn also laid a wreath but his bow was barely visible.

‘Take it Corbyn hurt his neck’ came one of the first of a stream of critical comments on Twitter.

At yesterday’s Remembrance Sunday service veterans in uniform marched. A military band played the Last Post, a bugle call for dead soldiers. The national anthem was sung (even by Corbyn who was last month under heavy attack for failing to join in). And those in attendance wore red poppies, which are sold by the Royal British Legion to raise money for the wounded and the families of the fallen.

But Corbyn has previously said red poppies are part of ‘an almost mawkish festival’ and has often worn a white one as an anti-war statement. In 2013 he questioned the decision to spend ‘shedloads’ commemorating the World War One (WW1) centenary, saying: ‘I’m not sure what there is to commemorate other than the mass slaughter of millions’. And he reminded the public of his views by deciding to read ‘Futility’, a poem by Wilfred Owen, a fierce critic of the war in which he fought and died, at a separate service yesterday.

Lest we forget

‘There were so many left behind,’ said one veteran yesterday, ‘and they need special remembrance’. Traditionalists agree: our focus on Remembrance Sunday should be marking the sacrifice of those who died. Remembrance is a chance for Britons to pause and reflect that they owe their democracy and freedom to heroes who fought and gave their lives. The Cenotaph bears the inscription ‘The Glorious Dead’ not once but twice.

To others the idea of ‘heroes’ and ‘glorious dead’ sticks in the throat. WW1 was a murderous conflict which killed 16 million people and caused unimaginable suffering. Its anniversary should remind us that war is a mad, pointless human invention, and reinforce our resolve not to let it happen again. Wilfred Owen put it like this: If you knew what war was really like ‘you would not tell with such high zest, to children ardent for some desperate glory, the old lie; Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.’

You Decide

  1. Have you bought a red poppy? Why, or why not?
  2. Should Britain be proud of its remembrance traditions?

Activities

  1. Draw a poppy in the middle of a page. Around it, write at least ten words you associate with war in general and WW1 in particular. Colour code them to show which are positive or negative.
  2. Find out about two people with very different stories to tell from WW1 (ideally from your town or village). Then write an exchange of letters between them. Use the links under ‘Become An Expert’ to help.

Some People Say...

“War is never justified.”

What do you think?

Q & A

World War One happened 100 years ago. I’m a teenager. Does it really affect me?
The war brought together forces which still have great relevance including extreme nationalism (making the needs of one’s nation the most important cause), imperialism (the expansion of empires) and militarism (prioritising military needs over others). It can teach us a lot. Your ancestors are also likely to have been involved.
But has it changed the way people live?
The war had a major impact on British society. The loss of nearly a million men still leaves a scar on the nation’s psyche. It taught people how to live through a very traumatic period. It advanced medical research, including into mental health issues. And it is widely credited with helping to change the legal and social standing of women.

Word Watch

Remembrance Sunday
This falls on the second Sunday in November, marking the anniversary of the armistice which ended WW1 on 11 November 1918.
Red poppies
The annual Poppy Appeal precedes Armistice Day. In 2014 — the 100th year since the outbreak of WW1 — it raised £45m and more than five million people visited an installation of red poppies at the Tower of London.
Wilfred Owen
His most famous piece, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, included graphic detail of a soldier’s death in a gas attack. Owen was killed on 4 November 1918; his parents were told the news on 11 November, as others celebrated the end of the war.
Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori
Latin for ‘it is sweet and right to die for one’s country’. From an ode by Horace.
Pacifists
Believing war cannot be justified, they call for the settlement of disputes by peaceful means. Corbyn, who has campaigned against military deployments throughout his political career, recently said it was ‘hard to define’ whether he was a pacifist but added that he had ‘a very high threshold of saying I would not wish to be involved in armed conflict’.

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