Remembrance Day. Why do we remember and how can memory be controversial?

Today is, in England, Remembrance Day, where we stop for a minute silence to remember the dead from World War One and onwards. World War One could certainly be argued as one of the horrific conflicts we have seen in history, and it hardly surprising that a national day of remembrance was set up after the armistice.   This post will briefly discuss memory and how it can even be a controversial issue.

A question may be asked, why conflicts that were fought before this were not remembered in such a way? I think the answer lies with looking at the mentalities of the time, by examining the public knowledge of the war and knowing the cost of the conflict. The war saw a whole generation lost, whole communities destroyed, and many families left with no idea of what happened to their son/father/brother, with no body to bury. Thousands were dying in the battles that saw hardly any ground gained, it was a catastrophe for the world. This and the knowledge of what was going on, only created a desire for remembrance, films such as the Somme brought home the reality of warfare, women fainting; the famous propaganda film failed in its task, but rather showed how bad it was at the front, which increased the every growing sympathy with the troops. However WW1 was not the first war to be commemorated. For example, the Boer Wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries were the first wars where the common soldier was commemorated in memorials and plaques. And when we are looking back at the Crimean War of the 1850s, we notice the outcry in conditions, where public opinion was engaged with the war. Perhaps the remembrance ceremonies we now have are a continuous evolution of remembering warfare.

Another question people like to ask, is why do we remember, surely the war happened over a hundred years ago, what’s the point in all this ceremony and poppy wearing? Well as a historian, I Think the answer is rather clear. If we don’t remember the cost, the death, the horrific circumstances in which it came about, won’t we just repeat the same mistakes. Some people wear the White Poppy, a symbol of peace and anti-war connotations, this allows them to remember, but doing so within their own conscience . It can also be said that remembrance services are being used to portray nationalistic feelings, to promote one country or another. Remembrance can have a danger, that we use the past to push through an agenda, completely out of context, but portray it to support a certain cause. Therefore, when we remember, we shouldn’t do it to promote any political agenda, and our thoughts should be focused on those who died who died in two World Wars, and countless others conflicts that have happened since. Our focus should be on remembering the conditions they fought in, the problems that they faced, and why they faced them, and that we can think what we do, because of their sacrifice. I’ve certainly noticed an increase in nationalism in all of Europe, but could their also be a problem with people getting used to violence and death that we pump into people whether via films or games or the like, that as those who went to war in 1914 were naïve, couldn’t we be committing the same mistakes? After all they believed war to glorious, with heroic stories from the Empire filling their heads as they enlisted up to fight a war which they would mostly likely not return from.   Whether you agree or not, it is certainly something to consider as we remember.

Some people choose not to wear a poppy, due to what it resembles. I recently read an article on the BBC which suggested some don’t wear it due to it being about peer pressure, about commemorating the actions done in Ireland and so forth. It shows the controversial aspect that can relate to memory and remembering.

To conclude, when dealing with memory, the historian especially has to be careful, and determine why this is specifically being remembered and how is it being done. For the public, staying away from politicising remembrance is key as it is dangerous., however that does not mean we should stay away from it, remembering the past is important, and remembering the conflicts that changed the world are equally as important.   We may always remember Nelson, Wellington, Churchill, but let us remember the common soldier, sailor, they deserve it.

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