Today is Remembrance Day, the day the UK, Belgium and France commemorate the end of World War 1 and honour those who died in all wars. With growing numbers of dead, and controversy about foreign involvement in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it seems particularly poignant this year. Or perhaps I’m just growing old. My great uncles fought in and survived World War 1. I remember photos and certificates in Uncle Gavin’s house, and a musty uniform in the garden shed. There’s a photo somewhere of me wearing his army hat.
This year Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier of the British Forces to have fought in the trenches of the Western Front, died; perhaps the last “living link” to WW1.
I’ve been listening to BBC World and two items connected to memory particularly struck me.
One was an item about the rather amazing Wootton Bassett, the corteges bearing the repatriated bodies of soldiers who died at war pass through this town on their way to the cemetery. As they pass the church bell tolls and the locals stop what they are doing and line the streets for the passing of the hearses. There is no official plan for this, no rule, no ceremony; just a very humble showing of respect for the men and women who died and their families. It’s powerfully moving in its simplicity.
The second item was part of the Witness series and was about Remembrance Day (the podcast is available here). According to historian Peter Parker the very first “remembrance”, in 1919 was also unplanned and spontaneous. It was also largely focussed on the widows and orphans, and honouring their loss. It was only the following year that it became a formal ceremony following the building of the tomb to the unknown soldier.
Similarly the people of Wootton Bassett are resisting attempts to formalise or change their town. Someone has proposed that the main street be renamed “Avenue of the Heroes”, but the town is resisting. As one person said “we’d like it best if we did not have to do this any more and could return to normal.
Harry Patch, who called the formal celebrations of Remembrance Day “just show business”, might agree.
Thanks to technology we can still hear the voices of the survivors, it is a step removed from a living history, but it is more than any previous generation has had. However there is something important about the very human response to memory shown by the people of Wootten Bassett. Part of its impact comes from the spontaneous nature of their act, and I think part of it comes from the ephemeral nature. When it’s no longer needed it will no longer happen. It only has meaning in this time.