Opinion Articles

The Complicated History of Remembrance

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War commemoration in the UK, as we know it, is the product of a series of experiments and evolutions.  Between 1919 and 1926 the two minute silence and the ceremony on 11 November at the new Cenotaph, along with the wearing of the red poppy and the British Legion Festival of Remembrance all emerged. Each was retained as it proved popular. Relatedly, the Church of England developed services for Remembrance Sunday on the nearest Sunday to 11 November, but this was of secondary significance.

The Second World War saw the cancellation of the main national commemorations on 11 November and after the war there was a conscious decision to shift commemoration from 11 November to Remembrance Sunday,, which would now be the occasion of the ceremonial wreath laying at the Cenotaph. Whilst some observance of Armistice Day continued at a local level from 1946 until 1994 national commemoration was focused on the Royal British Legion festival on the Saturday night before the commemorative and the Cenotaph ceremonies, which now included the national two minute silence on Remembrance Day, the nearest Sunday to 11 November. The shift to Sunday commemoration emphasised the involvement of church and veterans to a greater extent than the pre-war practice.

The 1994 and 1995 fiftieth anniversaries of the D-Day landings and of V-E and V-J Day saw a renewed interest in commemoration, now more focused on the ageing veterans of the Second World War.  The Royal British Legion actively lobbied for the renewed observance of a two minute silence on 11 November, once again presented not as a permanent institution and once again renewed after it turned out to be very successful. Since then, the silence has been observed on every 11 November whichever day of the week it falls. The ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan gave an additional boost and to some extent a shift in meaning to Remembrance in the early part of the twenty-first century, whilst the centenary of the First World War extended ‘remembrance culture’ much more widely during the years 2014-2018. With British forces withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan and with the impact of Covid on public events there has been a marked diminution of intensity in general public involvement in commemoration over the last few years.

The main emphasis at the outset was to acknowledge the loss of families in the cause of victory and to promote the specific imagination of shared imperial loss. Indeed, the suggestion of the two minutes silence came to the War Cabinet from a senior South African administrator. The Cenotaph was explicitly a memorial to the imperial dead and designed by a great architect of Empire. The silence was observed ‘Empire wide’ and the services always highlighted imperial involvement.

Commemoration was undoubtedly intended to promote national unity in the face of the severe social and political upheaval of the immediate post war years. Yet it is doubtful that it would have succeeded so widely if the public had simply absorbed a conservative political message – there was room for imbuing a wider range of individual meanings within the collective ceremony. In particular from quite early on there was an aspirational ‘pacificistic’ dimension to commemoration. Whilst victory in the war was acknowledged, the meaning of this victory was closely tied to the hope of a peaceable world. This was a period where tremendous hope and even faith was placed on the newly created League of Nations and the quickly associated itself with commemoration. The idea that remembering the war dead was also a pledge to work for peace established itself early and intensified by the late 1920s.

From the start there were tensions and exclusions in commemoration. Prior to Vatican II, (1962-5), there was no possibility of official ecumenical involvement by the Roman Catholic church in state commemoration. The Chief Rabbi was a regular participant in the Cenotaph service but the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster was not.

In the early years of commemoration there had been regular protests by militant sections of the ex-service community. In 1922 there was a memorable march by the unemployed to the Cenotaph after the official ceremonies on 11 November where veterans wore pawn tickets instead of medals. There were frequent local protests on the same lines. At the same time there was a rejection of Armistice Day solemnity by other veterans, who wanted a more straightforward victory celebration of their achievements. Through much of the 1920s there were regular ‘Armistice Day Balls’ where veterans partied to mark the anniversary of the ceasefire. These came under attack as the decade wore on as disrespectful and inappropriate, which was a major impetus towards their replacement by the consensus of a  ‘Festival of Remembrance’.

There was also a minority of veterans who rejected the ‘sanitisation’ of war commemoration, most notably the poet Siegfried Sassoon who wrote angrily about the memorial at the Menin Gate as a ‘sepulchre of crime’. The tenth anniversary of the war’s end in 1928 and the boom in publications of ‘disillusionment’ began a turn in Armistice Day commemoration towards more explicit pacifism, a view that was even to some extent embraced by the British Legion. From the 1930s onwards there has been a pacifist tradition of generally respectful protest symbolised by the White Poppy worn in memory of all war victims beginning with the Women's Co-Operative Guild and Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s and continuing with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). More militant leftwing groups have been more aggressively critical over the years.

Political controversy from the other direction can be found in the attempts since the 1970s of the National Front and then the British National Party to co-opt the cause of commemorating the war dead as being specifically a white nationalist cause with an annual Remembrance march to the Cenotaph. This has generally been unpopular with the public but was allowed by the police.

Irish Republicanism from the start positioned itself as opposed to commemoration. Their  opposition climaxed in the bombing of a Remembrance service at Enniskillen in 1987. The wide backlash against the death of civilians at a solemn ceremony led to a toning down of some of that opposition during the peace process, which ironically the reaction to the bombing may have in fact have advanced .

The start of the process of modern Conservative Party appropriation of Remembrance as a ‘culture war’ issue can probably be found in the press attacks on CND supporting Labour leader Micheal Foot for his ‘scruffy appearance’ at the Cenotaph in 1981 (he was wearing an overcoat over his suit). Attempts by the Conservative party and press to attack Labour politicians and others as insufficiently respectful and patriotic have continued intermittently since. This rhetoric can end up feeding off and amplifying marginal contrarians, such as Islamist radicals burning poppies for shock value.

 As the survivors and immediate family members of the First World War generation have died, followed by those of the Second World War, the ceremonies have become related in the public mind less to individual grief and more to ‘national pride’. The long standing tradition in which Remembrance was seen as bound to an aspiration for world peace can still be found in some of the rhetoric but is having trouble cutting through.

It is easily arguable, however, that nothing could be more damaging to the future sustainability of commemoration than a generally unpopular government trying to impose a narrow orthodoxy on the correct meaning of Remembrance and particularly one which tries to ignore real elements of internationalism, dissent and pacifism in the history of commemoration.

The difficulties surrounding the current mass protests are real – the demand for a ceasefire can be seen as closely related to some of the most established historical traditions of the day. An Armistice is literally a ceasefire - albeit of a complex variety. The appropriateness of other elements in the protests might be more questionable and there is a very real risk of extremist elements deliberately choosing to offend. This ought to be a matter for regular policing enforcing existing laws as well as careful protest stewarding. Attempts to pre-emptively suppress protest may make such offence more rather than less likely.  Saturday 11 November and Remembrance Sunday are not the same. The two minute silence on 11 November is intended as a pause in a normal day, the rest of which can be used for normal activities – which logically includes time sensitive protest. The term ‘Remembrance Weekend’ a neologism used by politicians this year with the close proximity of 11 November and Remembrance Sunday muddies the waters on this.

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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