Remembering?

It’s November 11th, but are we remembering?

I took a walk round the centre of Huddersfield today, counting. Of the hundreds of people I passed, only five were wearing poppies. All were elderly.

There were no medalled veterans waving poppy trays and jingling collecting tins at you, as there used to be. Eventually I came across a stall selling poppies quietly in the Kingsgate Centre. It was not getting much business.

On the other hand, I was in that excellent store, Wilco’s at 11 a.m., when a voice came over the tannoy announcing that the tills would close for two minutes for Remembrance. (It didn’t say remembering what.) Most of us stood still, but come people were still wandering about the aisles. One lady was striding busily with her shopping basket until she came across a few of us standing still, towards the end of the two minutes. She rather shame-facedly slowed herself down.

Huddersfield has no war memorial in the middle of town. (Though there is a huge and impressive one in Greenhead Park, which will host a big ceremony on Sunday.). One thing I’ve been fascinated by in the past is how the quite secular Market Cross gets co-opted as a memorial at certain times. The murder of Lee Rigby a few years ago brought wreaths, poems and tributes, and so did a painful episode where an incurably ill small boy was about to have his life support system turned off. Over the past few years there have been an increasing number of Remembrance offerings there at the start of November. Small wreaths, small crosses. This year that seems to have become semi-official, with a handsome stand where crosses can be planted, and with wreaths from the British Legion and from Morrisons, our local supermarket chain.

But as I suggested, the custom of individuals wearing a poppy seems to have receded considerably. Last year, of course, the lockdown messed everything up, and maybe that broke the chain of custom.

Perhaps also, many people feel they got quite enough Remembrance done during the four years of the Centenary, Or perhaps the thought of anything military is disturbing these days, after the catastrophic failure of our enterprise in Afghanistan. Maybe we’d rather put all thoughts of soldiers aside for a while.

As someone who has researched the image of the soldier in earlier decades, I am interested in how they are seen now. Yesterday my wife was watching a recording of the television drama Shetland (usually a bit cosy and sanctimonious). This episode was all about ex-soldiers, and from the part I saw (most of the second half) anyone who had been in the military had been driven stark mad by the experience. In the recent naval serial Vigil, set rather grippingly on a submarine, there was also a very high incidence of mental instability among service personnel.

When I was young in the fifties, someone in every family had been in the services; it was a normal thing to have done. Some people loathed their time in the forces; others were nostalgic. But soldiers and sailors were part of our society. During the years of National Service, you often saw soldiers in uniform in the streets.

No longer. I think it was during the protracted Irish troubles that soldiers were warned not to wear their uniform in public. Then during the Iraq wars, soldiers returning from the Middle East, whether in uniform or not, would often be harangued in pubs for being part of the operation.

So the military are now generally seen as outside society, with ways and customs that increasingly diverge from our society’s norms. So is this why they are so often depicted as bonkers? Are there dangers in this? And should we be remembering times when things were different?

5 Comments

  1. Val Hewson
    Posted November 11, 2021 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    And yet of course we still expect help from the armed forces in time of need. Only this morning it was reported that a health authority has asked for the army’s help with its ambulance services. Forces medical personnel worked during the worst days of the pandemic. And it is not so long ago that the armed forces got the awful job of dealing with outbreaks of foot and mouth disease. I’m sure you are right in saying that to most people ‘the war’ is ancient history and if they think of war, they think of the tragedies of Iran and Afghanistan.

  2. Posted November 11, 2021 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    The poppy appeal has a long and venerable history in the United Kingdom. What happens in other parts of the world? The Service of Remembrance is still held in our village and is followed by a solemn parade from the church to the War Memorial where the wreaths are laid and the Last Post sounded. It is and always will be a deeply moving occasion made more so I always think by the presence of young cadets of more or less the age of the young men who marched away all those years ago.
    Should such an event fade from the public consciousness we will have lost something very valuable and important.
    Peter Drake
    Teacher Hexham

  3. Dr Tom Wareham
    Posted November 11, 2021 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Hi Rose, an interesting and thought-provoking post. I personally feel extremely sad about the loss of interest and respect for the, for example, two minutes silence. However, I think there is a problem with how people see Remembrance Day and what it represents. Originally, it was established to recognise the terrible losses of the 1914-1918 war when many thousands of young men were sent to their deaths in what many increasingly saw as a bitterly questionable conflict. Many of them were conscripts, and may of them didn’t want to go to war. The fact that they were forced to go by law and social pressure, made the losses an even harder pill to come to terms with after the war. The Remembrance commemoration was established to try and lance the resulting anger and direct it into something more peaceful and manageable. While WW2 may have been a very different war, in that it was easier to justify – conscription also played its part, the ritual of remembering the dead became more important because of the greater number of civilian casualties. However, since 1945 we have had almost constant conflict, mostly involving professional armed forces. The dead have not been, for example, innocent young men (or occasional women) who marched to war under an illusion, and the conflicts have been the result of political or religious disputes in a world where the horrors and pointlessness of war have been long recognised. So I find myself wondering whether the problem is that the Poppy and all that accompanies it has just been misappropriated now, and that is what has led to an apparent lack of engagement? There is, it seems to me anyway, to have been a huge shift in the public sensibility which was re-awakened by the commemoration in 2018 – remember the moat of the Tower Of London filled with poppies – to the situation today? We look back on the fallen of that first conflict – who died apparently to end all wars – in a very different way.

    • Dr Tom Wareham
      Posted November 11, 2021 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

      Sorry George – not sure why I typed the wrong name!!!

  4. Posted November 12, 2021 at 1:39 am | Permalink

    You raise interesting questions. I don’t know if you have answers – I know I don’t. I look forward to a well-regulated UN Peacekeepers army… in some distant future.


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