A year ago, I completed a field trip assignment for the module History and Memory. I visited three First World War memorials and wrote an essay on commemoration, national narratives, and the politics of remembrance. In my essay, I included a reference to Wilfred Owen, the poet and soldier who highlighted the horrors of war as he experienced them in the trenches. What I forgot last year, but remembered recently when passing a uniformed poppy-seller, was that I was introduced to Owen’s poetry by my English teacher at school. Despite not coming up in our GCSE English paper, his work has certainly informed my perception of war, commemoration, and education in ways I find worth discussing in light of this Remembrance Day.
The argument behind commemoration consists of two pillars: honouring the heroic soldiers who fought, and avoiding repeats of devastating episodes in our history. Commemoration essentially functions as a mechanism to deal with national trauma. In the case of Britain and the World Wars, the costs to the nation (including human life and economic devastation) were immense, thus requiring justification as a necessary response to great evil. Historical narrative aids in remembrance of wars by defining winners and losers, with the winners of the World Wars portrayed as liberators and ‘justified’ warriors and the losers constructed as evil and dangerous ‘aggressors’. The act of ‘remembering’ perpetuates this distinction, around which a great national narrative takes shape. With most of the trauma and emotional ties to memory fading with the passing of the last veterans and their surrounding communities, commemoration becomes more about the nation than about the soldiers. Therefore, I aim not to discuss the soldiers and their actions in particular, but rather the nation, its direction, and its efforts to deal with the past.
Most schools in the United Kingdom observe several minutes of silence for Remembrance Day. However, a closer analysis indicates that the issue of remembrance warrants a far more holistic approach. Controversially, the British Legion, an important charity of the armed forces that provides support for veterans and their families, run annual fundraisers in schools. While I do not seek to diminish the valuable work of such organizations in assisting individual veterans, I believe that such fundraising in schools is fundamentally flawed because it projects a very specific viewpoint onto the most impressionable members of our society. Slogans like ‘Help the Heroes’ and educational material encouraging children to attend memorial services or wear poppies project a narrow, heroic interpretation of the war. While learning about the past, including involvement in wars, should remain compulsory, Remembrance lessons should shift the focus from gratitude for our allies to the less savory elements of war. Including narratives such as the horrors experienced by the average soldier, the everyday struggles of the Londoner living under the threat of bombings, and the worker hoping that post-war rations will last the week, can help build a sense for how and why wars can and should be prevented.
Educational curriculum surrounding Remembrance, as well as commemoration more broadly, should additionally work to convey as truthful a representation as possible of the country’s involvement in instigating wars and displaying aggression. Narratives of the glorious World Wars portray Britain as a peaceful upholder of democracy, while simultaneously overlooking its perpetuation of further bloodshed by deploying troops in Greece, Korea, and Malaya in the decade following 1945. Commemoration, apart from simplifying and problematically glorifying war, also simplifies the national past and begs us to ask: What do we remember and what do we forget?
It is important to note that historical education does not end outside the classroom; the necessary stimuli to form one’s views about Britain’s past and current national identity are ubiquitous. Just today, I walked past two different tube station signs with poppies printed on them. Through the commercialisation and widespread endorsement of the poppy symbol, we commemorate without thinking, choosing, or consciously realising what we remember.
This issue raises the interesting prospect of more recent interpretations of the World Wars as not purely a British, but a Commonwealth, experience. Sites of memory, like the Memorial Gates in Hyde Park, attempt to recognize the contribution of Commonwealth nations to the war effort and further the view that Britain’s victory was a victory of and for the Empire. Again, in the often necessary simplicity that accompanies war commemoration, the portrayal of Commonwealth participation in the war neglects the unsavory elements of Britain’s imperial past, thus denying the possibility of meaningful remembrance. While the monument lists the countries that participated in the British War effort, there are no statues of any non-white soldiers. While national conversations speak in broad terms about the great help of the Commonwealth nations, they do not address the power relations, such as discrimination in the army, that shaped the involvement of Commonwealth soldiers. According to the Imperial War Museum’s project ‘Whose Remembrance?’, over 10,000 West Indian soldiers who had volunteered to fight alongside the British Army were ultimately only allowed to work as labourers. None of this is to say that people are unaware of the trauma inflicted by the Empire on colonised nations. It is clear, however, that the projection of the World Wars as a united Commonwealth effort feeds into a view of British exceptionalism that results in a positive overall calculus when examining imperial legitimacy. In the public sphere of memory, more than anything, that has an important impact.
In this article, I have raised issues that are deserving of multiple articles each. The principles and practicalities of national commemorations are complex in ways that deserve and require far more attention and discussion. National pride in collective memory remains a highly effective, and at times necessary, political tool, as it has aided in mobilising support behind more recent wars and promotes British exceptionalism and moral superiority throughout history. However, the reality of war, of who was included, and of how flawed our remembrance is today deserves a far more holistic and truthful representation.
For all those who passed, the truth of their experience ‘Lest We Forget’.
Hari Dinis is researcher for the Education policy centre.
‘Celebrities Partner with TfL for London Poppy Day.’ Transport for London, November 1, 2018. https://tfl.gov.uk/info-for/media/press-releases/2018/november/celebrities-partner-with-tfl-for-london-poppy-day.
‘Remembrance Lesson Plans: Key Stage 2.’ The Royal British Legion. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/get-involved/remembrance/teaching-remembrance/remembrance-lesson-plans/ks2-lesson-plans.
Torrington, Arthur. ‘IWM Collections and West Indian Soldiers in the First World War.’ Imperial War Museum, June 26, 2012. https://www.iwm.org.uk/sites/default/files/transcripts/2018-04/West%20Indian%20Soldiers%20in%20the%20First%20World%20War%2C%20Arthur%20Torrington%20CBE.pdf.