Archive for the ‘Remembrance’ Category

Charlie Gilmour is a moron

16 December 2010

It seems an obvious thing to say, but I’ll say it anyway: Charlie Gilmour is a moron.  In the protests last week, the expensively-educated moronic son of a pop star was photographed dangling from one of the flags on the Cenotaph.

My feeling that he is a contemptuous buffoon are not because he can afford an expensive education but was protesting against fees for future graduates – that is fair enough, people should protest for the good of other people. It is not even that annoying that he dangled from that flag; in fact, I’m surprised the Cenotaph doesn’t get caught up in riots more often, given where it is; anyway, it’s not like he tipped it over or wrote swear-words on it. I think he was foolish for doing it, especially so visibly and, frankly, while having such a famous Dad.

What seemed more idiotic to me was his response:

“I would like to express my deepest apologies for the terrible insult to the thousands of people who died bravely for our country that my actions represented,” … “I feel nothing but shame. My intention was not to attack or defile the Cenotaph. Running along with a crowd of people who had just been violently repelled by the police, I got caught up in the spirit of the moment.”

Expression of shame, fair enough – that was expected. But re-read the second half and then look at the photo:

Apparently he was caught up in the spirit of the moment in a crowd of people who had just been repelled by the police.  Except that there is no crowd and the spirit seems to be relative calm; the only person nearby is actually completely ignoring the moron dangling from the flag.

What a load of cobblers, Charlie.  Nice of the Grauniad to reproduce his statement unquestioningly, though. Cheers.

Anyway, like I said… moron.

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Remembrance: War Memorials

11 November 2010

Today, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I submitted my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the last of three about commemoration and remembrance.

At 11 o’clock this morning, I attended a short remembrance ceremony next to the war memorial in my college.  Like many across the country, we marked the two-minute silence for the anniversary of the Armistice that ended the First World War. Since 1945, the main official remembrance has been held on the closest Sunday to Armistice Day – i.e. Remembrance Sunday. Despite the revival of the November 11th observance, this Sunday will see the main remembrance events across the country, from Whitehall to village squares.  These events will largely focus around the local (or, in the case of the Cenotaph in Whitehall, national) war memorial.

What exactly are these war memorials for?  What do they tell us?

In his excellent play/film The History Boys, Alan Bennett has one of the teachers delivering this line:

It’s not “lest we forget,” it’s “lest we remember.” That’s what all this is about — the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

In a way, the teacher Mr Irwin is right, war memorials and commemoration are about forgetting.  Since the character is clearly based on a certain Professor Ferguson , it is not too surprising that the case is stated slightly more cynically and iconoclastically than is justified, though. It is not about ignoring the reasons for the war, but about moving on.  The idea of a site and a time in which the memory of the war and the war dead are focused in about both remembering and forgetting.
War memorials and commemoration serve to remind people who might forget about the sacrifices made for the freedoms we enjoy in this country, and the (unfortunately still present) need to provide for those who fought and fight for those freedoms. The also give those (and, more importantly, gave those in the 1920s) who struggle to get on with their lives in the wake of bereavement in war the chance to focus their grief in one location and one day, hopefully leaving them free to live their lives.


What do war memorials tell us? In France, which suffered far greater losses in both world wars, the war memorials are ‘monuments aux morts’ – monuments to the dead – whereas  French historian Annette Becker has suggested that Anglophone ‘war memorials’ are monuments to the war more broadly. Similarly American historian Jay Winter has referred to commemoration as telling the war story in its local, familial and parochial form.

This is not what war memorials as most people would understand them (i.e. war memorial monuments, or ‘useful’ memorials like cottages, playing fields and hospitals) do.  What they do is serve as a ‘surrogate grave’, a focal point for memories of the war years and of the war dead.  They do not tell us much about those years other than that this group of (usually) men did not return.  They do not tell the story of the war, but rather warn that we should not forget it, and express hope that it will not happen again (how depressing it must have been to add a second generation’s names to these monuments after 1945!). The vast majority of war memorials simply list the war dead, some list all who served (and some churches still display their wartime lists of local men who were serving, alongside their memorials to the war dead).  Beyond the death and less commonly the temporary absence of local servicemen, they do not tell the local story in most cases – although exceptions are out there, such as Colchester’s acknowledgement of the civilian war effort.  They also only rarely express what the war was fought over (or at least the wartime narrative of its purpose) – defending ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ and ‘honour’, and saving Britain from the ravages of a ‘frightful’ foe that had killed thousands of Belgian and French civilians and sent others to labour in Germany.  Our war memorials are monuments to the dead, they tell us of the men who did not return to tell their own war stories or to continue their civilian lives.  Now the war story to most people (particularly the local war story of a town or village) is these men and their deaths.

Does this matter?  Isn’t it right that we should remember these men over those who returned.  In one sense, yes, we should – they were not able to become civilians again and live out their days, so we should remember them.  There are two problems with this though. First, we forget those who fought and returned, many of them wounded physically or mentally. Second, by reducing the public story of the war to the deaths of a handful, a few thousand, or a million dead men from the local village or town or from the British Empire, we lose sight of why they fought and why those deaths were felt – at the time – to be acceptable. Without the sense that the Great War was an existential conflict fought for the future of Britain and of freedom and democracy, it seems incredible that so many lives could be sacrificed. Seeing the war as futile is a justified position, particularly since the 1920s and 30s failed to bring world peace and domestic prosperity and a Second World War followed soon after.  We should not project these ideas back to 1916 or 1918, though. The war had a very real meaning for the people who fought then, one strong enough that enormous sacrifices could be justified to win it.

Remembrance: the War Dead

9 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010, is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the second of three about commemoration and remembrance.

Anthony King (sociologist at Exeter University, not the politics professor Anthony King) appeared on Thinking Allowed in June talking about changes in the way that the war dead of the ‘Afghan War’ (i.e. Op Herrick, the British mission in Afghanistan since 2001) are presented to the public in contrast to earlier wars.  This was based on his research for an article of his (pdf).

The article is interesting, looking at how soldiers are presented as human beings (and family members), as heroes, and as professionals doing their jobs.  It was based on (a fairly small number of) the websites that the MoD puts online whenever a British serviceman or servicewoman is killed.  Among the insights are comments that I definitely agree with about the public display of intimate relations and personal life that has changed in the last 50 years (since the Korean War, which he talks about) or 90 years (since the Great War, which I know about).  Where I question his findings is about the level of attention given to dead soldiers, sailors and airmen, and their treatment as individuals.  He rightly comments that the way that the state presents the war dead has changed substantially, but I think he downplays or ignores very important aspects of the history of commemoration.

First, the rate of casualties is very low by the standards of the ‘big wars’ of the past.  Really, Herrick is not a big war other than in cost and, importantly, public attention.  342 service personnel have died on active service in Afghanistan since 2001, that is roughly three per month – since the deployment to Helmand the number is 329 and the rate is 6.5 per month. In the Falklands, 258 died in three months, in Korea 1,109 died in three years (37 per month, although actually most were in 1950-51).  In the First World War, 582 servicemen from the British Empire died every day! This is a major part of the reason that the dead of those earlier wars (and especially the Great War) were not given the national and personal treatment that modern war dead are – there would have been nothing else in the newspapers! Added to which, the internet provides an unprecedented arena for the public display of commemoration and appreciation of the war dead, one in which people can take in as much or as little as they wish, without the information crowding out other news.

Second, the dead of the Great War were treated as individuals with personalities in the public notification of their deaths. It is true that national notification came only in lists of casualties (he talks specifically about lists of Korean War casualties), but this was not the only medium for them to be displayed. I have written before about the fallacy that British casualty figures were withheld from the public. The prime medium for this was the local press – local communities were much more important to life in 1918 than in 2008. As well as published casualty figures and ‘war shrines’, there were various ways in which the war dead (and, indeed, other casualties) were reported in local newspapers: King talks about the use of photos and personal details on the MoD page (his examples include the pages for Michael Smith and ‘Tony’ Downes). The passages from comrades and superiors are very similar to those written to families in 1914-18, many of which were reproduced in the local press. Photographs and personal details were also published  locally  during the Great War (see examples on this website). Although often the reports were short (as quoted on this web page) some were longer (see A.B. Machray on this page) . There were also attempts to make a permanent record: local, like the “King’s Book of York Fallen Heroes” at York Minster, with information about 1441 men associated with the town and photos of all but 19 ; and national, such as Du Ruvigny’s Roll of Honour (see an example entry).

The prevalence of local notification and dissemination of information about war casualties shows how important these men’s identities were to those who mourned them and in their local communities.  Rather than presenting the way that men are remembered on the MoD website now as especially novel, I would say that they reflect three main changes: 1, the much lower number and rate of British war deaths in Afghanistan compared to other wars; 2, the increasing importance of individuals and their lives (and deaths) in modern Britain; 3, the increased levels of intimacy in what can be (and is) told in the press; and 4, a change from local identification with the war dead to a national one. Where in 1916, one might read of a the death of a man who went to the local school or worked for a local business, now one reads of people who have similar tastes, interests and concerns to civilians of the same generation, another way of identifying with the dead and bringing their loss home to civilians.  It is important to be aware of the costs of war, both in general terms and in the personal losses suffered by all sides (one change has been increased, but obviously not equal, attention paid to civilian war deaths in war zones).  In terms of the local war dead they did this in the First World War through local newspapers, we do it now nationally through the internet.

Remembrance: Poppies

7 November 2010

This Thursday, 11th November 2010 is the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War, the most deadly conflict in British history.  It is also the day I will be submitting my DPhil Thesis, which deals with why civilians continued to support the war in spite of the hardships and loss of life.  This post is the first of three about commemoration and remembrance.

The British Legion’s Poppy campaign has been in the news again this year. Yet again, there has been criticism of Jon Snow, who has rightly proclaimed that part of the freedom for which the World Wars were fought is the freedom to wear his poppy when and where he chooses.  His choice of the word ‘fascism’ in relation to the idea that all (especially on TV) must wear poppies was perhaps a little extreme, but then perhaps not – it really should be up to the individual as he says. (See this piece in the Guardian for reasoned commentary on the matter).

Beyond the poppy-enforcement campaign, there has also been criticism from veterans about the style and aims of the poppy appeal. Some veterans of Britain’s wars since the 1960s have written this letter to the Guardian:

The Poppy Appeal is once again subverting Armistice Day. A day that should be about peace and remembrance is turned into a month-long drum roll of support for current wars. This year’s campaign has been launched with showbiz hype. The true horror and futility of war is forgotten and ignored.

The public are being urged to wear a poppy in support of “our Heroes”. There is nothing heroic about being blown up in a vehicle. There is nothing heroic about being shot in an ambush and there is nothing heroic about fighting in an unnecessary conflict.

Remembrance should be marked with the sentiment “Never Again”.

They certainly have a point, the ‘showbiz hype’ for the launch of the campaign (apparently this year is was launched by the Saturdays singing and some aerobatics (not by the Saturdays) in Colchester – can’t say I noticed either) has very little to do with the horror and futility of war.  Equally, it is indeed hardly ‘heroic’ to be blown up.

On the other hand, though, the whole point is to raise awareness and money for the British Legion and charitable efforts to support veterans.  Would it not be just as insulting not to bother with any kind of launch?  If charities want to raised awareness, don’t they need to take on modern marketing strategies (the poppy was very much in the mould of wartime and prewar charity campaigns, such as flag days). Quite how elderly men and women (or local cadets) selling poppies from a cardboard box does more to highlight the horror and futility of war (the latter surely a matter of opinion) is not clear. In fact, I think this years posters with an amputee and the message ‘It only takes a second to put on a poppy’ are quite effective. Amputees tend not to make the cause of their wounds look sexy and exciting, and these posters will been seen by more people than the showbiz launch.

The British Legion state that their campaign is apolitical and is designed to support the veterans and widows of Britain’s wars, not to promote support for those wars. Fundamentally, this will always be a matter of opinion. Does the campaign accept that wars happen and deal with the consequences, or does it give the government the message that it is okay to launch wars because the BL will pick up the pieces (in this country at least) afterwards? Quite possibly it does both.  Should the campaign and prominent fundraising stop in an attempt to stop the wars?  This line of thought is rather circular, and is (in part) the critique behind the White Poppy for peace.

The glitzy launch for the Poppy Appeal does seem rather crass to me, but then it is for a good cause and is only once a year (and I hadn’t really noticed until reading about it today).  Back in the early post-WW1 years, it was not clear what 11 November should be – there were Balls on Armistice Day at the Albert Hall and drunkenness among ex-servicemen, but these were forced out by the perceived needs of the bereaved for a more sober (literally and metaphorically) reflection of the nation’s losses.  I would like to think that the showbiz launches of poppy appeals recall this, but they do not – they are part of the charity campaign, not celebrations of hard-won peace and freedom.

People will always disagree about the aims and methods of the Poppy Appeal, as with anything to do with wars, and indeed welfare provision.  That people feel strongly enough to argue about it is a good sign, although the enforcement of poppy-wearing is antithetical to what British soldiers have fought most of the major wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries for.

(Anyone interested in the early histories of Armistice Day and the British Legion should read Adrian Gregory’s The Silence of Memory, Niall Barr’s The Poppy and the Lion and Deborah Cohen’s The War Come Home)