This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
The armistice of 11 November 1918 effectively ended the Great War, and many hoped that “all wars” had ended that day. However, the conflict was only officially concluded with the signing of the peace treaties in June 1919, and victory parades took place that summer.
Yet some objected to exultant military parades, and a number of ex-servicemen even refused to participate. As a result, the first Remembrance Day ceremonies were commemorative rather than triumphant: “Today is Peace Day” announced the Manchester Guardian on 11 November 1919.
Two features of that first Remembrance Day are central to today’s commemorations: the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and the silence. Alongside the official ceremonies, huge crowds gathered to lay wreaths at the newly erected Cenotaph.
Many were wearing black, as they would have done at a funeral: this was a day of mourning, not celebration. The Cenotaph was the place around which people united, and the activity that united them was the two minutes of silence. On the king’s initiative people were asked to remain silent at 11 o’clock: to cease activity, to stand with bowed heads and to think of the fallen.
To unite the whole country in a moment of contemplation required some organisation, especially given that times were not fully standardised throughout the UK. The silence was announced by maroons or church bells – and it was universally observed.
Everything and everyone stopped: buses, trains and factories halted; electricity supplies were cut off to stop the trams; wherever possible even the ships of the Royal Navy were stopped. Workers in offices, hospitals, shops and banks stood still; schools became silent; court proceedings came to a standstill and so did the stock exchange.
The minutiae of everyday life ceased completely in what The Times described as “a great awful silence”. There had been no instructions about where people should observe the silence – it was assumed that everyone would simply pause at their tasks – but most chose to go outdoors to stand silently in a public place. There were church services, and the forces’ chaplain spoke at the Cenotaph.
However, Remembrance Day was largely secular. It was also a day for looking forward, and throughout the country thousands attended meetings in support of the League of Nations.
Other Remembrance Day traditions developed quickly. In November 1920 the ‘Unknown Warrior’ was buried in Westminster Abbey. The tomb contained the body of an unknown ordinary serviceman picked at random. It was laid in the abbey in the morning, and tens of thousands of people had walked past the grave by the end of the afternoon. Over a million people visited it in its first week.
The tomb was designed to honour the ordinary serviceman and to provide emotional or spiritual relief for survivors. The poppy campaign was more practical. From 1921 artificial poppies were sold to support the Earl Haig fund for ex-servicemen. Former soldiers made the poppies – and so ensured their own employment – and the profits supported ex-servicemen in need.
Yet the poppy became symbolic too, and everyone wore one. In fact, it was soon so ubiquitous that its absence was the clue to solving Dorothy Sayers’ murder-mystery, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928): the victim could not have died as claimed because no respectable fellow would have left the house without a Flanders poppy on 11 November.
There were other sides to Armistice Day. Postwar Britain was not a “land fit for heroes”. It was a land of unemployment, poor housing and unrecognised pension claims. Some ex-servicemen grew tired of the perpetual homage to the dead veteran when surviving ones were receiving such little help. In 1921 disaffected former soldiers disturbed the commemorations at the Cenotaph.
And this was no one-off: unemployed ex-servicemen were to demonstrate at armistice ceremonies throughout the 1920s. The Ex-Officers’ Association even began referring to Armistice Day as ‘Obligation Day’, when people had a ‘Duty of Remembrance’ to ex-servicemen in need.
Conversely, Armistice Day also became associated with drinking, dancing and celebrating. Some argued that young people had been denied jollity for four long years. Why not let them celebrate? Yet for others, it was too solemn an event for festivities, and in 1925 commemorative balls were cancelled. Ceremonies became increasingly sombre by the late 1920s, and in 1934 the Peace Pledge Union began to sell white poppies – overtly pacifist symbols – each November.
Local war memorials were erected throughout the 1920s. At annual ceremonies the names of the dead were read out loud, and so the awful silence was accompanied by a vocal acknowledgement.
Countless servicemen had died without family funerals and 100,000 of them had no marked grave, so local memorials functioned as both familial and national sites of mourning. People also visited these sites on the days that were crucial to their own war. November 11 was not the most significant day for everybody: survivors remembered the day they first went over the top, the day their best friend died, or the last time they saw their husband.
Remembrance Day events were scaled down during the Second World War. The 1918 victory seemed hollow and people had to think about the current war, not the previous one. After 1945, both conflicts were remembered on the Sunday closest to 11 November. This signified a real change in the nature of the ceremony. In the interwar years a poignant two-minute silence had annually been inserted into the fabric of an ordinary day.
After the Second World War, those who chose to commemorate the wars went to some sort of service (usually in church) each year. The commemorations were thus marginalised. For the postwar generation – the Oh What a Lovely War! generation – they meant little.
Yet by the 1990s, as veteran numbers declined, there was a growing public interest in the Great War, and there was a modern-day resurgence of the 1930s disillusionment literature, notably Faulks’ Birdsong (1993) and Barker’s Regeneration (1991). Meanwhile, there was a political decision to restore the two-minute silence in 1996: once again it was to become an integral part of national life.
In 2008 there were three British First World War veterans at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day. In 2009 there were none. That war is still meaningful – thousands attended Harry Patch’s funeral at Wells Cathedral in July 2008 – but the meaning of Remembrance Day has changed, despite a determination to maintain the outward symbols.
So what is the purpose of today’s ceremony? With British troops heavily engaged in Afghanistan, Remembrance Day can seem like a glorification of war, as an inducement to further sacrifice: it is clearly a military ceremony. Alternatively, is 11 November a day for pacifist sentiment? Should we still call it ‘Peace Day’? Certainly Harry Patch’s popularity lay partially in his willingness to condemn all war as futile.
Remembrance Day has never been a homogeneous, nationally-unifying event. It has provoked a variety of responses over the last 90 years: triumphalism, reverence, anger, pacifism, celebration. And no doubt it will continue to do so.
Let us at least take this annual opportunity to think seriously about wars and their consequences.
Fiona Reid from the University of South Wales is a historian of the social and medical impact of the First World War in Britain and France. She is the author of Broken Men: Shell Shock Treatment and Recovery in Britain, 1914–1930