Has Britain always united behind commemorations of the war dead?

War commemoration can be a powerful force for division as well as unity, argues Chris Bowlby

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The solemn progress through a country town, the ringing of church bells and silent dignity of locals who line the route – this ritual in Wootton Bassett since 2007, honouring the returning bodies of soldiers killed in Afghanistan, has a timeless quality. It seems to draw on a powerful sense of the war dead drawing a community together, as they did in the past.

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On a national level, too, we’ve witnessed a traditional unifying of the country in events such as the annual ceremony at the Cenotaph. And in the House of Commons, as MPs report war casualties and express sympathy towards their families, there is a marked mood of unity in contrast to the normal vocal divisions of parliamentary debate.

But modern commemorations have not always been without controversy. In Wootton Bassett, both the British National Party and the radical Muslim group Islam4UK have sought to use the events for political purposes.

And Dr Lucy Noakes of the University of Brighton, who has written extensively on how Britain remembers its modern wars, points out that past commemorations proved divisive as well. In the decades immediately after the First World War, there was much debate about how the dead could best be remembered.

And ceremonies were used for protest by those disappointed by postwar conditions. On Armistice Day in the 1920s and 1930s, some former soldiers, now unemployed, displayed their dole papers instead of their medals.

Remembrance of war was also used by campaigners against war itself. In the 1930s, Lucy Noakes reminds us, there was much “revulsion at the mechanical nature of death” in modern war, and a “significant public voice for pacifism in Britain”. The Women’s Co-Operative League started selling white poppies as an alternative to the British Legion red poppies, to symbolise a commitment to peace.

That tradition – associating women in particular with a pacifist approach, challenging more positive commemoration of war – resurfaced in the 1980s with anti-nuclear protests. But in the meantime the Second World War, and the subsequent creation of the welfare state, promoted the idea that war brought the nation together.

Politicians have drawn on that idea ever since. After the Falklands War in the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher praised what she saw as national revival. “The lesson of the Falklands”, she said, “is that Britain has not changed and that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history.”

Yet the commemoration of the Falklands conflict brought its own controversy when, at a service of thanksgiving for victory in St Paul’s cathedral, the Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie said: “In our prayers we shall quite rightly remember those who are bereaved in our own country and the relations of the young Argentinian soldiers who were killed”.

Many, including Mrs Thatcher, were said to be angry that the enemy dead were thought worthy of equal commemoration with British casualties. Lucy Noakes points out that the question of who should be commemorated has often been controversial in other ways.

The traditional focus has been very much on the heroism and honour of the British warrior-soldier. But those shot for desertion have recently been remembered too. And the civilian victims of war are slowly gaining more recognition. For example, in the 1990s a memorial plaque was created to the 173 crushed to death in Bethnal Green in London in 1943 when a crowd panicked in an air-raid shelter.

As women move closer to full combat roles in the armed forces, and become casualties themselves, the traditional contrast between male soldiers and mourning wives and mothers is no longer so pronounced.

So while the traditional commemoration of war still has great ritual strength in Britain, it has never eliminated vigorous debate about conflict and its victims. And the fact that our most recent wars have been so politically controversial has only served to heighten that debate.

“It is much harder to mobilise those older symbols of remembrance”, says Lucy Noakes, “for wars which are more divisive”. Wootton Bassett stands for the survival of those unifying symbols. But wars and casualties have always prompted mixed feelings too.

Chris Bowlby is a presenter on BBC radio, specialising in history.

This feature was first published in the April 2009 issue of BBC History Magazine.

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This series is produced with History & Policy. You can find out more about them and read their papers at www.historyandpolicy.org.