​Image courtesy of Simon Howden /

The first Remembrance Day was held at 11am on 11th November 1919, commemorating the armistice that ended the First World War exactly a year earlier – 11.11.11. 1918. It was known also as Armistice Day, or Poppy Day from the poppies that grew in profusion on the farmland of Flanders and northern France and showed an astonishing ability to survive when that farmland became the Western Front.
The conflicts of the First, and later the Second, World Wars were on such a scale that hardly anyone could have been untouched by them, whether they were combatants or part of the home population. Consequently, for the generations that followed these two wars, Remembrance Day would have been just that – an occasion for remembrance of those who died or were wounded. Today, those two wars have receded so far into history that, as the historian Norman Davies puts it, for many people, “ ‘the war against Hitler’ is now as remote as those against Napoleon and the Spanish Armada.” There are still ongoing conflicts in which Australian and British service men and women are involved, but they are on a much smaller scale, so that “remembrance” properly so-called would be limited to those on active service and their families. For the rest of us, the Remembrance Day ceremonies are really something else, because we have no personal experience of war nor of the loss of loved ones in war. We cannot “remember” things that are not part of our own experience. What we can do is to try to engage our humanity with that of those who have had to face and bear the call of history when this has taken the form of a call to war.
The essence of our own “remembrance” (it is difficult to substitute another word) today is, for most of us, different from that of earlier generations. Most of us have no link with the casualties of war, and as the major conflicts recede further into the past it is important that we keep alive the connection between the humanity of those involved in them and our own; otherwise, they will become as remote as the casualty lists of the Napoleonic Wars. In other words, it is the human link between those who fought in past conflicts and ourselves that has to be kept alive. This is most likely to be achieved if the voice that speaks to us from the past in our Remembrance Day services is a voice that speaks to us most truly on behalf of those who are being “remembered.”
The First World War was particularly rich in such voices – in the poetry and in the memoirs of the trenches and in servicemen’s letters. Various themes emerge from such literature. One is the gulf between the attitudes of the civilian population at home and the experience of the combatants themselves – a gulf that increased as the war went on. The contempt for some sections of the civilian population back home expressed by many who have left us a record of their combat experience contrasts with the lack of personal animosity for the enemy opposite. As Edward Thomas (killed in the Battle of Arras, April 1917) put it, he felt no hatred for Germans, and what he felt for the Kaiser was “true love” in comparison with his hatred of “one fat patriot”. Wilfred Owen, too, had no time for “the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading John Bull on Scarborough Sands.” They may have been remembering Dr Samuel Johnson’s description of this sort of patriotism as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”, akin to his rhetorical question, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” This theme was echoed, albeit more mildly, by the late Robert Runcie, who served as a tank commander during the Second World War, when, as Archbishop of Canterbury, he preached the sermon at the service of thanksgiving in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, at the end of the Falklands War:
“Ironically, it has sometimes been those spectators who remained at home … who continue to be most violent in their attitudes …”
Allied to the contempt of those in the trenches for the “safe” patriotism of the home population was their contempt for the military top brass and their staff. The incompetence of the former, conjoined with their apparent indifference to the conditions and casualty lists of the men in the front line, made them a ready target. The picture of the General in Siegfried Sassoon’s “Counterattack” sums it up: the men are slogging up to Arras (where Edward Thomas was killed) “with rifle and pack” when they are met and greeted by the General who, nevertheless, “does for them” “by his plan of attack”. Bishops fare little better, as witness another poem by Sassoon, “They”.
Another theme, related to the first, and particularly urgent in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, probably the greatest of the poets of the First World War (killed November 1918, one week to the day before the end of the war, while leading his men across a canal, having earlier won the Military Cross) was the need to tell the truth about the war – to give accurate expression to the experience of the men in the trenches. He saw his task as to speak for those who were fighting and, in so doing, to set the record straight against the distortions of the political, religious and poetic voices back home which belonged to a world in which war was something that mainly happened in far-away outposts of the empire against tribesmen whose arms were no match for those of the British Army. Sir Herbert Read points out how the general attitude to war in 1914 was completely unreal, based as it was on romantic, Kiplingesque sentiments. It was this view that Owen and others had in their sights in their own poetry.  As Owen put it, “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity.”
Men like Owen and Thomas and the other major war poets did not start out as the poets they became. Their poetic steel was forged in the furnace of a war of unimaginable carnage. As Robert Graves laconically commented when Siegfried Sassoon showed him some of his poems, “Siegfried had not yet been in the trenches. I told him, in my old-soldier manner, that he would soon change his style.” This fire is precisely what is missing from the verse of those who stayed at home or who wrote before they had  experienced the real character of the war. Rupert Brooke, for instance, could hardly have written the sonnet for which he is most famous – “If I should die, think only this of me” – had he seen service on the Western Front, for although he joined the Army he died before he saw much service of any sort – from blood poisoning while he was on his way to the Dardanelles. His “war” verse has been described as having a “corrupting glibness” in its attitude to death.
The voices who speak to us from the trenches are – the best of them – anti-establishment voices, not because they were naturally anti-establishment – quite the opposite in the case of the best-known – but because of the imperatives of honesty and truth in the face of the conditions in which they and their fellows found themselves, and in the face of the corrupted attitudes of many at home. Their overriding concern was “to tell it as it was”. Wilfred Owen actually chose to go back to the trenches after being wounded in order that he could continue to speak for the men at the front with undiminished authority. As Owen said, “… there [i.e. in the trenches] I shall be better able to cry my outcry.”
I now come back to Remembrance Day itself. The form of the Remembrance Day ceremony was really set by those held in the years immediately following the First World War. The irony is that from the start it was stamped as an establishment occasion, which means that it became a vehicle for voices and interests other than or in addition to those of the ones who were being remembered. In fact, what is apparent is that public acts of remembrance can hardly exist “pure and simple”. Values come into play that are not necessarily or mainly those of the remembered.
This is where I experience some discomfort with our present services. Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen” has been institutionalised as the public voice par excellence at Remembrance Day ceremonies. Binyon wrote this poem in September 1914, a mere matter of weeks after the outbreak of the war. It was published in The Times of 21st September 1914. Not only was Binyon a non-combatant; he wrote the poem at a time when patriotic euphoria was at its height and the real character of the war was still to show itself. It is believed to have been written at Polzeath, on the Cornish coast – almost as far from the Western Front as it was possible to get in Britain. A plaque commemorates the actual place. The lines that are invariably recited at Remembrance Day ceremonies are a single verse, the fourth, which Binyon said was the first that came to him. It is difficult to imagine anything that in tone and spirit is more opposite to those of the true literature of the war than this poem, which consists in all of seven verses. Later in the war, in 1916, Binyon worked for the Red Cross as a stretcher bearer for the French army. It is highly unlikely that he would have written in the vein of “For the Fallen” had he deferred writing until he had had the personal experience of the war that he gained with the Red Cross. Some of its verses are a sheer embarrassment. It has to be said that Binyon wrote better than this when he was writing on other subjects, but this is now virtually the only piece for which he is known. He wrote it too soon.
The poem strikes a wrong note at the very outset – its title: “For the Fallen”. The word “fallen” gives a collective, stylised anonymity to the war dead, with its posed image suggesting a falling asleep, and so covering a multitude of different ways of being killed – gassing, bayonetting, blowing up, drowning in mud, quick death, slow death on the wire in no-man’s land. Its meagreness of thought is only half-concealed by its pseudo-biblical sonorities. The dead won’t grow old because they are dead – that was their tragedy but here it almost sounds as if it was a blessing. The years won’t condemn them either – but condemn them to what? To being husbands and fathers and perhaps grandfathers and sharing the joys and sorrows of their kind? And I can’t make much of remembering them at the going down of the sun and in the morning, which seems to be a turning  upside down of the psalmist’s “from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the same” in Ps 113:3. Here, the meaning is clearly, “during my waking hours”, but this cannot be said of Binyon’s version. It seems that it was more important to him to strike an attitude that mirrored the public mood of the time than to offer some honest reflection on what probably lay ahead. After all, the German Army had shown what it could do in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and it should have been obvious that the new war was not going to be any less brutal.
The choice of Binyon’s verse as the voice of public acts of remembrance after the end  of the war reflects how quickly establishment values took over on such occasions. It casts a vague shimmer of glamour over the the war-dead and so, in its insidious way, glorifies war.
It also reminds us how easily the war-dead are disposed of. They cause no trouble. As “the fallen” they will not come back to haunt us. Binyon’s poem makes no mention of the wounded. His men went to the war “straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow” (no mention here of the disturbing proportion of men who were rejected for war-service because of ricketts and the other ills of malnutrition); he does not mention how they came back (those that survived). The wounded do come back – and they and their disfigurements are too real to be glossed over in easy words.
It is here that we see establishment values and political interests at their worst. Governments that send their citizens to war have an interest in using language imbued with religious values to legitimise their own actions. The dead are “glorious”, they have made “the supreme sacrifice”, and the cause for which they died is implicitly vindicated, as is the decision of the Government that sent them to war. And the dead cannot answer back.  
But the wounded can – just by returning. The point was reached in the First World War where the decision was taken to transport the returning wounded at night, when there would be less exposure to the public. Perhaps the most blatant demonstration of the wounded as an embarrassment to political interests was Mrs Thatcher’s order that at the service of thanksgiving following the Falklands War those servicemen attending the service who had been disfigured or otherwise visibly wounded should be placed behind a screen in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, so that they would not be visible to the rest of the congregation. They were an incontrovertible reminder of the real cost of war. And, of course, the wounded continue to haunt governments in after-years, as we have seen in the various campaigns on behalf of returned servicemen to obtain recognition for certain medical conditions as war-related.
Further, government interest in having the wars it wages perceived as just requires that the enemy be demonised or inhumanised. This is why Mrs Thatcher and members of her Government were outraged when the Archbishop of Canterbury drew attention to the Argentinian war-dead. Recognition of the humanity of the enemy does not sit well with political triumphalism.
It is worth asking ourselves who we are remembering on Remembrance Day occasions and why we remember. I suppose most of us might say that we were remembering those who were killed or injured in the war or who suffered bereavement. If so, we should ask how well our present form of remembrance ceremonies helps us to do so. As I suggested earlier, if our remembrance is to have any substance it should help us to connect the humanity of those who have suffered in previous conflicts with our  own. In this way, we might take away with us a true sense of the human cost of war, which in turn may help to make future wars less likely. This would be a good reason for remembrance. But if this were really the aim, there would be no room for language of the kind that implicitly or otherwise suggests that war is glamorous or heroic or that casts a religious halo of redemptive quality around it. As Robert Runcie said in his sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral already referred to, “War is a sign of human failure”, a fact that religious language helps to gloss over. Christian clergy should be wary of subscribing to religious language in connection with war and the remembering of its casualties, for it too readily lends itself to appropriation for political purposes.
When we remember, we should, as far as we can, remember “how it was”. We can be helped in this by the voices of the real war poets, whose work forms a bitter counterpoint to the conventional sentiment in which war has traditionally been enveloped, and which can be summed up in the maxim by the Roman poet, Horace: “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” – “Sweet and honourable it is to die for one’s country”. This maxim, a favourite during the years of the British Empire, hangs over Binyon’s verse and its long-institutionalised recital on Remembrance Days. The war poet Charles Sorley (killed in the trenches, October 1915), in his sardonic poem, “When you see millions of the mouthless dead”, went so far as to disclaim remembrance for the dead – being dead they do not need it. His poem is a riposte to Rupert Brooke’s “If I should die think only this of me” – but no doubt he had in mind those equally “bardic” utterances of “our poets and men of letters” whose “finely trained voices are a living lie”. For me, such utterances include, egregiously, “For the Fallen”.
If we are going to remember, our remembrance should at least pass muster with those who lived and (so often) died in the trenches, for they have told us how it was and their voices continue to speak for those in later conflicts, even though not so destructive. Their voices are a world away from the official displays of stiffly choreographed emotion that have passed for public remembrance since the end of the First World War. There are many who find such displays repellent. In 2009 there died the last of the British veterans of the Great War, Harry Patch. According to the British-based Christian group, Ekklesia, in its publication, “Reimagining Remembrance”, politicians and others lined up to pay their tributes. The irony was that for Harry Patch the official remembrance ceremonies were just “show business” and he did not attend them. He was highly decorated, including an honour from the King of Belgium, but he never wore his decorations. What he did do was to visit the war cemeteries, both British and German, and he laid a wreath on the grave of a German soldier. In his view, remembrance ceremonies should remember those who suffered on both sides.
Clearly, the official remembrance ceremony did not speak for Harry Patch and it is likely that it does not speak for many others with personal experience of war. As Ekklesia puts it, we can remember well or we can remember badly. To the extent that our remembrance fails to acknowledge “how it was” we remember badly and our remembrance is false to the experience of those we are purporting to remember. I suggest that a first step to improving our public remembrance would be the consignment of “For the Fallen” to well-deserved oblivion and its replacement by an authentic voice from the trenches. 
Those interested in further reflection on how we practice Remembrance are referred to the wide-ranging and thought-provoking discussion of this subject “Reimagining Remembrance” published by Ekklesia. It can be found on Ekklesia’s web-site.
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend.” ( from “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen, MC, 1893- 4th November 1918).