November 11, 2008

The 11th of the 11th

poppy appealAs in America, Britains have been remembering those who served in the conflicts of the 20th and 21st century. Here the focus is very much on “The Fallen”, “The Glorious Dead”, and the main ceremonies are broadly religious, performed on the Sunday closest to the 11th, Remembrance Sunday.

In the fortnight or so before Remembrance Sunday, at nearly every work place, in every pub and many restaurants, in almost every public place there are paper poppies for sale.  In villages like mine someone goes around door to door.  The Royal British Legion sells the poppies and all money goes to look after disabled and elderly servicemen (veterans).  

There is almost none of the kind of political awkwardness that I have sensed from reading about Veterans’ Day in the US. There is no left or right on this issue. The young (until recently mainly men) went to war when their government asked them to. Those who died left families. Those who survived wounded have needs. Those who have lived into old age command respect.

If you want people to think you are a decent member of society in the week before the 11th you had better be wearing your poppy to show you have made a contribution.  If a politician were to appear on the news without one, there would be uproar. Every television presenter and newsreader sports one. The exhortation is to “wear your poppy with pride” and that is how I wore mine.

Although the form of Remembrance is broadly Christian, because we don’t have separation of church and state here, I don’t sense any religious division either. The poppy is a symbol of death and rebirth, not of Christianity.  In the devastated fields of Europe, poisoned by gunpowder and gas, only poppies were robust enough to grow in the spring of 1918.

The radio schedule for one of the four BBC national stations changes on the Sunday morning so that the Act of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in London can be broadcast. Military bands play a traditional set of songs finishing with Nimrod from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. The Last Post is sounded by a team of buglers. The Queen lays a wreath of poppies, followed by senior royals, then the Prime Minister, then the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition lay their wreaths in turn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember.

We will remember.

There is no left or right.  The only time I can think of when this was even remotely an issue was when Michael Foot, the most left wing leader of the Labour Party since the second World War, laid his wreath dressed in what has since been always referred to as a Donkey Jacket, a sartorial category previously unfamiliar to me, though I admit he looked a bit scruffy. The outrage was something dreadful, and it was mentioned for the next ten years or so.  Every Labour politician since has worn a dress coat.

The national ritual of remembrance is repeated all over the country. It is impossible to go to any long established school without hearing read the list of names of the dead from the First World War, or seeing them inscribed on a wall. An astonishing number of villages, like the one I live in, have a memorial at their centre. Not the smallest hamlet was spared the carnage of that war.

My second son was born on the 11th of November, and, as it happens, plays the trumpet.  That put him in great demand right around his birthday, as soon as he mastered the difficult bugle that is the Last Post.  For years I stood proudly with him outside in bitter November weather, watching him nervously warm his trumpet with his breath, waiting for the church clock to chime 11 when his notes would signal the beginning of the two minutes’ silence, while we remembered.

Sometimes he was called on to play again later in the day when his school gathered for Evensong.  Though I had children at that school for 17 years I never failed to be moved each time I heard the names of the dead read out as they did (and do) every Remembrance Sunday.  Such a small school in the first quarter of the century, so many dead, so sad to hear a surname repeated and know a family had lost two sons.

These solemn events take place, as I have said, on the nearest Sunday, but when the 11th falls on another day of the week, as it did this year (the 90th anniversary of the Armistice) the date is also marked, though less formally.  Today, just before 11, half a dozen or so of us gathered in an office I share and like many others all around the country we kept the silence together for two minutes.

The focus of the 11th of November is the First World War as long as there are still those who fought in the trenches and remember the 11th hour of the 11th day when guns fell silent. Three veterans, the youngest of whom is 108 years old, dined at Downing Street today. But we also remember, of course, the great sacrifice of the Second World War and other conflicts of the 20th century.  

And no one forgets that we have soldiers fighting today,

I’ve never asked my son whether he minded being born (at 11:21 am) on the 11th of the 11th. He was a gentle child and has grown to be a gentle man.  Like all American men his age he is registered for the draft. Like any mother I hope his country will not call on him. 

I know there are times when we must fight.  And part of celebrating Remembrance Sunday, or Armistice Day, or Veterans’ Day is celebrating those who were brave enough to fight so we might live as we do.  No properly indoctrinated American (as I was) can forget Patrick Henry’s ringing words

Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased with the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take, but give me liberty, or give me death!

Nevertheless, my sweet son, born in the hour of the anniversary of peace, yearly sounding his trumpet for the Glorious Dead reminds me (as if I needed it) that we need to be sure when we send our sons, and now daughters, to fight.  History has judged the First World War harshly: our soldiers were “lions led by donkeys”.  

When the slaughter had barely begun (1914) AE Housman wrote:

Here dead lie we because we did not choose 
To live and shame the land from which we sprung. 

Life to be sure, is nothing much to loose; 
But young men think it is, and we were young. 

That great imperial pugilist poet Rudyard Kipling bitterly regretted his part in securing an officer’s commission for his severely nearsighted only son, thrusting him to the front, where he lost his life within days of arriving in the trenches.

If any question why we died
Tell them, because our fathers lied.

Let us have no such thing to tell to our sons and daughters a generation hence.

4 Comments »

  1. I learn important things every time I read your posts. Whether I retain them, will remain to be seen. Thanks for the very interesting information. :)

    Comment by MLS — November 11, 2008 @ 9:40 pm

  2. “If any question why we died
    Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

    Unfortunately, that can surely be said of this generation’s war–Iraq. I just hope that those men who blazed the path into that war have the time to reflect and that they let their consciences rise to the surface. Then, I’d like to hear them blazen that Kipling line across all of the newspapers so that maybe maybe maybe someone will listen before shipping off more young men, and women, to die because of their lies.

    Comment by Laura — November 12, 2008 @ 3:22 pm

  3. Duchess, thank you for this lovely, thoughtful post. I suspect your mind and heart must be focused on the war going on now in the DRC, and how it will affect your daughter.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve passed on to your blog an award I received from another blogger. You can pick it up at my blog, if you care to stop by.

    Comment by Tessa — November 13, 2008 @ 7:55 am

  4. I’m starting to worry about you. I hope you’re o.k. Come back soon because I miss your very interesting posts. :)

    Comment by MLS — November 24, 2008 @ 7:00 am

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