Is Remembrance Sunday set in stone?
The Cenotaph service and parade in Whitehall on the Sunday closest to 11 November is the UK’s most important annual symbolic ceremony. It evokes the image of Britain standing alone in two world wars. High commissioners from Commonwealth countries play a marginal role, and a scattering of veterans from other countries participate in the concluding march past. But by and large this is a purely British event, with rituals and music passed down over the last century.
Except that it has not been entirely unchanged, nor free from political decisions about inclusion and exclusion. The first procession past the temporary Cenotaph, in July 1919, was led by Gen John J. Pershing, heading an American contingent. Belgian soldiers came next, followed by Portuguese, Czechs and others. Marshal Foch and French troops followed, before British sailors and soldiers. Troops from the Dominions and India also paraded – but not from the West Indies or West Africa. The Colonial Office decided that “it would not be politic to bring coloured detachments to participate in the peace procession”.
The first ceremonies were secular. The religious service, and the Albert Hall Festival of Remembrance, were added in the years following. In 1920 the British government informed foreign embassies that the ceremony of remembrance that year was intended to be “strictly national in character”.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s there were challenges inside and outside Parliament to troops carrying weapons at a remembrance ceremony, and from pacifists to its perceived glorification of war.
The meaning and relevance of this great national ceremony is unavoidably changing as the memory of the wars becomes history
During preparations for the first post-Second World War ceremony, in 1946, Ernest Bevin decided Polish soldiers in Britain, part of the fourth-largest national contingent among the allies, should be excluded from the parade, in deference to Soviet sensitivities. Not until the 60th anniversary of VE Day were Polish veterans (now British citizens) granted a visible role.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government also decided to move the date from 11 November to the nearest Sunday, after considering other dates such as the US’s Memorial Day in May.
The immediacy of a ceremony that marked, for many of those attending, the loss of children, siblings or parents in the years after both world wars has now gone. For most teenagers today, the Second World War is something their great-grandparents took part in; the First World War is even more remote. The meaning and relevance of this great national ceremony is unavoidably changing as the memory of the wars becomes history. How, then, do we ensure that it attracts and retains the attention of succeeding generations?
The national ceremonies of other states – most markedly the French 14 July parade – are notably more inclusive of allies and former colonial contributions. British troops have marched down the Champs Élysées on several occasions. The centenary of American entry into the First World War was commemorated in Paris by US troops leading the parade, with their president looking on. The only British event to commemorate US entry was held on the north-west coast of Islay, unnoticed by national TV. French ceremonies have also included representatives of UN peacekeeping forces and Nato allies, so symbolising – unlike the Cenotaph ceremony – the current security challenges that France and its partners face.
There are significant elements in Britain’s population today who are here partly because their forebears fought for Britain. A carefully-inclusive national ceremony should remind British citizens of Caribbean descent that a previous generation volunteered in large numbers in both world wars – and remind other British citizens that many of those on HMT Empire Windrush were returning after military service in the Second World War. Many South Asian immigrants also came from families with military service, unrecognised in a way that makes sense to their British descendants.
Familiar music and well-loved hymns comfort my generation and reassert our shared national identity. But if we want our children and grandchildren to understand Remembrance Sunday as symbolising a national identity they also share, rather than the nostalgia of their elders, gradual and sensitive changes are now desirable.
Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat peer.
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