Confessions of a WW1 historian: Remembrance Tourist

A week before Remembrance Day 2014, I took a trip to the Tower of London to see the moat of poppies. There had been no rush to do so as in my mind they would be there for the four years of the war. Thankfully, someone put me right but by that time, there were signs in underground stations telling one to avoid the crowds at Tower Hill Station. I planned my visit at the start of the day and was astounded at the numbers who clearly had had the same idea.

The route I chose to the Tower took me through the nearby memorials to those who lost their lives at sea. Surprisingly, as I stopped to take some photos, I was pleasantly surprised to see a few (literally one or two) others taking a look.

The Tower surrounds were abuzz. Before getting to the viewing spots, poppy sellers lurked flogging their wears. Cameras abounded from ipads to sophisticated things on tripods. A couple even took a selfie. On exiting the area, a poppy seller was heard to say enthusiastically that he’d already made about £20 (at 8.30am).

This added to my reflections on Remembrance Day per se and being an historian of one of the most significant wars of all time, that which started 100 years ago this year, I’ve had much to ponder upon.

I had already decided not to do a special Remembrance Day blog but to rather reflect on what took place (and my review of David’s book felt an appropriate act for the week). I certainly didn’t expect to start it earlier!

I had forgotten the morning of my Tower visit to wear my “100” year badge from The National Archives (@UKNationalArchives). This badge would be especially fitting given the year, instead of a poppy. However, I felt distinctly underdressed with no outward symbol of remembrance, and so succumbed when I spotted two veterans manning a table which included poppy badges. I’d really had my eye on one for a few years but never seemed to be in an area where they were sold. We engaged in some chatter following my comment that the only reason I’d stopped was for that specific poppy. In answer to their confused looks – I remember every day of the year. More confusion until told I was an historian of WW1. Well, not surprising they didn’t know the last surrender took place at Abercorn on 25 November 1918 and I didn’t know where the last British soldier had fallen on the Western Front – close to where the first had fallen. In some ways, this little exchange felt like a competition; who knew more? Was it important?

The pressure of wearing a poppy was increased by a headline I’d spotted in the Metro newspaper on 5 November: “1 in 6 refuse to wear poppy” and the variations of poppies being worn was quite something. I can’t complain about this as I had a special choker of poppies crocheted for this anniversary period.

Everywhere one looked, there was some reminder of World War 1: London Transport embraced the centenary with a sponsored board in every station and a painted model bus outside the old War Office which I spotted when I went to see the wonderful photographic exhibition – at that time in St James’ Park.

It seems I’m not alone in my thinking – thanks to a friend for sending me this link after we’d been talking about the issue.

Remembrance Sunday was quite different. It was spent with friends at a church which became a VAD Hospital 100 years ago, on 19 November 1914 when the first patients arrived at St John’s Presbyterian Church, Northwood (@NorthwoodArts). It was a time for reflection and afterwards, once those who remembered at the cenotaph had finished, a local school had a series of workshops and talks for those who were interested.

The question then: Who is remembrance for?

Some see it as an opportunity to fundraise for veterans of war and those who have suffered through violence. The British Legion made  the poppy an integral part of its image in 1995. Since then the poppy has evolved and you can now purchase wall plates, bags, badges, brooches and a myriad of other items all featuring the poppy.  It’s a tough line to walk – where is the line between informing to fundraise or turning the day into a commercial moneymaker no different to Valentine’s Day, Halloween or even Christmas?

Others have taken the opportunity to use this centenary year as a platform to speak out against war equating remembrance and the study of conflict as condoning and approving of violence to resolve differences. Personally, I think this is missing the point and undermines the sacrifice so many made for something they felt worth fighting for (voluntarily or otherwise). I believe there are other ways to resolve conflict, however, I am realist enough to know that war/violence happens and is sometimes necessary, so rather than try and understand why it happened, I look to the why and how it came to be what it was and continued for as long as it did. What is constantly striking is that through all the horrors of war, there are so many positives – not least the humanity of man. It is by building on these positives that reconciliation can (slowly but surely) take place if people work at it.

And then there’s the group for whom the day is something special. A time to remember those who have passed onto another world, family and friends, known and unknown, those who survived – maimed physically and/or mentally, and those who who stayed at home doing what they could to support those on active service. For them, the two minutes’ silence is all encompassing – as it was meant to be when visualised by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick.

Having spent all this time reflecting, the irony of 11 November 2014, is that I missed the official 2 minutes’ silence! I was working at home in silence on the memoirs of a doctor who served in World War 1 East Africa (forthcoming) and adding names to the Great War in Africa ‘In Memory’ lists (under each theatre).

So, what have I learned from this year’s Remembrance activities?

It’s the personal that matters – There is nothing more moving than spending time with like-minded others reflecting between the Last Post and the Reveille. And so, I’ll live with the tourism aspect of Remembrance – it sows the seed for deeper remembering and reflection – and participate in it to the extent I feel appropriate.

Thank you to all my living soldier/veteran friends and to ‘my boys’ (and ‘girls’) of days gone by who help me remember every day of the year. Your sacrifices were not in vain.


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