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Thoughts on remembrance Day

This study pack is suitable for secondary schools, including GCSE, whilst some may be applicable to GCE Advanced Level. (This document is also available as pdf file)

It contains the following issues about Remembrance Day:
- the meanings of Remembrance Day;
- juxtaposed views on the significance of the ceremony;
- the emotions apparent at the ceremony;
- glorifying militarism and justifying war;
- the symbolism of red and white poppies.

Remembrance Day began as Armistice Day in 1919. Since then, has its meaning and significance changed?

1. Material for the preparation of assemblies.

The Meaning of Remembrance Day.
Once again we approach the time when, for several minutes of our lives, we are urged to reflect upon the millions of people who lost their lives fighting for a ‘cause’ during World Wars I and II earlier this century. Many people generally see Remembrance Day as a significant event. However, what does this phenomenon mean? We should put two basic questions during school, or similar, assemblies around the time of Remembrance Day. First, what exactly is being remembered? Second, what is the significance of the day?
   There are several ‘views’ on this. Below we briefly outline two views, one ‘official’ in the sense that it is most likely to be accepted by those in authority, and one ‘unofficial’ - a different, alternative view. This may be less acceptable to governments and those concerned with perpetuating dominant ideas in British society. In the time available for your assembly, you could offer one and/or both of these views, leaving your audience to think about the issues involved in one/each. You may wish to provide an opportunity for allowing discussion at some point.




Remembrance Day: A Different View
The Peace Pledge Union believes that meeting each year for a relatively brief ceremony in which the trappings and nostalgia of war are clearly prominent will not ensure that we learn the lessons of past and present tragic conflicts. Wars will not be ended by glorifying what happened in past wars. The Peace Pledge Union challenges us to remember all those who died and are dying in war by working to prevent wars ever happening again. The white poppy is a symbol, a “pledge to peace that war must not happen again’. It is also a challenge to the worn-out belief in war, which after all, is only a human invention, not an inescapable biological imperative.


Remembrance Day: An Official View
It is the time at which we remember all those who have given their lives fighting to protect the freedom that we experience today. It is an organised, official ceremony when red poppies are sold to help those disabled by two world wars. It is also a commemoration of war. Its ceremonial aspects include parades, services, laying of wreaths of red poppies at the Cenotaph and at war memorials throughout Britain. The Festival is televised and on radio, and thus “unites millions of people throughout the world in a moving ceremony which enables us to remember all those who have given their lives for our country not only in the two World Wars but in some seventy “peacetime” conflicts which have occurred since 1945 and still continue”.
  The Peace Pledge Union position may also be summarised through the words of Joseph Gerson, who said, in relation to the Holocaust: ‘Never again to anyone. Never participate in the crime of silence...we are all agents of history, regardless of our consciousness or intentions’.
(Joseph Gerson ‘With Hiroshima Eyes'1995).


2. Material for Classroom Activities (and workshop/seminar use)
Some considerations to help you think about Remembrance Day. Add your own responses. The aim here is to raise awareness of the different ways of seeing Remembrance Day.

Issues for discussion
"The supreme trick of mass insanity is that it persuades you that the only abnormal person is the one who refuses to join in the madness of others, the one who resist." Eugene Ionesco


  To the Glorious Dead


Activity One
What messages are conveyed by the picture of a partially destroyed cenotaph?
- What is Ionesco trying to say here?
- Does it make sense to resist war? List the arguments for and against resisting.

Although Remembrance Day services have altered in form, content and even significance, they still constitute certain characteristics.


Activity Two
They are emotional and ‘sentimental’ occasions which tend to celebrate the very cause of war.

Think of examples of what for you are ‘sentimental occasions’. Discuss with several friends what makes them sentimental. How do they compare and contrast with Remembrance Day as such an occasion? [Note: you may have to briefly discuss/find out about just what is involved in Remembrance Day].


Activity Three
They glorify militarism and war, stereotyping a ‘common enemy’ and providing justification for mass violence. The armed forces are portrayed as ‘heroes’.
What meanings are conveyed by the following extract from a poem by Wilfred Owen.

If you could hear at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Whilst the ‘glory’ of war was being questioned here, the horror of war at the ‘front’ was portrayed by poets like Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. However, the hideousness of war was not confined to the trenches. The following extracts are a description of a ‘clearing station’ in the First World War, written by the German poet Wilhelm Klemm.

Whiteness in the quarter-open eyes of those near death.
The rhythmical groaning of those with a stomach wound.
The terrified expression on dead faces.
The ribbons of spilt blood, on which one loses one’s footing.
The gamut of odours.
The great pitchers full of pus, cotton-wool, blood, amputated
The dressings full of maggots. the wounds full of bone
and straw.

Intestines hang out. From a ripped saddle of flesh
the spleen and stomach have welled.

- Make a list of other horrors of war, especially of wars since 1918.
- In what ways does the horror of war strengthen Owen’s position?


Activity Four
Some people believe war to be just under certain conditions; the conditions may include the following:

- First, it must have just aims. These could include the aim to restore peace in the face of a brutal and unjust dictator.
Activity: If you think that you need to utilise aggression to meet aggression what issues are raised by this view?. What problems does this pose for the idea of ‘justice’? Discuss these questions in a small group.

- Second, a ‘just’ war must be justly waged, ensuring that the good will outweigh the evil of a particular war, and that war must only be undertaken as a last resort.
Activity: Can war ever be good? List the characteristics of a good war, and then list the counter-arguments alongside them. Which do you think is the stronger case and why?

- Third, a just war should be one declared by a legitimate authority.
Activity: Discuss the following questions.What makes a government legitimate? Does this mean that we have to accept legitimate violence, such as war, whilst not accepting illegitimate violence (as defined by governments) such as terrorism?

Conscientious objectors. who oppose ‘legitimate wars’ may be defined by a government as being outside the law.
Find out what happened to conscientious objectors during the Second World War.
Taking either the Falklands War or the Gulf War as an example, outline the main arguments for and against a ‘just war’.


Activity Five
Remembrance Day is symbolised by the red poppy which may represent the blood of allied heroes, and, since we are urged to wear it with pride, tends to symbolise war as militaristic and characterised by glory. In contrast white poppies symbolise a commitment to working for peace, a refusal to take part in any more wars, whilst focusing on regret rather than glory.

- What ideas, issues and messages are suggested by the cartoon below?
- The white poppy signifies opposition to war in terms of pacifist principles. Find out more about pacifism [use a dictionary and/or encyclopedia]. What principles might pacifists hold?
- During 1986, after Margaret Thatcher’s statement in the House of Commons that she felt ‘distaste’ for those selling white poppies, opposition against the Peace Pledge Union, which distributed white poppies, was very strong throughout the media generally. Why do you think this occurred? What do you think was the purpose of such opposition?

'At least by wearing red poppies rather than white we can show that we prefer armed safety to innocent slavery, and that we recognise the vital connection between preparing for war and maintaining peace. White may be the colour of innocence and virtue, but it is also that of surrender. Red may be the colour of blood, but it is also that of warning'. (The Times newspaper 8.11.86.)

Activity Write a letter to a newspaper agreeing or disagreeing with the view expressed in the above newspaper extract.


Silkin J ed. The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry 1981 Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wright C & Augarde T eds Peace is the Way 1990 Cambridge: Lutterworth Press.
Remembering war searching for peace. 1998 PPU study Pack
War Requiem - Symphony by Benjamin Britten, (Member of the PPU till his death




Peace Pledge Union 1, Peace Passage, London N7 0BT. CONTACT