Unveiling the cenotaph 1919

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Armistice Day

Armistice Day has its accidental origin in the day that the major World War One combatants chose to call a halt to the four years of bloody fighting and killing. After some days of negotiating an armistice was signed at 5am on the 11th November 1918 in a railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne in France and in Britain, was announced by the King at 11 am that day.

On the first anniversary of the signing of the armistice in 1919 some felt that the date should marked by some ceremony. Others thought that the Victory parade to mark the signing of the peace treaty and therefore the end of the war a few months earlier had been sufficient and proper drawing of the line between war and peace. In the event a hastily arranged ceremony was held in London which to everyone’s surprise was an enormously moving event. Perhaps it should not have been such a surprise – the relatives of a million dead made up a sizable reservoir of grief, which found a meaningful focus in this, originally, amorphous ritual.

The organiser did not plan or want this to be a regular event but its ‘popularity’ and widespread promotion in the press turned it into a well attended annual event in the years that followed. Vested interests played and continue to play their part. The government, originally unenthusiastic now saw the ceremony in a more positive light – the glorious dead who did not die in vain, now from their graves came to justify the four years of slaughter. Few dared to say that men had died and killed for no good reason. And so it is today.

By the mid 1920s attendance at Armistice Day ceremonies declines and continued to decline until the late 1930 when there was a slight revival of interest as anxiety of another war became widespread.

Armistice Day ceremonies were abandoned during the war years after which Armistice Day became Remembrance Day, which now took place on the Sunday closed to 11th November – ceremonies would no longer disrupt the working day.

In the post Second War years participation in Remembrance Day events was negligible with occasional mini peaks such as after the Falklands war. The 50th anniversary of the end of the Second Word War with its many widespread ‘anniversary’ events triggered a widespread fascination with things military – part nostalgia, part insecurity about the present. This interest was seized on and promoted by the tourist and heritage industry.

Today attendance at Remembrance Day ceremonies grows as an increasingly wider circle of groups – almost any institution that had some connection with war – want to be associated with it - even Gordon Brown wanted it to be a National Day. But ownership of Remembrance Day is in the hands of others.

The British Legion’s Poppy appeal whose central driver is Remembrance Day called for more and more money even before the rise in British military casualities in the last few years. The Legion poppies now dominate images on our television screens and in newspapers even as their number dwindles on the streets. Today few public figures dare to appear without a red poppy somewhere on their person in the day before Remembrance Sunday.

As in 1919 so in 2006 even most opponents of war dare not criticise those who go off to kill. Unlike most of the men in World War One who were forced into the armed forces today’s soldiers are volunteers and are now paid extra for doing the dirty work.

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