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The principal rationale for Armistice Day in Britain was comforting and supporting those suffering from grief. Parents of those killed in the First World War suffered from an unusual degree of stress. The war came at a time when attitudes to death in Britain were changing. Infant mortality had dropped significantly since the mid-1880s and the expectation that children would outlive their parents (commonplace today) was spreading. People were having small families and ‘investing’ more in their children. Many in the middle class and the more secure working class practiced family planning, limiting their families to one male child – the loss of a child was all the more devastating.

‘I could not bring myself to open the telegram. I knew what it contained. God! The agonies I suffered that bright New Year’s morning…hundreds of thousands, aye, millions of fathers and mothers will know just what I passed through for many hours and for many weeks. My only son. The one child that God gave us.’

Rudyard Kipling, whose choice of the biblical phrase ‘Their Name Liveth For Evermore’ is carved into hundreds of Stones of Remembrance in British military graveyards around the world, was haunted for the rest of his life by the death of his son John. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, tirelessly promoted spiritualism after the death of his son. Interest in spiritualism grew after the war as consolation offered by the established religions failed. The comfort of the traditional lengthy and extravagant Victorian mourning ritual was also unavailable – the mourning period had been cut short so as not to undermine morale and the war effort.

In the decades following the war Britain was a country of millions trying to come to terms with the death of those they lost. There are broadly two ways in which sudden death is coped with. The first is facing up to the memory of the deceased – being able to see the body is a useful component of the process – something that was rarely possible as burial happened on the battlefield and often bodies were never found. The second is to find meaning and purpose in the death.

/ meaning and purpose

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‘It is axiomatic that really great things cannot be repeated.’ wrote Alexander Cameron the day after. ‘Yesterday’s tribute was simple solemn, spontaneous and (in the restricted sense) universal. Let it also be unique. This would give it true distinction, and make it (as it deserves to be made) in the highest degree historic and memorable.’