Local Heroes in my London neighbourhood on Remembrance Sunday

I will never forget my very first Remembrance Sunday. For the first time I heard the words

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”

With the rest of the congregation I repeated “we will remember them.”  Then everyone began singing “God Save the Queen” to which I did not know the words at the time so like every other American in a similar situation I sang “My Country Tis of Thee” (it’s the same tune).  I remember thinking how odd it felt to be singing a national anthem at a worship service.  Most noticeable were the names of battles mentioned in the sermon – British battles whose names I had never heard.

Armistice Day now called Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in the United Kingdom have the same origin.  At first, they commemorated the end of World War One but later were modified to embrace the memory of all subsequent wars.  The United States and the United Kingdom are at war in the same places and the previous wars we commemorate were also shared wars but our ways of remembering are slightly different.

In the first place there is the issue of church and state. In Britain there is a two minute silence on the 11 November but it is not a national holiday with time off work.  Instead the major ceremonies are held on a Sunday.  It is interesting that in polls British people pronounce Britain secular. They also feel uncomfortable around American religious sensitivities yet Veterans Day ceremonies are largely secular and certainly not dominated by a single religion.  In Britain however, the clergy in the Church of England are part and parcel of Remembrance Day. Other religions are represented at the official commemoration at the Cenotaph but there is a ceremony at Westminster Abbey first.   There is no getting around the Queen’s role as head of the Church of England.

Next there are the poppies.  They are not much worn by Americans but in Britain they are everywhere. Journalists and politicians, so often at each other’s throats are united in their requirements for a crisp poppy every day.  No public figure dare be seen without one in early November to the point where there are grumblings that the collective mentality on poppies has gone too far and appears like ultra nationalism.  Like or not however, today not seeing those newsreaders and MPs wear a poppy would be like the President not wearing a pin with the flag or the great seal.  Don’t tell British friends but poppies as a remembrance symbol owe their existence to John McRae, a Canadian soldier who wrote a poem about the poppies growing in war torn Flanders, Moina Michael, an American who successfully campaigned for the poppy emblem and to Anna Guerin, a Frenchwoman who sold poppies in the United States and Britain.

In both countries a wreath is laid at  a Cenotaph or Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  In the UK the Cenotaph is on Whitehall, the main government thoroughfare.  In the US it is at Arlington Cemetary.  There the similarities  pretty much end.  Aside from the wreath laying , the focal point in Arlington is a presidential speech but in London it is a grand parade.

The British like any nationality have a few myths.  They like to think of themselves as a secular country, they like to think their imperial past is dead and gone and they like to think they are not overtly patriotic.  But all of that fades in the brilliance of the Remembrance Sunday ceremonies.  Remembrance Sunday begins with the Bishop of London and the choristers of the Queen’s Chapel taking their places near the Cenotaph.  Representatives of the Commonwealth also lay wreaths. The Commonwealth is  a collection of countries headed by the Queen consisting mostly of former colonies.  Although they are all independent countries, in some of them like Canada and Australia, the Queen is still head of state.  Looking at the commonwealth representatives laying their wreaths one is always struck that this is one public ceremony in the UK with a goodly number of Black people and especially Black women in prominence.  Had there been no empire, these people would not be there.  Once the official wreaths are laid there is the grand parade of veterans and associations supporting them.  The streets are lined with the public but also with the world’s best dressed military – the tough yet elegant looking British sailors and the army soldiers in their long grey coats and bear skin hats.

In a previous blog I wrote about the contrasting attitudes toward the military in the US and Britain including comments by a UK army chaplain begging the British public to write to their troops as the Americans wrote to US soldiers.  It is unfortunate and characteristic that whereas the President’s Veterans Day message last year called for employers to hire veterans, at the same time in Britain there was fury in the Ministry of Defense over a leaked memo suggesting that wounded soldiers be made redundant.

The military, the public and the politicians are in an interesting place.  Until the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the public profile of the military was low and the British Legion had for some years struggled to seem relevant.  People did not necessarily wear poppies or support the veterans associations. Military budgets were shrinking and that was before the economy crashed.   The wars have raised a lot of questions over the years.  The importance of US air support because of the lack of enough British military hardware caused a stir.   Other stories over the years included the scandal of proper clothing or enough guns to protect themselves under fire.  And finally, there is the  issue of support for veterans.  There is no veterans administration in the UK.  Private associations raise funds to take care of them. A journalist has asked if that is enough considering the need to monitor whether all veterans have access to hospital care or to highlight the level of stress for veterans and soldiers.

Most British people feel very uncomfortable about American style patriotism, especially when applied to the military.  Personally, I believe some of this is a reaction to mixed feelings about their imperial past in which the military was obviously very prominent.   Their grand military  ceremonies could not have arisen from lack of patriotism and military  pride.   What many of them do not realize is that the strong patriotism of Americans has directly benefited veterans in the form of home loans,  special health care facilities and of course college tuition and support.  As a country, the British have been supporting their troops more and more.  A journalist has even suggested that Remembrance is actually the national day for Britain (which does not have one.)  I see his perspective in that except for royal weddings,  it is about the only occasion where people come together as British subjects or citizens, as they now refer to  themselves.

But I do not believe Remembrance Sunday or Remembrance Day  can be considered the British ‘National Day’  given the controversy surrounding the leaked memo (which was actually sent to commanders in Afghanistan!) The fact that it was written in the first place and is now public with little detail regarding a support structure and the fact that this has not resulted in a  general public outcry, following years of cuts to the military indicates that while patriotism and support for veterans are rising, there are still mixed feelings about the role of the military in British society.  And ambivalence is a shaky foundation for nationalism.