Remembrance of Things Lost
Peter Kellow writes
It is fitting that our main day of remembrance, on the 10th of November each year, is Armistice Day. It is a celebration neither of an end to war nor of victory, but merely an armistice. And an armistice is nothing more than the start of a ceasefire, a period in which no shots are fired - until the killing begins again.
It is fitting because the ceasefire that we mark is that which began with the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1918 that lasted a mere 20 years before war began again.
And it is fitting because we have in no way seen the end of wars. Britain for the last ten years has been continually at war with someone somewhere and still is - with no end in sight. We have not seen an end to war – nor even a genuine general armistice.
Armistice Day refers to the end of the First World War which did not finish with victory for either side. The armistice or ceasefire was declared because Germany had lost the will to continue. But she did not surrender. You might even say it was an act of humanity for her to stop fighting recognizing that to go on was futile.
But the Allies were duplicitous and she was punished horribly for her action with the Allies insisting on an absurd level of reparations from Germany for a war that they, the Allies, were as much to blame for. Their aim was to cripple the German economy by subjugating her to unpayable debts. This laid the groundwork for the end of the ceasefire in 1939. As European war drew to a close in 1945, Germany would not again submit to a ceasefire but fought to the end - to the death.
The 1914-18 hostilities that engulfed Europe created a deep rupture in the history of European civilisation from which we have never recovered. It destroyed not just lives and economies but faith in the culture as a progressive force. The European nations, for all their sophistication in so many areas, returned to barbarism and self-annihilation. And the most poignant thing of all was that no one knew why – and they still don’t. Historians still argue about the causes of a conflict that killed a whole generation of European youth.
Meanwhile Armistice Day forms a fitting and necessary tribute - in spite of doubts being expressed about its symbols and its meaning.
The wearing of the red poppy, for instance, has been called into question, but it holds a pure and simple idea. It asks that we remember the soldiers of our nation that gave their lives, or sustained lifelong injury, in war against other nations.
It does not refer to the many civilians who died and suffered in wars and nor should it, for that would dilute its meaning.
It makes no comment on the justice or not, or the necessity or not, of the wars in which the military died and nor should it, for to do so would compromise the memory of the bravery, selflessness and sacrifice that they made.
And it does not refer to the soldiers of other nations that died. Nor should it. They are fittingly and properly remembered elsewhere.
It does not speak of the folly of war but only the tragedy of war. The message of remembrance of the fallen remains clear and unambiguous.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has been criticised for saying (in response to a FIFA Ban on the English football team wearing an embroidered poppy on their strip) "Wearing a poppy is an act of huge respect and national pride." FIFA claimed that the poppy was “political” and Cameron’s reference to “national pride” seemed to confirm this in the eyes of some. Well, if national pride is political, so be it.
Of course we need to have an enduring sense of the universal horrors of war in the general sense, but that is not what the poppy is about.
It focuses on the tragedy of our nation. And the fact that a hoped-for general armistice has still not arrived - leave alone a permanent peace.
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