armistice pals

Remembrance of Our Dead from the Great War

November 18, 2014 | Nick Taylor

In the last few weeks the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace has received great support from the Armistice Pals, a community of musicians and supporters who have come together to record and sing the song ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone’ in commemoration and to raise funds for our charity work.  As we continue to reflect, journalist Emma Canterbury has written exclusively for the Foundation in remembrance of our dead from the ‘Great War.’

A century after the signing of the armistice that marked the Western Front ceasefire at 11 o’clock on 11 November 1918, the event is still remembered with as much unity of feeling and an overwhelming sense of its relevance to our own times as it ever was. Although the final peace treaty was not signed until 28 June 1919 and allied troops were not withdrawn from Istanbul until 23 August 1923, when the war legally ended, perhaps it is fitting that the earlier armistice date is the one chosen to remember the dead: a day of solemnity and hope for the future, before the ‘war to end wars’ could be seen for what it really was, the violent birth of a new and bloodier Europe.

There is now no one alive who can remember the Great War first hand as a combatant. The last surviving member of the armed forces, Florence Green, who was 17 years old when she served as an officers’ mess steward in the Women’s Royal Air Force during the final few months of the war, died aged 110 in 2012. The last surviving combatant, Royal Navy Chief Petty Officer Claude Choules, died also aged 110 in 2011. In 1919 at Scapa Flow he witnessed what could be called the final major action of the war, the scuttling of the German fleet on the orders of General Ludwig von Reuter.

War is still very much a part of modern life. The sacrifices that the armed forces make on our behalf are as visible and painfully obvious as they were a hundred years ago. A new generation of children who have lost their fathers or seen them return disabled by war share the suffering of those left to pick up the pieces of their lives in 1918, and will ensure that Armistice Day is marked for another hundred years.

Supporters and critics

It would be easy from our viewpoint to see Armistice Day as an event that has always been sacrosanct as a solemn occasion of remembrance. This was not always so. In 1919, critics denounced it as a glorification of war. Unemployed ex-servicemen boycotted it, weary of its perpetual glorification of the dead while the promised ‘land fit for heroes’ remained an illusion. For many people deprived of fun and frivolity for years, it became an excuse for drinking and celebration, although what has really endured to this day is the respect given to the fallen, the symbolism of the poppy, the tombs of the unknown soldiers and the two-minute silence that has become a poignant and unifying memorial to the dead.

In Ireland, where there was no conscription, the volunteers who went off to war were disowned by Nationalists and by successive governments of the new Republic. In Northern Ireland, Armistice Day and the iconography that goes along with it was seized upon by Unionists as an emotional weapon to be used against the Nationalists and a message to the British of the debt they were owed. It became part of the bloody story of the Irish conflict in 1987, when 11 people were killed in the Remembrance Day bombing in Enniskillen. This conflict and all the other foreign wars of the late 20th century and early 21st century only add to our awareness of the sacrifice made by the military and civilians caught up in war. It as important to mark our debt to them as it is to remember what they suffered, and that help for the disabled or chronically sick victims of any war should be a matter of course. Soon after the war was over, it was established in all the countries involved that there should be some sort of health care and financial support for veterans.

Coming together

In 1 June 1954, the United States abandoned Armistice Day, which was essentially a day of remembering their dead from the Great War, and in its place initiated the national Veteran’s Day holiday. This was only a year after the end of the Korean War, and was meant to be a day for honouring all Americans who had fought in their wars, living or dead. It became less a day of peace and remembrance than a celebration that emphasises the heroes of war. Their war dead are remembered on Memorial Day, which takes place each year on the last Monday in May. This originally commemorated the soldiers of the north and south who died in the American Civil War, but has been extended to honour all Americans who have died while serving in the armed forces.

One of the largest Armistice Day ceremonies is held in Belgium at the Menin Gate, Ypres. The gate itself was built in 1927 and marks one of the exit points from which soldiers left the town of Ypres for the front line. It is dedicated to the dead from the British and Commonwealth armies who died here and have no graves. There is no more solemn and fitting architectural expression of the tragedy of war, and every year under the great stone arched roof of the memorial edifice the ceremony of the Last Post is marked by the sound of a single bugle and the release of red poppies.

All the memorials to the dead of the Great War are entirely lacking in the pompous glorification of previous war memorials and triumphal arches. The celebration of the first Armistice Day on 11 November 1919 marked a change in official attitudes towards war, which reflected more accurately the feelings of the families of the dead and injured. One hundred years later, the day is still marked above all else by an overwhelming sadness at the loss of life, and new memorials such as the great poppy field installation at the Tower of London and the new Ring of Remembrance at Ablan Saint Nazarre, near Arras in France, reflect this and provide a fitting focus for remembrance and contemplation.