This day matters so much because we’re so divided
TODAY, amid much sombre pomp, there will be ceremonies right across the land. Millions will watch as The Queen attends the Remembrance Day service, and leaders of the combatant nations will join each other in declaring ‘never again’.
Yet at the last significant anniversary, in 1968, 50 years since the Armistice, the Queen and Prince Philip weren’t even in the country. They were in Rio de Janeiro and it was left to the Duke of Kent to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph.
Then, there was a widespread feeling that it was time to call an end to the ceaseless commemoration, and instead to embrace the present and the future.
On this 100th anniversary, however, there seems to be a genuine popular desire to reimagine the horrors of that particularly horrible war. Why not follow the instincts of decades ago and allow it just to become history? After all, those who wore British uniforms and survived to the Armistice have now succumbed to natural causes.
The timing is part of it, perhaps. While Remembrance Sunday happens every year, today it falls on the 11th day of the 11th month. One hundred years ago today, at 11am, the blood-letting stopped.
There is more to it than an accident of timing, though. Britain has been walking backwards into the future for decades, revelling in long-gone glories on our way to car-boot sales or over spoonfuls of instant food eaten on self-assembly furniture. But this anniversary is more than the recollection of past glories (for whatever else it was, the Great War was not glorious).
Is the reason that we – rightly – take this centenary quite so seriously that we have become an angry nation, a people in search of unity and purpose? Britain in 2018 is a country that feels let down by our politicians and lied to by our media, while the custody of the Western world is in the hands of the most unattractive man to hold the office since it was first invented.
Remoaners claim that the vote to leave the European Union was an incoherent howl of ‘nothing can be worse than this.’ The country didn’t, they assert, know what it wanted, but it sure as hell didn’t like what it had.
This is a patronising insult to anyone voting to leave the European Union to regain control of national destiny. A sense of purpose matters, whether that’s for an individual or for a nation, and a sense of purpose is what so many of us will be reflecting on today.
HOW different was the Britain of the First World War, when millions of men and women came together and ‘did their bit’. Look at the photographs of the jolly young Tommies marching off to war and the female tram drivers, munitions workers and Land Army girls, also cheery for the camera: the nation they represent smiled in the face of hardship.
No one in their right mind would claim that pre-war Britain – where the women and most of those doing the dying couldn’t vote – was better than today. The quality of life was far worse. But the faces in these photographs are those of citizens answering what they felt to be a national call.
By the time of the Armistice, a staggering five million were wearing British military uniforms. But Britain is no longer a country where unanimity prevails. Today, we mark Remembrance Sunday to honour the memory of the empty places at so many family dinner tables – and it is this that should take precedence, not the grand plans and gestures of politicians here and abroad, who have their own purposes in mind.
The Great War was itself a political project. ‘The war that will end war’ had been HG Wells’s Pollyanna-ish claim in 1914. That it didn’t turn out to be anything of the kind was not the fault of those who died but of politicians.
It is not as if we had been forced into hostilities. There was no imminent threat to this country. The immediate casus belli was the German invasion of Belgium, which Britain had promised to protect way back in 1839.
Belgium is an inherently incoherent country, which is, of course why it now so jealously protects its role as seat of the supra-national European Union. But commitments are commitments, and the British Government could not hope to be taken seriously in the world if it ignored the country’s desperate pleas.
When Lloyd George was asked how he had got on at the treaty talks which followed the Armistice, he is supposed to have replied ‘Not badly, considering I was seated between Jesus Christ and Napoleon.’ Christ was the US president, Woodrow Wilson, a zealot who thought he could reshape the world, ‘Napoleon’ was the walrus-moustached French prime minister, Georges Clemenceau.
It is France’s curse to keep knitting one macramé Napoleon after another. The latest, Emanuel Macron, will lead his nation’s remembrance ceremonies and has said that the First World War memorials remind him of how important the EU is in obstructing European nationalisms. We can expect more of the same. The foundations of the European Union lie in France’s fear of Germany and Germany’s fear of itself.
It is notable that relations between the leaders of the two nations are still the most trumpeted in the block.
Oddly enough, when George Orwell looked back at the war, he thought that the average British soldier had emerged from it with contempt for French civilians and a sneaking respect for the German soldier. The British ruling class has been trying to make us love the French for generations, when in fact we have very little in common with them.
WE SHOULD never forget that the purpose of Remembrance Sunday is to honour the dead. All politicians need projects. But let us be wary of grand schemes. We should recall the extent to which respect for our ancestors is inextricably mixed up with how we feel about our country. Let’s get the relationship between individual sacrifice and national purpose right.
Courage is hard. Speeches are easy to make. And dangerous.
Jeremy Paxman’s Great Britain’s Great War is published by Penguin.