Sunday, 11 November 2012

What does Remembrance Day mean for me?

The following is much of a post I wrote last year.  I thought it might be worth posting again today.

The Remembrance Days I attended at school in Edinburgh in the 1970s left a big impression on me.

First it was some of the teachers.  Several had seen action. One, a French teacher who was hopeless at keeping order, had been at Arnhem and was a bone fide war hero.  Another had been at Monte Cassino.  One of the primary teachers had been imprisoned by the Japanese and bore the mental scars as a result.  Another French teacher had taken a shrapnel wound.  And Bill Knox, the legendary and ubiquitous janny (janitor or care-taker if that term means nothing to you) had been evacuated from Dunkirk after a close shave.  Bill proudly wore his medal ribbons on his janitor’s uniform every day. 

It was obvious that Remembrance meant something to these men.  Sometimes a former pupil would attend the ceremony and they would stand in solemn thought considering their fallen classmates.  Once I saw the Deputy Head – a tough Aberdonian – escort one of these veterans who he had fought with to the memorial with his wreath.  I saw their faces – a stern stoicism masking deep emotion – as they walked out in the cold.

The second thing that affected me was the war memorial at the school with its names covering all four sides of a rather fine stone needle.  I stood and studied them more than once during my school days.  These were young men just like me – just like me!  They came from exactly the same place, from exactly the same background, with exactly the same life experience as me – just a couple of generations earlier.  But for the Grace of God...

These had been wars of national survival with a total mobilisation of the country.  If I had been alive I would have been there and so would my friends.  Something struck me that these boys deserved to be remembered.
Finally, as a young man I read a lot of history – I even went on to study it at university.  I read a lot about what these men went through, what they faced, what conditions were like.  I read the horrific combat statistics.  I read the accounts of battle.  I read the soldiers’ stories.  Many deaths were heroic but often they were just sad or tragic!

My Granny also left an impression on me.  Her husband (my Grandfather who I never knew) Hugh Young had been on the Somme (in one of the earliest tanks in fact).  He came back, but many of their friends and family did not.  Remembrance Day meant a lot to my Granny – or the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month as she called it.

My Granny and the teachers at my school left and indelible impression on me.  Remembrance Day was about remembering the people who had died and it was about raising money to support those who had been scarred by war.

I heard a guy on the radio form the White Poppy movement.  Now pacifism is a laudable and absolutely legitimate position to hold and to campaign for.  But this man was ungenerous, mean spirited, ill informed and talked complete and utter guff.

In a funny way I have never understood those who say Remembrance Day is militaristic.  Because the day focuses on remembering the people who have died I have always thought pacifists and those who are uncomfortable about our foreign adventures should be amongst the most passionate exponents and participants in Remembrance Day.  It is after all a day we focus on the true cost of war and the pity of war!

It is about remembrance whether we approve or disapprove of any given war.

Kate Higgins told the story of the origins of Remembrance Day and the Poppy in her blog 'Poppy Cock' earlier this week.  I think she is spot on in what she says.  The one big difference is that the meaning of symbols and ceremonies do evolve, like language, over time.  

So, I always wear the poppy because I believe:
  1. We should never forget what happened in two world wars in the 20th century and try to learn the lessons from them.
  2. In remembrance of those who died in those wars – even if not known personally.
This means thinking of the 2nd war which was a war of national survival for us – a war which pulled us and so many other countries into a conflict with tyranny.  This means thinking of the 1st war where the slaughter was on an almost industrial scale – a much more complex conflict to understand but still a war of national survival although with a real sense of millions dying in the war games of a ruling elite.  This means thinking of the young who had their lives torn up to face fear and for many of them sacrifice.

Today wars are not of national survival and sometimes appear morally ambiguous. Iraq was wrong! Afghanistan was probably the right thing to do but has become less clear cut as time has gone on.

Nevertheless, these are security actions and it is important that they are undertaken and more to the point that we have men and women who are ready and willing to go into combat if called on.  And we should remember those people who die and we should look after those who are maimed or suffer mental torment afterwards.

Remembrance Day – lest we forget!


  1. Take a look at your fellow Liberal Andrew Page's take on this. He gets it spot on - I'm afraid you don't,

  2. Thanks for your comments anyway. It is of course a piece about opinion and how I feel - so in that sense it is spot on. Andrew is saying something different - especially about his Polish relatives and their experience.

  3. My recollections of my Grandfather were as I remembered them from my mum. My brother has been in touch because he recently looked into some family history and the WW1 records. My Grandfather was indeed in tanks but was not at the front until the year after the Somme (where tanks had indeed made their first appearance).
    My Grandfather Hugh Young - from Darvel in Ayrshire, was posted to France in 1917. He joined the gunners, and then the machine gun corps. He transferred to the tank corps in January 1918 and was wounded at Villers-Bretonnex on April 1918.

  4. I don't think Gavin gets it wrong at all. As I stated in my own piece, I think Remembrance Day means different things to different people and that we should all respect that!

  5. Thanks Andrew. I absolutely agree with you. I found your Polish perspective fascinating, as I did what you said about someone from Derry. I also thought you said something quite important about heroism and how the combatants themselves often feel about that word.

    I think it is important that people who wear the poppy respect and understand those who celebrate in different ways. Equally I think those who perhaps feel uncomfortable with our remembrance traditions respect and understand them. I picked out how laudable a tradition I think pacifism is for example.

    I think I was making the plea that however you come to this and whatever it is that you care to remember, an act of remembrance of some description is worthy.

  6. Indeed Gavin. I enjoyed reading your own observations too. So long as Remembrance events cultivate a spirit of tolerance and understanding I will continue to support them, even if I'm more than a little uncomfortable with some of the "baggage" that comes with them. We all take different things away from Remembrance Sunday in the same way that we all have different experiences and understandings of the role of the military.

    The thing about my Polish relatives is that I don't know any of them. My grandad died before I was born; the rest of his family remained in Poland as far as we know. Being Jews, we can only guess at what became of them - but clearly my grandad felt there was nothing to go home for. So for us, Remembrance is not so much about remembering facts about people we know, but reflecting on uncertainties that (oddly) are no less real.

    My mum never wears a poppy. I have to admit that I do, but prefer to wear a white one if possible.

    "I was making the plea that however you come to this and whatever it is that you care to remember, an act of remembrance of some description is worthy." Absolutely, and in spite of our very different perspectives, this is something we should all agree on.

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