Has the meaning of Remembrance Day been lost?

It is Remembrance Sunday. In an hour’s time, the country will descend into silence as we collectively remember people who have died in conflict.

I have always and will always respect this aspect of our culture. People who have lost their lives, or been injured, trying to protect others or following orders from their country deserve not to be forgotten. Similarly, civilians who have been killed in conflict deserve the same respect.

Yet I am increasingly disconcerted by the way this simple yet important tradition is being twisted into something much less meaningful.

The wearing of a poppy in November is a simple, unassuming and unintrusive way to demonstrate your respect for those who have died, and to raise money for the Royal British Legion to support those who are still affected by the consequences of serving in the armed forces. Yet these days the simple poppy seems to have been hijacked by the perils of politics, celebrity and social media to the point that it’s losing its meaning.

Every programme in the run up to Remembrance Day must shoehorn in some reference to soldiers, however strange and meaningless it may seem. A case in point was the introduction of last night’s Strictly Come Dancing, where the presenters briefly lowered their tone to give deference to the service personnel invited to sit on the front row, pausing for a millisecond before switching back to jolly mode and returning to the glitz and sparkle of the show. You cannot blame them for focussing on the glitter and dancing – that’s the point of the show – but it made me wonder what the point of referencing the armed services was if there wasn’t really time to focus on it? And this is a pattern that has repeated itself across all things media over the past few weeks.

While these half hearted references seem to demean the message slightly, other references I’ve seen on social media have felt downright inappropriate and verging on offensive.

This weekend Twitter has been full of comments on Remembrance Day, as you may expect. While I’m unsure of how much emotion you can ever invest in a 140 character tweet, I was amazed at the unashamed brazenness of people posting ‘Poppy Selfies’, with their inane grinning faces blocking out the view of the Poppy installation at the Tower of London. Is that really the best way to show your respect? Though I guess it is somewhat more appropriate than the picture I saw posted yesterday afternoon of a glass of wine with the poppy resting on the bottom: ‘having a toast to those who have fallen’ read the caption. Is this the best way up can think of doing that? Tweeting a picture from a fancy wine bar? Or are you just filling time while your friend is in the loo?

Perhaps I’m being old fashioned. Media has changed the way we view things and perhaps Remembrance Day is just changing to reflect that. Some may even find me hypocritical for criticising others while myself spending the morning of Remembrance Day writing a blog – perhaps a fair accusation. Yet I still feel sad that the true meaning of Remembrance Day has been forgotten.

‘Lest we forget’

Surely the message was that we must never forget, partly because to forget would be to risk it happening again. 100 years on from the start of ‘The war to end all wars’ we still live in a world plagued by conflict. As I type, people across the world are living in fear as conflict destroys lives and livelihoods, and families sit at home worrying about the people they love stationed abroad within these conflicts.

I am fortunate enough not to know anyone who has died in conflict, so I cannot truly spend the 2 minutes silence remembering individuals lost to war. I will leave that important and meaningful experience to their families. I, instead, will think about the scale of the lives lost to conflict, in the past and the present, and that to truly remember and honour those people we need to find a way to stop it happening again. I don’t want to see ‘hero soldiers’ on my TV because I want to live in a world where we don’t need them, where peace treaties, negotiations and ongoing global relations make conflict unnecessary and genuinely a thing of the past. I want my children to live in a world where no one has to fear a phone call or a letter informing them of a loss of a loved one in conflict. I hope that my children and grandchildren will find Remembrance Day a strange and obscure concept, because they will be ‘remembering’ people who died a long time ago, not where people are still dying in conflict even on the day of remembrance.

I realise that this seems a hopelessly ideological aim, but it’s still worth aiming for and surely a key part of what Remembrance Day is for: commemorating those who have died and aiming to ensure it doesn’t happen again. That will only happen through genuine reflection and meaningful thought and discussion – not tokenistic media references or ‘poppy selfies’.

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6 responses

  1. How bizarre to hear about the effect social media has had on Remembrance Day. Very thoughtful piece – it’s the simplicity as you say that is so affecting. It’s supposed to be, for those two minutes, about what people *don’t* do and not about what they are rushing to do. Maybe we find that increasingly difficult to take into our lives.

    1. Really interesting point. I think you’ve managed to sum up in one comment what I was trying to say. You’re probably right that we find it increasingly difficult to just do nothing and sit back and reflect.

      1. It was very apt that I read your piece just after the silence. I’m always very moved by the silence – even though today I was just sitting in Waitrose car park listening to the radio. I did wish everyone observed it though – fair enough if you are already driving, but to actually pull out of the car park oblivious as I saw people doing I found a bit sad.

  2. Poppy selfies? I am horrified (but not enormously surprised) to hear that such things exist.
    This is a very good post – I agree that Remembrance Sunday has changed a lot. Thinking back to the difference from when we were growing up, I think a big part is the two wars Britain has been involved in the last 11 years and public/media attitudes to them and service personnel. The steady increase in recent British war dead, and war wounded in our society, seem to have given rise to a sense in the media that we have to talk about them a lot more. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but it means that they get coverage all year and then a *lot* more coverage at the traditional time when we paid a limited amount of attention to the dead or wounded: Remembrance Sunday.
    We grew up in the long aftermath of the Falklands War, when the attitude to servicemen and women was very different (fewer poppies were sold then than pre-1982) and the IRA bombing threat meant that we didn’t see service personnel in the streets (this made a big difference in Colchester at least), so it was easier for them not to be ignored outside the first week of November. Serving and ex-military people were sidelined then; now we’ve swung a long way the other way and hear about them a lot more (plus there are loads of heritage/nostalgia TV programmes). I think that all this diminishes the importance of Remembrance Day; it makes it more of the same rather than something that stands out. Similarly, Help For Heroes collect all year round, which is fine and worthy of course, but reduces the specialness of the RBL poppy. Modern media – social and broadcast – has definitely changed the event too, as you say.
    Another thing that has changed in the two decades is the reclaiming of Armistice Day for the 2-minute silence. This means we now have two 2-minute silences. Remembrance Sunday was a post-1945 invention to replace Armistice Day, partly designed to reduce the disruption of having a silence during the week. Personally, I prefer the disruptive silence: like Denise says, it’s about what you’re not doing in order to stay silent. That’s going to have more impact during the week, I think.

    1. Food for thought. I had thought about Help the Heroes but not the impact it would have on RBL fundraising. Interestingly, after I wrote the post we went to the park and I actively looked and could only see one person wearing a poppy. Seemed really surprising.

      I agree about the mid week silence. It also means it’s more likely to be collective for most, who will be with work colleagues where on Sunday you may be alone and quiet anyway.

  3. God, the pasting I got on MN when I said much the same thing! I have several middle-aged mum friends who have been known to express irritation with me because I am not available on Remembrance Sunday morning as, I attend a local village’s commemoration event- often as a parent helper with Beavers/Cubs/Scouts. I don’t have to do this- the vast majority of parents ‘drop and run’, but I think this local, quiet act of communal remembrance is important. Many children who don’t attend are off playing club football…. I posted that it irritated me that suddenly these mums were posting poppy selfies from the Tower on FB. It shouted ‘Look at ME doing Remembering!- but with a great artistic backdrop, though, eh?!’… I was roundly told that it didn’t matter that they were grandstanding, it was the fact they were there (and posting selfies) because it ‘raised awareness….’

    Well, that’s OK then, guess I’ll see them all at their local village’s commemorations, then?….. Or not.

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