As Remembrance Sunday draws near and the nation gets ready to honour our war dead, The Guardian has called for remembrance services and poppy wearing to be phased out, arguing that they are “oppressive rituals” which ought to be consigned to the past.
Writing in the opinion columns, The Guardian‘s associate editor Martin Kettle, has said he looks forward to a time when Remembrance Day is no longer celebrated:
“One day, the head of state will no longer lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in November for the long-distant dead. One day, MPs and TV newsreaders will not feel the press of obligation to wear poppies on all public appearances or else risk charges of being unpatriotic from newspapers owned by tax exiles. One day, there may even be no Lord Ashcroft forever dreaming up yet another inappropriate public memorial to other people’s bravery to clutter a previously beautiful part of London.”
Kettle uses much of the article to discuss the Battle of Agincourt, as this coming Sunday marks the 600th anniversary of the historic victory of the English King Henry V over the French. He suggests that the nation’s collective memory of the battle owes more to Shakespeare’s account of the battle through his play Henry V (from which we take the immortal line “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”) than it does to the battle itself.
“The real battle of Agincourt is now simply too distant for any person alive today to connect with as anything but a historical event,” Kettle insists, adding: “Agincourt should not be a source of pride or any other emotion.”
As Agincourt, so World War One, Kettle suggests. “If we are capable of thinking about Agincourt without wrapping ourselves in the flag, why not other later conflicts too?
“In three weeks’ time we will reach the climax of the annual military remembrance rituals. A century after the great war (sic), these rituals have become more culturally hegemonic than ever before.
“Yet it is surely possible to respect the importance of history and to support events that bring peoples together while still feeling that at least some aspects of these particular rituals have now become unnecessarily oppressive.”
Unlike Agincourt, however, the battles of the Great War were fought by people to whom we have direct links. The last combat veteran to survive was Claude Choules, who served in the British Navy. He died on May 5, 2011. The last surviving veteran of the trenches in Western Europe was Harry Patch, who died on July 25 2009, aged 111.
Millions of Britons will have had fathers, grandfathers, cousins and uncles who served in the two world wars and others since then. Many of those will remember loved ones who gave their lives for their country. For them, the battles in Flanders and beyond were not just historic conflicts which shaped the nation, to be written about by academics, but events which shape their own lives even to this day.
Blind to the combatants’ sacrifice, Kettle laments: “For the present, people in public roles have little scope but to conform on such matters – Jeremy Corbyn, please note.”
But he insists that the tradition will one day die out, and for that, today is as good as any, concluding:
“Yet we will be right to stop doing these things when the time comes, and there is nothing inappropriate or disrespectful about suggesting that we would benefit from that time coming sooner rather than later. It doesn’t always have to be this way. Remember Agincourt, after all.”