It is Memorial Day weekend here in the United States, is the official start of summer. The holiday resembles little in the way of the British Remembrance Day, held there each November 11th. The English have no car sales to mark the event, no barbecues, no catching up on yard work. It is instead a day to remember and to memorialize the fallen in the defense of their island and their empire.
I am recently back from Britain, one of many visits now spanning decades. I am struck by how deep into the fabric of the society the experience of the world wars have become, it impacts how they are and how they think.
Education for the young Englishmen and women include, in addition to a significant emphasis on British history, a full year on the First World War then a second year on the Second World War. How does that compare to here?
I happened to be in Canterbury in 1985 on November 11 and stumbled into the town square at 11 AM. Much to my surprise a ceremony was underway. Unlike the English, the day marking the end of World War One had completely slipped my mind. The poem For the Fallen, by Robert Laurence Binyon was being recited. It reads in part:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
Several veterans, likely of World War Two, stood in a circle there, wearing blazers adorned with battle ribbons and the ubiquitous red poppy that all Englishmen and women seem to have available to wear at any time. One man fainted, I couldn’t tell if his ailment was medical or emotional, he was helped away.
Likewise we just stumbled upon The Tower of London in 2014 as it was being adorned with thousand of ceramic red poppies. It was in the spring, and the 100th anniversary of the beginning of what they called then “The Great War” was to be that August. Poppies have come to symbolize the loss as the flower of English youth died in Flanders fields. World War One is particularly fresh in the memory at this time as we cross so many centennials of those years.
I tend to listen to the BBC radio as well as tune in on television. The reporting is balanced and lacks the shrill tone we have in media here, or it’s predictable bent depending on what network one listens to. One summer night, again without even thinking about it I tuned in to the BBC broadcast and witnessed a solemn remembrance of the battle of the Somme broadcast from the memorial there in France. Of course! It was July 1st, 2016, 100 years after the offensive that cost more deaths than the British Army had ever suffered in a single day, just shy of 20,000 men.
Most of us here in the United States have not been bombed in war. Our homeland has not been threatened by the likes of Napoleon, the Kaiser or Adolf Hitler. We suffered some loss of our civilians and without warning, no doubt; The sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbor, and September 11th, yet these are one off events. Nothing has threatened the existence of our people the way the British have periodically over the past two hundred years. We have not known the hunger their population has.
Sitting in a pub in Nottingham this past April I happened to have a conversation with two men born during the war, one born during a German air raid on London in 1940. He wept speaking about the impact of the losses on his family; how his mother never got over the loss of her brother to a U-boat in the Mediterranean, trapped below decks tending the engine of the ship. Both men spoke of constant hunger during and in the years following the war. The experience makes all the difference on the perspective.
2018 will mark the centennial of the end of the First World War. Fresh remembrances began already upon those memorials set down a generation ago, for example at the train station in Nottingham. No particular fame is traceable to this place, except that the men from the Sherwood Foresters Regiment of the British Army fought in France during the Great War.
The rest of England is like this, one merely has to walk into a church, say in York, and find with these stone and iron permanent memorials, are these more recent balsa wood crosses with the red poppy, and the names of the men who lost their lives defending the realm.
They will be remembered.