It is now 100 years that we have been remembering the dead of the Great War on Nov. 11.
On Nov. 11, 1918, people celebrated the end of the war as much as the victory of the Allied powers.
By Nov. 11, 1919, the fruits of victory seemed meagre in light of the unprecedented loss of life. War memorials were being built. On the appeal of King George V, a two-minute silence began to be observed on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Poppies began to be worn.
Within a few years, all the observances that we shall see this year had been established. After the Second World War there were many more dead to be remembered and Remembrance Day has come to be a day to commemorate those who died in all wars, up to Afghanistan.
In 1919 and in 1945, there were few who were not directly touched by the world wars. Close family members had died. Most young men had served in the forces and remembered comrades who had died, and had formed lifelong friendships with those who had survived. Now we remember perhaps grandparents or great-great uncles. Many of us come from countries that were not so directly affected by the wars. Most of us know no one who served in a war.
But the remembrance continues, only slightly dimmed by the happy remoteness of war for most of us.
Much of the remembrance involves military parades and veterans turning out with their medals. Our remoteness from war in what for most of us has been a long peace and the controverted conflicts of recent times have led some to contest the meaning of remembrance.
Some argue it is a celebration of war, but it was never that. It was always a remembrance of the price of war. That remembrance has been a powerful force for peace. The memory of the Great War was the most powerful impetus behind appeasement in the 1930s, which leftists maliciously impute to sympathy for fascism.
Those who contest remembrance have a problem with those we remember. They would turn them into victims of a malign, militaristic patriarchy, or worse a dumb herd led willingly (most were volunteers) to slaughter. They would best be forgotten, except perhaps as exemplars of folly to the unwoke.
Those we remember on Nov. 11 were not so very different from us, though they faced a challenge most of us will never face, if our luck holds. They were not all heroes, as a curious inflection of remembrance in Canada in this century would have it, with a stretch of Highway 401 in Ontario along which the remains of fallen soldiers pass from the air force base in Trenton to the coroner’s office dubbed the Highway of Heroes. The hero trope is an overreach from a society that never thinks of going to war. Those who died in our wars were doing their duty, some heroically, most as it came.
They did not like war. Many hated it, as is reflected in the large body of writing from the Great War, most memorably the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action on Nov. 4, 1918.
Some public figures object that wearing poppies and other forms of remembrance have become effectively compulsory under social pressure. It is not compulsory, but why would they not wear poppies, except from forgetfulness, or to mark themselves as non-conformists claiming some deeper insight or subtler feeling than the rest of us?
Remembrance is a curious mix of mourning, tribute, fear, and facing up to the seriousness of life and death, conflict and duty. We can each approach it in our own way, but on Remembrance Day we do it together. Our coming together comforts the bereaved and binds us together. It is not a day for contest.
Those we remember, rightly or wrongly, died for us. They are beyond contesting. We should remember them for what they faced and how they might have lived had they not died.
In the words of the poet Laurence Binyon in “For the Fallen”: “At the going down of the sun and in the morning / We will remember them.”
John Pepall is a writer in Toronto. He is the author of “Against Reform,” a critique of proposed reforms to Canada’s political institutions published in 2010. He has written on politics, history, law, and the arts for various publications.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.