Fiona Reid talks to BBC History
Listen to Fiona Reid on BBC History Podcast
The armistice which ended the Great War came into effect at 11am on 11 November 1918, and ninety years ago Britain came to a standstill to honour the dead of the Great War. The first remembrance ceremonies were commemorative rather than triumphant: ‘Today is Peace Day’ announced the Manchester Guardian and a reporter for the Times described the ‘great awful Silence’ that descended on London at 11 o’clock on November 11 1919. During the war approximately 750,000 British servicemen had been killed and about 500,000 had been wounded. About 10% of the population had lost someone very close to them, for example a son, a brother or a husband, and many more had lost friends, acquaintances and more distant relatives.
King George V had suggested that people observe two minutes of respectful silence to mark the first anniversary of the armistice: people were asked to remain silent at 11 o’clock, to cease activity, to stand with bowed heads and to think of the fallen. Yet to unite the whole country in a moment of contemplation required some organisation, especially given that times were not fully standardized throughout the UK. The silence was announced by maroons or church bells and it was universally observed. Everything and everyone stopped: buses, trains, trams and factories halted; workers, students and pupils stood still. Court cases stopped, even the ships of the Royal Navy were stopped.
Other Remembrance Day traditions developed throughout the 1920s. In November 1920 the Unknown Warrior was buried in Westminster Abbey and over a million people visited it in its first week. There had long been a practice of wearing flowers to indicate a donation to charity and from 1921 artificial poppies were sold to raise money for wounded ex-servicemen. Now the Flanders poppy has become a uniform, universal symbol of memory but in the 1920s there were different types: expensive silk ones and cheaper cotton ones. The 1920s was also the period in which local war memorials were constructed. Over 5,000 of them had been built by 1920 and these were especially important given that so many men had died overseas. The French government gave permission for bodies to be exhumed from the Western Front and re-buried in family graveyards but British families were not allowed to do so and British war dead remained abroad.
Armistice Day was not always unifying. Often it provoked controversy. Wounded ex-servicemen sometimes protested at remembrance ceremonies – they were tired of the attention being paid to the dead when they were trying to live on inadequate pensions. During the mid to late 1920s bright young things held big parties on 11 November: after all that fighting it was just good to be alive. Later, in the 1930s, the Peace Pledge Union began to sell white poppies (symbols of pacifism) in contrast to what some saw as the more militaristic Flanders poppy.
During the Second World War, Armistice Day became less important and in the post-war years the 11 November commemorations were replaced by services held on Remembrance Sunday. As the First World War receded rapidly in popular memory it was widely assumed that it would be increasingly insignificant. Yet in the mid-1990s the British Legion effectively lobbied for a return of the two-minute silence and Armistice Day ceremonies became increasingly well-attended towards the end of the twentieth century. 11 November 2009 will be another significant turning point in the history of Armistice Day. Last year there were three Great War veterans at the Cenotaph but this year there will be none because the last veteran, Harry Patch, died in August.
Armistice Day is often presented as an unbroken tradition of patriotic remembrance. This is not the case. Over the years Armistice Day has provoked sorrow, anger, political protest, celebration and reverence. The ceremonies at the Cenotaph can be seen as overtly-militaristic yet Armistice Day also allows for the expression of pacifist sentiments. Do these official commemorations simply provide the space for a safe – and thus disempowered – pacifism? Or do they provide an opportunity for a broader discussion of war and its meaning?