Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Remembrance Day: The Great Silence and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior

Let us resolve that we shall place loyalty to the land we love first and last, the land whose efforts on sea, in the air, and on the earth have done so much to redeem the world from a scourge that was menacing its liberties... We sank all our sectional interests, all partisan claims, all class and creed differences, in pursuit of one common purpose.
 -- British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Armistice Day, 11 November 1918
I believe that my people in every part of the Empire fervently wish to perpetuate the memory of the Great Deliverance and of those who have laid down their lives to achieve it. To afford an opportunity for the universal expression of this feeling it is my desire and hope that at the hour when the Armistice came into force, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, there may be for a brief space of two minutes a complete suspension of all our normal activities... in this simple service of Silence and Remembrance.
-- Announcement from King George V at Buckingham Palace, 7 November 1919
BENEATH THIS STONE RESTS THE BODY
OF A BRITISH WARRIOR
UNKNOWN BY NAME OR RANK...

THUS ARE COMMEMORATED THE MANY
MULTITUDES WHO DURING THE GREAT
WAR OF 1914-1918 GAVE THE MOST THAT
MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF
FOR GOD
FOR KING AND COUNTRY
FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE
FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND
THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD THEY BURIED HIM AMONG THE KINGS BECAUSE HE
HAD DONE GOOD TOWARD GOD AND TOWARD
HIS HOUSE
 --Inscription, Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey


For last year's post on Remembrance Day I discussed the contemporary meanings of the day in Canada, and what the day comes to represent as we grow older and the "Greatest Generation" fades.

This year, I will reflect on the first two Remembrance Days in Britain, although they were not termed so at the time: those of 1919 and 1920. I recently read Juliet Nicolson's absorbing book, The Great Silence, 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War, and this post takes its inspiration from the idea of "silence" that followed the shattering experience of the First World War. Britain had suffered military deaths of 886,939 soldiers, 2.2% of the total population. The numbers of the dead were so vast that if they were to be paraded marching abreast down Whitehall, the procession would have taken four days. While the end of the war was framed by politicians as a great "victory" and final vindication of the just cause, the people of Britain were still filled with shock, disbelief and anger at the years of hardship and the slaughter in the trenches that had occurred during the "war to end all wars."

Quite fittingly, two ideas of solemn remembrance, which are still observed and resonate to this day, came from rather ordinary individuals. These practices joined that of a focal point of remembrance -- the Cenotaph -- which had already been designed in Whitehall by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The idea of a two-minute silence was first observed on 11 November 1919, having been proposed in a letter to a newspaper editor by Edward Honey, an Australian journalist and solider living in London. The following year an army chaplain, Reverend David Railton, alighted upon the notion of repatriating the body of just one of the thousands of unknown British soldiers who were buried in Northern France. As Nicolson explains:

Perhaps one single body could be brought out of the mud of France, never to be identified but to fill the gap left by a father, brother, husband, son, fiancé, lover, uncle, grandfather, friend -- a loved one who could be made to symbolize and fill that void. His invisible face could be invested with thousands of familiar faces, all much missed and much loved. [Nicolson, p. 266]

These seemingly small gestures were intensely profound. They evoked both the entire nation and the everyman, both communal purpose and personal reflection. The first great silence was so complete, and so unexpectedly moving in so many British cities and towns, that The Times deemed it "a glimpse into the soul of the nation." The following year the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey caused similar reflections as thousands of people, mostly dressed in mourning, watched the procession of the coffin containing the remains of the unknown soldier wind its way towards the Abbey on a crisp autumnal morning. The general hush was broken only by the muffled hooves of the horses, or the occasional sob as the familiar sight of the soldier's webbing belt and steel helmet atop the coffin reminded onlookers of their own loved one's military kit. The final hymn was particularly poignant -- "God of our Fathers," written for Queen Victoria's Jubilee by the Bard of Empire Rudyard Kipling (from his poem "Recessional"). Initially a staunch advocate of the war as the epitome of everything he believed in, Kipling suffered greatly when his only son, Jack -- whom he had encouraged to go to war -- disappeared on the Front.

The final lines of the hymn have passed into common usage as a reflection of remembrance -- "lest we forget, lest we forget." The gesture of burying an "unknown soldier" has also passed universally into the language of military observance, and more than 40 such tombs are to be found in nations on almost every continent. This includes the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Solider at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, dedicated in 2000. The two-minute silence is another ingrained notion used to commemorate not only the war dead, but accidents or tragedies of any sort. Silence, the act of being alone with one's thoughts, serves as a common and uniting human experience. Like the unknown soldier, it is touchingly personalized.

The plea of "lest we forget" acknowledges that the fact of war, and past wars, fills us with a range of extremely complex emotions. The unique ideas of one former soldier and one army chaplain -- invented in a time when people were rather uncertain of how to remember -- have helped ensure that we do.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...