In the interwar years (1919-1939) it was common to speak of armistice-week or armistice-tide (alongside armistice day itself). We see echoes of this today, in the British Legion’s poppy-selling, and in the near-annual public controversy about remembrance (it was FIFA and footballers wearing poppies on their armbands this year). Members of the humanistic perspectives research group working on a long-term project about remembrance and education have experienced versions of such intensive remembrance-related activity too. Our online three-county survey into what schools do to mark armistice day on 11th November – an apparently simple question which seems to have received little attention – which we first ran in 2013, has been reprised in November 2016. On both occasions, David Aldridge, Patrick Alexander, Annie Haight and myself have devoted many hours to collating and checking school email addresses in preparation for the survey launch. We’ve also done related work more rooted in our particular disciplinary backgrounds. In November 2014 David Aldridge launched his philosophical insights on the subject, asking how war ought to be remembered in schools. And this year I’ve been looking at this theme from a historical angle too, examining the League of Nations Union (part anti-war pressure group, part mass political movement), and its armistice-time activity: part recruitment drive, part informal education, part civic ritual. An 18th November conference paper meant armistice-tide work on this too.
On 11th November itself, Armistice Day, my working hours were (bizarrely) devoted almost entirely to remembrance-related activity and this got me thinking about continuity and change. The early morning was spent preparing for my conference paper, reading through scans of the League of Union’s periodicals. A front page from 1938, depicted the cenotaph wreath laying parade and the headline ‘Twenty Years On. Save the League to Save Peace’, caught my attention. I was struck by the combination of solemn civic ritual, and anti-war message; the noting of the common act of commemoration but also (at this point in time) the explicit challenge to government foreign policy and, perhaps, an implicit challenge to aspects of militarism in the cenotaph ritual itself. At 10.45 am I attended the annual remembrance service, in the Harcourt Hill chapel (our ancestor institution was a Wesleyan Methodist teacher training college). I walked past the rolls of honour listing college staff and students who died in the two world wars. We observed the two-minute silence, and heard a historically-focused talk from our chaplain (who wore one red and one white poppy) about staff at Westminster College, our ancestor institution, and the war. Many staff joined the forces, but there was at least one conscientious objector, and the chaplain. Prayers focused on remembering the war dead but also the need for peace. I felt that the League of Nations Union would have approved. I also wondered why I felt compelled to participate in a communal act of remembrance like this when I had the opportunity – certainly not just objective, academic interest. That afternoon a few more hours of checking school email addresses for our online survey followed; the urgent need to release the survey soon after the event dictated my timing. Changes in the funding and administrative landscape of schooling since 2013 – particularly academisation – left traces in changes to email addresses. Will any of this have affected how schools have observed the armistice? Will we see any of this in our survey findings?
Members of the research team are intrigued by a commemorative day with elements so ritualistic, communal, even commonplace that they seem to simply ‘happen’ – who organises the wreath laying at the war memorial, the two-minute silence in a public space? – but which at the same time attracts so much controversy. We are enjoying bringing our own disciplinary perspectives to the subject; framing the survey, working on our own related projects. And others seem to be interested too: survey responses are coming in, my conference paper generated interesting questions. Why did all this matter so much in the interwar years was one that stayed in my mind. We could ask the same question now.
Image attribution (British Legion Poppies): (Photo: Mike Weston ABIPP/MOD [OGL (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/doc/open-government-licence/version/1/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A30_million_poppies_are_made_by_volunteers_at_the_Royal_British_Legion_Poppy_Factory_in_Richmond%2C_Surrey_each_year_MOD_45148162.jpg).