Today is Remembrance Sunday, and this is also one of the rare years where it falls on Armistice Day itself – the Armistice is remembered on the 11th of November, at 11am, but traditionally this occasion was marked on the second Sunday in November by services and ceremonies in churches and at war memorials all over the country.
I grew up in Liss, a small village in Hampshire. Remembrance Sunday was a hugely important fixture in the village’s calendar, much more so than in most other places I’ve visited since. I’m not quite sure why, but I suspect that the presence of a very large number of retired servicepeople had a lot to do with it – we had a lot of military facilities close by, and a large and active branch of the Royal British Legion. I was in the Scouts (starting as a Cub Scout, later a Scout and a Venture Scout) and it was always made clear to us that attendance at Remembrance Sunday was absolutely compulsory. I have to say that I found the whole thing rather scary when I was young. We would assemble in our uniforms by the War Memorial, which was in front of the Junior School in the village centre. As well as all the various branches of the local Scouts, there would be the Brownies and Guides, the Army Cadet Force, a military band, and then a huge formation of members of the British Legion, probably 50-100 people, the majority of whom were wearing medals. We stood in groups facing the Memorial, and then a military officer (probably the gent that ran the ACF, I think) would bark “Parade, attention! Slow march!” (or words to that effect – it took me years to work out what he actually said) and we’d all march down the hill through the village, over the level crossing and up the hill the other side to the church. The church was comprehensively redecorated for the occasion: all the usual bright flowers were replaced with arrangements made from paper and plastic red poppies. As we approached the church, the standard-bearers for each group would line the church path with their flags, and after everyone else had entered, they would then process up to the altar rail and hand their standards over to the clergy in the sanctuary, to be racked up alongside the altar while the service was in progress. The service took the same format every year (in fact, the same ancient typewritten orders of service were given out year after year) and completely replaced the usual Sunday morning parish Holy Communion service with a service of remembrance modelled on that being held at the Cenotaph in Westminster. This included the two minutes silence, the reading of the famous poems, the playing of the Last Post and the Reveille by a lone bugler, and the singing of various traditional hymns, like O God Our Help In Ages Past, and at the end O Valiant Hearts. The latter I used to find pretty execrable as a young man – the hymn is only just about acceptable on its own (as the lyrics come extremely close to the glorification of war), but combined with the maudlin tune played slowly on the organ and all the rest of the military ceremony, O Valiant Hearts was just too much.
Anyway, after the service, we would process out again (the standard-bearers having collected their standards from the altar rail), and would first assemble by the smaller War Memorial in the churchyard, where wreaths were laid, and then we would then march back to the village memorial by the school, for a further laying of wreaths before we could all disperse.
As an inquisitive child, I would ask various people questions about why the ceremony was held, and why it was felt necessary for us as young pre-teen Cubs and Scouts to stand there in just our uniform shirts on some freezing wet November morning (you learned to wear multiple vests and if at all possible a thin pullover under your uniform…). The only real explanation I got from the adults involved was “These people fought, and their friends and relatives died, for your freedom. It means a lot to them that you are here, showing them respect for what they did. You won’t ever really understand what they went through, so just shut up, show some respect, and do as you’re told!”
Ironically, as an adult, I learned that in most other parts of the UK, Remembrance Sunday is nothing like it is in Liss. Most churches will pray, and hold a silence, and people will lay poppies on war memorials, but the parade and the “takeover” of the parish church by the British Legion is not a widespread phenomenon. Having had it laid on so thick as a child, I sometimes find myself surprised at how little fuss is made elsewhere, and the radio coverage of the Westminster Cenotaph ceremony can bring tears to my eyes, for reasons I can’t really explain. I do think that the dead of all wars deserve to be remembered, with respect, but that the church and society must always be wary not to glorify the wars of the past in their remembrance. We will remember them…