In 21st century Great Britain, woe betide anyone who speaks out against the poppy, or British servicemen and women. Disrespect towards or defacement of service personnel, veterans, war memorials and war graves garners a severe and hostile public reaction. Commemoration of our heroes, past and present, is engrained in our national conscience and one just has to look at Armed Forces Day, Reserves Day or Remembrance Day to see that. We’ve only recently witnessed the centenary of the beginning of the First World War and marked 70 years since the ending of the Second World War, and the centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be coming up in 2016.
Travel back in time just over a century however and you will find entirely different attitudes. Development of mass war commemoration is closely connected to the changing treatment of those who die in combat, which in turn experienced a watershed moment during the First World War. Right up to the end of the 19th century the remains of soldiers were left to decompose where they had fallen, and it was not uncommon for their clothing and belongings to be stolen (as well as more gruesome trophies), even while their bodies were attacked by birds of prey.
According to Katrine Varley in History and Policy: How we should commemorate wars, lessons from the Nineteenth Century Henry Dunnant described horrific scenes like these from the Battle of Solferino in 1859, which shocked many around Europe and led to the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross. There is little need to describe how significant the Red Cross has become, internationally recognised in the Geneva Conventions and a winner of three Nobel Peace Prizes. Despite this initial step in the right direction, the normal soldiery were still neglected on the battlefield, as well as in commemorations that overwhelmingly focussed on the generals. The Arc de Triomph in Paris commemorates Napoleon’s Grande Armeé but only lists his generals. Nelson’s Column elevates the admiral 52 metres above onlookers, a literal pedestal, far removing him from those who served with him. St Paul’s Cathedral was dedicated to the heroic officers who served in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The efforts of fighting men only began to see the light during the Crimean War of 1853-1856, where advances in communications technology brought the conflict that little bit closer to home.
The Crimean War saw an alliance of the British Empire, French Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia invade the Russian Empire. For the first time, war reporters were on the scene reporting the battles, living conditions and outcomes first-hand. William Howard Russell, writing for The Times newspaper, produced numerous articles on the going of the war that could be read in London within weeks of the events, thanks to the development of Telegraphy. Russell’s despatches were credited by Florence Nightingale as inspiration for her becoming a war nurse, and they caused a public backlash in Britain against the Government, which forced the authorities to re-evaluate the treatment of British troops. The loss of three quarters of a million men during the Crimean War prompted France, Russia and Britain to dedicate ossuaries and chapels to their war dead, but The Times exposed these efforts at commemoration as half-hearted and insincere, reporting that war dead were not treated respectfully, nor equally, with ordinary soldiers still being buried in mass graves and donkeys being allowed to graze on military cemeteries.
In Britain the commemoration of the Crimean War focussed on the myth of soldiers fighting to defend the values and honour of the nation. Attempts to mark the Second Anglo-Boer War in the same way failed to gain public support after the humiliating setbacks and the exposure of the horrible conditions in the Concentration Camps. A change was forced to reaffirm Britain’s moral and military superiority, and remove the suggestion that British soldiers were dying in vain or for some trivial cause in a far flung colony.
It was another two decades before real change came about at the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian war between 1870 and 1871. The Treaty of Frankfurt, which brought the conflict to an end, stipulated that both sides had an obligation to “respect and maintain soldiers’ graves in perpetuity”. Seven years on from the conflict nearly 500 war memorials had been erected, and more were unveiled in the years to come. Across both France and Prussia (now Germany), thousands attended services to remember the dead, but Governments left the planning to local authorities, meaning that there was still no organised effort at nationwide remembrance.
The changing nature of warfare between 1914 and 1918 brought about the most significant alterations to commemoration of war and war dead. The First World War was the first ‘total war’, a term used by historians to describe a conflict in which states organised the entirety of their resources and population to help wage the war. Soldiers, sailors and airmen were no longer drawn from a minority of the population, instead representatives of nearly every family, on every street in the UK, were mobilised. The death of ‘Tommy Atkins’ was defined as a heroic sacrifice in the effort to defeat Imperial Germany and preserve the sovereignty of the British Empire, as well as a human tragedy and the loss of a valuable citizen thanks to the extension of various civil rights, like voting, to a broader spectrum of the population.
The prevalence of First World War memorials and symbols from that conflict such as the poppy indicates what a milestone the Great War was for war commemoration; that Armistice Day, 11th November, is still commemorated every year, despite there having been a Second World War only decades later, is evidence enough. Mass casualties had previously prompted efforts from states to look to their dead and treat them better, but nobody was prepared for the sheer scale of the violence enacted between 1914 and 1918. Entire communities, entire generations, were wiped out and people didn’t want to forget. It wasn’t just the dead who were honoured in this case either, for the first time thousands of servicemen survived wounds that would have previously killed them. Returning to the Home Front, they brought evidence of the brutal war closer to home than ever before, through their injuries, their experiences and their stories.
These same desire to remember the heroes of the nation was echoed upon the ending of the Second World War, with existing war memorials being updated to include new casualties and wording changed to reflect the events of the Second Great War. There are over 68,000 war memorials in the UK today, according to the Imperial War Museum War Memorials Register, and that does not include the hundreds of memorials scattered amongst the far flung foreign battlefields of the two World Wars. Modern technology has allowed us to build memorials in the digital world such as The Daily Telegraph’s “We Will Remember Them” campaign for the war in Afghanistan 2001-2014, and even digitise the poppy campaign thanks to websites like Twibbon. The increasingly large turnout to Remembrance Sunday, the engagement on social media with military issues and the popularity of our men and women in uniform today all provide evidence of the periodic advances that have been made in recognition of the wartime contribution of “the common man”. Finally, the efforts of the masses are being properly commemorated.