The forgotten story of Remembrance Day

In the wake of the Great War, official ‘remembrance’ was used to quell the masses.

James Heartfield and Kevin Rooney

Topics Politics UK World

On 11 November 1918, the day of the Armistice marking the end of the First World War, most people were just glad it was over. ‘There was no sense of victory, much less any hatred of the enemy’, recalled Captain Alan Thomas of the Sixth Battalion, ‘only a strong desire to get home’.

In London and other English towns, the crowds celebrated through the night. But diaries and letters of the time show that many who had lost loved ones were privately grieving while the world cheered. Richard van Emden conducted interviews and researched the private letters and diaries of bereaved wives and family members for his book, The Quick and the Dead. Doris Davies from Paddington remembered that her mother, Daisy, had borne the death of her husband Charles stoically. An eight-year-old Doris was surprised to find her mother weeping over the washing on Armistice Day. ‘Well, I have no one to come home and love me’, Daisy explained.

The celebrations did not last. Many soldiers were angry that they could not go home straight away. Marooned in demobilisation camps, waiting for trains and ferries, the men rioted. On 3 January 1919, British soldiers who were in Britain on Christmas leave were ordered to return to the continent. When they gathered at Dover and Folkestone, 9,000 of them refused to get on the boats. On 4 and 5 March, Canadian soldiers in the Kinmel Camp in Wales staged a mutiny. Three of the rioters and two sentries were killed, and 21 people were injured as the riot was put down.

All told, around 50,000 soldiers took part in protests demanding repatriation. Also, as the No-Conscription Fellowship pointed out in 1918, ‘1,600 Conscientious Objectors are still in prison’ – many of them for their second year. With one eye on the mutinies of German, Russian and French servicemen, the authorities in Britain were fearful. Sir Basil Thomson of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch said that ‘during the first three months of 1919, unrest touched its high watermark… I do not think at any time in history since the Bristol Riots we have been so near to revolution’.

Official ceremonies and parades, and the building of monuments, played an important part in restoring order. The Cenotaph, Edwij Lutyens’s monument to the war dead, was first unveiled not on ‘Remembrance Day’ – the anniversary of the Armistice in November – but during a Victory Parade in July called ‘Joy Day’. At the procession, ‘Butcher’ Haig – nicknamed after the two million British casualties suffered under his command – saluted the bust of Lord Kitchener. A Manchester Guardian reporter wrote that ‘The hosts of the dead were commemorated in the simple classical Cenotaph, tall and narrow and white’. The Cenotaph of July 1919 was a temporary structure, made of plaster and wood, like a Hollywood set piece. It ‘had risen in a day out of Whitehall’.

On the same day, a different assembly was held in Merthyr Tydfil, where 25,000 gathered not just to remember the dead, but also to demand higher pensions for ex-servicemen and their dependents. In Luton, ex-servicemen were told they could not hold their own commemoration, so they set fire to the town hall. When the firemen turned up, the soldiers held them back until the building was gutted. Luton was put under martial law for several days. In Chertsey, servicemen boycotted the Victory Parade, protesting over pensions, as well as the deployment of British troops to Russia to attack the fledgling Soviet Union.

James Cox, president of the International Union of Ex-Service Men, said at the time: ‘The whole thing is a mockery, and it is sheer hypocrisy to ask the discharged men to take part in what is officially termed “Joy Day”, while the widows and dependents of his fallen comrades are housed in hovels and exist in a state of semi-starvation.’

Cox and others noted that the armed services were being used to put down protests by working people after the war, like those in Glasgow and Belfast. ‘Just as their army and navy was used to defend their economic interests abroad’, labour activist William Paul wrote, ‘so now are the armed forces to be used to defend the economic interests of the financiers at home’.

There were also some doubts about the Cenotaph among traditionalists. The Church Times saw ‘a cult’ of ‘Cenotapholotry’ and the Catholic Herald thought it was ‘Pagan’. Lord Alfred Mond, first commissioner of works and public buildings, thought the Cenotaph was maudlin and defeatist. He wanted it taken down after the Victory Parade. But the government needed to keep its grip on the way that the dead were remembered to make sure that members of the public were not recruited to more radical causes, like proper pensions for ex-servicemen – or worse, against the intervention in Russia.

The Cenotaph was kept up for the first anniversary of the Armistice – the first Remembrance Day – on 11 November 1919. The crowds were large. French premier George Clemenceau joined David Lloyd George at the ceremony. Across the country, reported the Daily Mail, people stopped in silence: ‘Mill girls cried when the looms were stopped.’ Even court proceedings came to a halt. In the Nottingham Assizes Court, ex-soldier Frederick Carter stood for a two-minute silence after the King’s letter announcing Remembrance Day was read out. Right after that, Carter was sentenced to death for killing his landlady.

Once again there were protests. The night before Remembrance Day, the British War Graves Association held a mass rally calling for the repatriation of bodies. In Manchester, a representative of the Ex-Servicemen’s Association was refused permission to address the procession on ‘the case for the living, in honour of the dead’. Ex-Servicemen’s leader, James Cox, wrote that it would have been better to reflect ‘on how the widows and dependents of the fallen are being treated, and to what treatment the maimed and disabled men are being subjected to since their return to civil life’.

By this stage, Lutyens’s wood and plaster structure was looking tatty, and the Ministry of Works announced that it would come down in January 1920. The Daily Mail and other newspapers then started a campaign for a permanent Cenotaph. This was unveiled by King George V in November 1920: ‘The Cenotaph, its new Portland stone a pale lemon, rose before us naked and beautiful’, the Manchester Guardian trilled.

The word ‘Cenotaph’ means an empty coffin or tomb. Sir Edwin’s design for the Cenotaph at Whitehall is clearly a coffin or sarcophagus, set high on a great pedestal that soars above the crowds. It has no explicit religious symbols on it (which irritated the churches). The inscriptions read, ‘the Glorious Dead’ and ‘1914-1918’. The meaning of Lutyens’s Cenotaph is that the empty coffin stands in for the war dead, who were left on the battlefield. It is a substitute for personal grief, redirected into a public ceremony. This was how the abandonment of the dead in Flanders and northern France was to be justified – with a token tomb in place of a real one.

Kevin Rooney and James Heartfield’s The Blood Stained Poppy is published by Zero Books. Order a copy here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Ven Oods

20th November 2019 at 9:06 am

Interesting, but not too surprising, that how we do remembrance one hundred years later is rather different from the raw emotion being felt and exhibited immediately after the WWI Armistice.

Forlorn Dream

11th November 2019 at 12:39 pm

I served in the Regular Army for only 4 years so don’t misunderstand me and think I’m trying to make a case for myself with these points below. I’m not.

Firstly, I think it’s truly disgusting how we treat our veterans. If a person completes a full 22 year service then upon retirement from service they should be given a lump sum of sufficient value to buy an average priced house in the UK. The Roman’s used to give their veterans a Villa and farm. They should also have free access to approved financial advisors to ensure they’re not cheated. Also better retraining to aid in finding work in civilian life.
If any soldier of any duration service has any injuries, disabilities or mental problems due to their service they should be given the best available medical care, not be abandoned to the NHS. If this means flying them abroad for treatment then so be it.
Lastly the Gurkhas, they should be included in all of the above and upon completion of their service they should be given British citizenship.
I’d happily pay a little more in tax to see the above implemented.

Bill Cecil

10th November 2019 at 2:53 pm

It would help if they got the facts right. It is Sir Edwin Lutyens, not ‘Edward’ – you get it right at the end but not at the beginning. Where are the copy editors ? Secondly, I believe it was Lloyd George who said the government had decided to have a ‘catafalque’ (a structure upon which a coffin rests at a funeral) at the Victory Celebrations. Lutyens remembered a seat in Gertrude Jekyll’s garden that Charles Liddell had christened ‘the Cenotaph of Sigismunda’ and so was able to say ‘you want a Cenotaph not a catafalque’. He did a sketch of it and a set of drawings were in the hands of the Office of Works the following day. Oh and there is not a straight line on the Cenotaph: all the lines are elements of a circle.

Jim Lawrie

10th November 2019 at 10:58 am

Using Remembrance as a platform for a complete scattergun attack on all that is British is just figleafing your lack of loyalty, your hatred of this country, and those who love it. Not that either of you great internationalists have bothered to experience living and working in another country.

No-one has to bow their head. Just stay away. I wear a Poppy because I realised that all that leftist nonsense as to why I should not was just intellectualised bile. They spit out the dummy because they want to decide for us who should be remembered, who should not, and how.

There have been occasions when troops have been used to keep the peace domestically. They are few and far between. After WWI it was to plug the gap in civil defence capability created by the demands of The War. Women had been commissioned as Police Officers during The War such was the shortage, but were not up to the task of dealing with full scale riots by demobbed troops. Had we lost WWI, and the communists seized power as they did in defeated Russia, would we be having this discussion?

The people of Enniskillen had the right to remember the War Dead in peace. Since we are digging up the past, I’m sure Rοοney and Heаrtfield remember kowtowing to the Party line on that one.

antoni orgill

11th November 2019 at 1:13 pm

“A complete scattergun attack on all things British”? Hmm? I did not read this article and find the same sentiment. This article served as a salutory reminder of a few non-publicised truths about the war and its aftermath. Silence is the dignified mode of being on Remembrance Day. Fine. But, silence is a bot convenient, isn’t it? Ironic that you express a fear and loathing of ‘internationalist’ hypocrites yet fail to see the problem of the elitist drive to silence and/or orchestrate public emotion on the back of the sacrifice (often unwilling) of millions. A lot of vets have made it clear they have sod all respect for those who are either unwilling or unable to learn the lessons of history and make great effort not to waste life in the future. Respect for the dead of WWI should NOT be a pretext to silence criticism of the politics of arms dealing shit-heads …

James Knight

11th November 2019 at 6:42 pm

There maybe some truth to your claims but it sounds like you are replying to an article that wasn’t written.

I used a similar approach in a sociology exam, most of my essays were pre-written in my head. I would would look for trigger words in the questions and shoe-horn my essay into the answer. I got a grade A, so I guess it worked.

Steve Roberts

10th November 2019 at 10:49 am

An extremely thought provoking an book for those that want to think seriously about tens of millions of ordinary folk sent to their deaths over decades and the repression of those left behind in those particular war periods.
It rolls off the tongue doesn’t it, tens of millions, think about that,yes its historical, not contemporary although thousands still continue to die. The questions raised are for what, in whose interests, to maintain what.
It raises the questions of how social and political hegemony and peace is maintained in the face of such sacrifices, we should question everything , always, not accept the “truth” of the “victors”.
And here we are today, once again the ruling class declaring war, political war on its own citizens,in a different form, denying freedoms and democracy, for what, in whose interests, to defend what, the status quo we demanded change from ?
This is not to belittle the carnage of the past and compare it to the denial of democracy we are currently experiencing , but the questions above need serious thought, much depends on it, who rules and why and what sacrifices and freedoms are we to lose to maintain yet another status quo for them not us.
A brave and necessary book requiring a full read and judgement, morality, especially one involving the destruction of humanity on this scale, and an imposed and constraining and controlling one, belongs to no one,but it does mean we need to understand which side of the moral fence we are on and why.

Lord Anubis

10th November 2019 at 9:10 am

Nothing new here. Article reminds me of the program of “Waterloo Church” construction carried out to stave off similar potential civil disorder 100 years earlier.

In Negative

10th November 2019 at 10:35 am

Not new, perhaps, but it is a reminder of what popular struggle actually is. It’s a reminder of how the interests and agents of the dominant class don’t match those of the resources they try to manage. And it’s a reminder too of how popular agency is not something that can necessarily just be managed away – that it’s free to organise and revolt according to its own interests. I enjoyed the article.

Lord Anubis

10th November 2019 at 10:59 am

As an aside, the other interesting thing about “Waterloo Churches” was that the buildings didn’t really look like traditional churches, they looked more like engine houses. Now, this may simply be down to the fact that mass architecture at the time was targeted towards industrial buildings. OTOH, it may have been something altogether more subtle, an attempt to provide a crossover, at a time of considerable social and philosophical uncertainty, between the traditional religions of mystery and superstition and the new industrial religion of science and steel.

Alan Healy

10th November 2019 at 8:41 am

“recalled Captain Alan Thomas of the Sixth Battalion”. 6th Battalion of what ?

Geoff Cox

11th November 2019 at 1:26 pm

i thought the same. Either the author lacks a proper understanding of the army or perhaps, more likely, there was an earlier sentence edited out naming a Regiment to which the 6th Battalion refers.

Stephen J

10th November 2019 at 8:10 am

That might have been how the day originated, but it is clearly not the attitude of the people that take part today, even if the politicians are more fond of their voices than we are.

However, I agree that the establishment is always determined to get what it wants, and it doesn’t give a fig for the things that are really important to ordinary folk.

There is a long list of their crimes against us, and this is clearly part of the same effect. For instance, the casual manner in which the small amount of democracy that the people have campaigned for over the last few hundred years has been casually dashed, or spaffed up against a wall in a matter of months, as they ignore the greatest expression of democratic will in our history.

If politics is war, our politicians have gone to war with the people, and whatever happens on Dec 12th will not be the end of our campaign for independence.

WE are an island race, and it would be better if our politicians remembered this.

Paul Carlin

10th November 2019 at 12:29 am

I shall not order a copy of this book.

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