Lest we remember: Why Remembrance Day has lost its meaning

How can I forget when there’s still so much conflict in the world?

“It’s not so much lest we forget, as lest we remember… so far as the Cenotaph and the Last Post and all that stuff is concerned, there’s no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.

So says Alan Bennett in his coming-of-age drama, The History Boys. This line in particular is delivered by Irwin, whose unrelenting revisionism throughout the whole play makes us raise eyebrows at choice quotations such as this one. The character who delivers this line suggests that the “Unknown Soldier” was Haig’s greatest enemy and should have been “disinterred and shot”, mere sentences later. But behind these wild, grand suggestions: is there some truth?

I remember every Remembrance Sunday I’ve had, largely because they’re all so similar. Standing in the cold, paper poppy pasted to my lapel, wind biting at my cheeks. Telling myself no matter how numb my toes were, at least I didn’t have trench foot. Listening to the clock chime 11 and “remembering the fallen”. Except – in all my eighteen years, I’ve never been quite sure what to think about during those two minutes of silence.

“Loss”, “death”, “the fallen”. All abstract terms. I don’t think anything in particular comes into my head when someone says “sacrifice” to me – maybe Jesus up on the cross? But what has that got to do with the 77 million people who died in total during both WWI and WWII and their sacrifice?

How do we even begin to think about that – 77 million people, dead. 77 million broken homes. What does that look like? After the silence last year, I asked the girl on my left what she had been thinking about. She was thinking about what to wear to a party next week. The girl on my right said she had thought of nothing. I personally spent the time panicking about what to think about and before I’d even had the chance to mourn a single soldier the first bars of “The Last Post” were beginning to play.

You would hope that the backgrounds to WWI and WWII were just common knowledge. That people know, at least vaguely, what happened out in the fields of Europe. What happened in the Cabinet Rooms underneath London, in bunkers underneath Berlin. And, I would contend that most people do know. But they don’t learn standing in front of a memorial, watching the paper fold in the November wind on a wreath of red poppies. They learn in classrooms; in libraries; at desks; at computers.

I am not saying that Remembrance Sunday should be “abolished”, and I do believe wholeheartedly that we should remember, first and foremost. The only way to move on and improve from the past is to learn from it – to look it squarely in the face and see the mistakes and learn. But that is exactly what we are not doing.

What Remembrance Sunday actually is and what it really should be are apparently two different things. Bennett’s Irwin is right. All this pomp and ceremony, the Last Post, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence: it’s all pretty meaningless. It seems to me as though the point of all the grandiosity of it is to throw a veil over the truth: we’re starting to forget. Sassoon asked in 1919: “have you forgotten yet?”, and I think now, in 2016, we can’t answer him with confidence.


We haven’t forgotten what happened: we can tell you all the right dates and places, we can tell you who Haig and Churchill and Montgomery were, we can tell you the names of all the major battles. We might even be able to locate Gallipoli on a map. But Sassoon isn’t asking about that. He’s asking if we’ve forgotten the feeling, the zeitgeist of the time, out of which rose one desperate plea to future generations: never again. How can we say we’ve remembered how it felt to say that, when we still have so much conflict in the world? How can we say we’ve remembered, looked into the dark depths of the past, and learnt, when history repeats itself again and again?

This Sunday, observe the two minutes’ silence. Let the blankness of your mind fill up with emotion: you can’t envisage loss, but you can feel it. Let it eat you up for those two minutes. And then, when you trudge back to your comfortable home and warm your bloodless fingers on a hot cup of tea, just remind yourself what exactly happened between 1914 and 1945. Acknowledge that you can’t even comprehend the horror of it all, that you can’t even begin to mourn for all that death. Remind yourself of the failings of the human race and understand what it means to say “never again”. Remind yourself so that you can remind others. So that future generations will understand – will remember – the meaning of “never again”.