The First World War, The Great War, The War To End All Wars ended more than a century ago. On a cold and bleak morning of November 11th 1918, an armistice was signed, ending conflict between Allied forces and Germany from 11am; a conflict that paved the way for modern warfare, and was the most destructive, traumatic conflict in history. Although it had to be renewed numerous times, peace was ratified in 1920, the very first Remembrance Sunday silence took place at 11am on November 11th 1919.
It may seem unusual to some – after a century, why observe it? Why proceed with the National Service of Remembrance: the service where Commonwealth leaders, the Royal family and numerous armed forces join at the Mall to lay wreaths at the Cenotaph?
The World Wars
Spanning four years, the First World War caused millions of casualties. Within the British Empire (as it was known at the time), there were 908,371 deaths, and including wounded men, missing men and prisoners, totalled 3,190,235 casualties. Compare that to Russia: 9,150,000 total casualties, 1,700,000 deaths. Or compare to Germany: 7,142,558 total casualties, 1,773,700 deaths. Proportionally not too dissimilar.
Let’s consider the deaths of the major powers in the Second World War.
|Country||Military deaths||Civilian deaths|
|UK & Colonies||383,700||67,200|
|Soviet Union||Up to 11,400,000||Up to 19,000,000|
|Germany||Up to 5,318,000||Up to 3,000,000|
Now consider the other men (and women) who fought to defend their county during those periods. Now consider the civilians who died at the hands of others. Remembrance Sunday (or Armistice Day) is not solely about the First World War. It’s about paying respects to all soldiers, in all wars, even those on the opposing sides. Indeed there are people who committed despicable crimes, but for the majority, they were normal men, serving their country.
What that means for the UK
Soldiers have seen their friends maimed or killed in battle. Some have seen them die of illness or infections from wounds. Some have returned to base to find their friends missing, and never seen them again.
Friends and family have seen it too: mothers losing sons; wives losing husbands; sisters losing brothers; family members returning with life changing injuries; family members ending their lives, for as we know, suicide is a major issue amongst the ex-military.
This isn’t only the experience of the stereotypical white Englishman. Thousands of men from across the commonwealth fought in support of Great Britain in the World Wars: men from the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, India, and Pakistan. In a multicultural and diverse society that Britain has become, people with non-white ethnicities have been, and are active members in the British Army.
Remembrance Sunday is an opportunity for these men and women to actively pay their respects to loved ones. Ex-servicemen and women, and family members, are invited to march during the Service of Remembrance. We at home are invited to watch on TV.
What that means for me
In a population of over 60,000,000, it’s likely that the number of people directly connected to those in the existing armed forces is small, but I would guess that most people have at least one member of their family who fought in the First or Second World War.
My great-great-uncle fought and died in the First World War. We have very little knowledge of him, other than through letters written to his sweetheart. A man of 25, whose body was not recovered, gone just like that. My great-grandfather fought in the Second World War and was lucky enough to return with minor injuries. My grandfather was posted in Egypt during his National Service in the 50s. I am not the only person in the UK with this family history.
Although these are distant family members, some who we never met, it’s poignant for us to have a day, or even just a couple of hours, to respect those who bravely joined a war effort, whether due to their own beliefs, or because the government forced them to.
Remembrance Sunday is not a ‘celebration’. It is not a VE Day – a patriotic demonstration of British ‘wins’. It’s a solemn recognition of the sacrifices that millions have made over the last century. It’s a day of respect for all soldiers and their families, and watching the proceedings, or wearing a poppy, or participating in the silence does not mean you support war. It means you respect the lives of those who have lost.
After all, soldiers don’t start the wars, they just follow orders, and all we really want is peace.